One of the great joys of working in The Piano Business is meeting people around the World who share your love of music. Invariably, when I travel, I encounter at least a few people who ask me what I do. When I tell them I work in The Piano Business, they light up – full of personal stories that either make them glad they play or wish they did. The second inevitable question they ask me is really The Great Question of our Business: Which Pianos are the Best? I usually try to deflect the question – citing personal presence, differing student needs and budgetary limitations… but every once in awhile, I encounter someone who really wants to know how I determine which pianos to represent and what criteria drive my interest in new brands. Obviously, that question requires a more detailed answer… so I thought I would make it the topic of my next blog.
Growing Up Steinway
Every piano store has a “headline” brand (a company they promote heavily due to a number of factors, including quality, value, reputation and performance). My company is no different. In fact, Gist Piano Center began their relationship with Steinway & Sons in 1975 – a year before I was even born. You can read more about how that relationship formed here. For almost 39 years, Gist Piano Center promoted Steinway as “The World’s Finest Piano” due to its handcrafted quality, vast history and brand name recognition. The truth is, however, there are many other pianos who could claim to be “The World’s Finest Piano,” including such illustrious brands as Bosendorfer, Fazioli, Grotrian and more. Gist selected Steinway & Sons because they were made in America and because they were far less expensive than their European competition. This is what made Steinway & Sons a fantastic “headline brand” during those years.
I worked part-time in the piano business during the mid-90s, but I joined The Piano Business as a career officially in 2001. I started at a small piano store in Illinois that also used Steinway & Sons as their headline piano brand. They also carried the Steinway-designed Boston piano, Essex, Kohler & Campbell pianos, Knabe and Roland Digital Pianos. It was a great mix. I grew up in The Piano Business fully immersed in Steinway product (as well as a few others). I even went through five years of Steinway training and to graduate from “William Steinway University” (a marketing initiative designed to help piano retailers learn the Steinway system of brand promotion). Thus, when I decided to move out of my small town and into a larger community, Gist was a natural fit – considering that they carried all the same brands I did in my small town piano store.
The Changing Face of Retail
When I first came to Gist, I was surprised at how comparable most things were to my experiences in Illinois. Granted, folks in Kentucky preferred mahogany woods over walnut, but things were otherwise very similar. The winds of change were blowing, however, and I eventually began to see problems with our piano selection.
First of all, The Great Recession of 2008 made it very difficult to sell high-priced, handmade pianos in Kentucky. There just wasn’t much market for a piano that retails for over $50,000. We had no problem selling used ones (a practice we have continued to this day), but selling NEW American pianos became increasingly difficult.
Secondly, despite a total lack of inflation, these high-priced pianos continued to increase in cost annually. Having just seen this phenomenon in the housing industry, we realized that carrying new, high-cost pianos with inflated price tags would only push clients to shop for used or rebuilt pianos. It was a bad decision for our clients and for us.
Around this same time, we began to see how mobile devices were changing the face of piano education. More and more students were purchasing digital copies of print music and using play-a-long material in their daily practice. In order to stay relevant in to today’s piano students, we needed to partner with a company who understood the future of the piano industry.
It was time for us to make a change.
Finding New Brands
Immediately after cancelling our relationship with the American piano brand, we decided to take on a famous Japanese brand. …and, at first, we were pleased with the decision. They we were well-respected, they had a ton of great resources and they had a strong focus on technology. Unfortunately, we discovered that they had their own set of problems.
First, their technology was pretty expensive. Most of the technology they offered put their pianos out of reach for beginners with a limited budget. Instead of buying a piano with factory-installed headphones system, our clients would purchase a “silent” system and have it installed on one of our other piano brands – for a lot less money.
Secondly, the acoustic piano market was flooded with used pianos shipped in from Japan and China (with just a little cabinet polish and hammer filing). In many cases, these used pianos were better deals than the new ones – and the “Grey Market” argument we were given to disavow them was so shaky even my factory rep had a hard time believing it. Again, selling used pianos was easy. Selling new ones… not so much.
Finally, after only two years, we made arrangements to go our separate ways.
A Way Forward
During this low point, I began to look back over our brand history and I noted that Gist has carried over 35 different piano brands throughout its 45-year history. Famous brands like Petrof (1996-2003), Estonia (2009-2011), Kawai (1998-2005), Kimball (1988-1996), Story & Clark (1979-1981), Wurlitzer (1975-1981) and Pearl River (2004-2005) had all been a part of our past. We sold a TON of them even though they weren’t our “headline brand.” …and that made me question whether or not we needed a “headline brand.”
With all this in mind, I went to the big music trade show in Anaheim – a showcase for piano brands from all over the World. I spent four days playing everything – from starter-level pianos to high-end designer grands. I even played a $450,000 piano that looked like a peacock! Phew.
My goal was to find The Best Piano for my store. It had to have a familiar name, a solid reputation, top-notch construction, great warranty support, a magnificent sound and touch and the ability to interface with modern technology. It also had to be affordable for more of the people in my community… and I’ll admit that I was not optimistic that I would find a brand that fits this tall order.
Luckily, The Piano Business is going through a strange metamorphosis right now. Over the past several years, economic factors have caused brands like Baldwin, Wurlitzer, Chickering, Ellington, and Story & Clark to go out of business – selling their brand names to larger companies who have consolidated their own offerings down to just a handful of pianos. The Business has shrunk so much that we’re actually starting to see NEW brand names (like Kingsburg, Brodmann, Geyer and more) emerging from the ashes. Thankfully, I was able to find the perfect solution for our company.
Finally, after months of research, teacher trials, performance testing and brand vetting, I am proud to say that we have found THE Best Piano… for now: Brodmann. …and that is really how it works. Because brands in The Piano Business come and go so rapidly, it’s really impossible to shop by brand anymore. THE Best Pianos are the ones who give the best performance and longevity for the best possible price… and that is an equation that can change overnight.
Thankfully, our staff of highly-trained technicians, piano historians and business leaders are constantly evaluating our inventory – making sure that our clients get THE Best Piano for THE Best Price. …and while I’m sure everyone says that about their pianos, I can offer you something they can’t: proof. That’s right. After 45+ years and over 35 different brands, we at Gist can tell you not only which brands are wonderful today… but we can tell you which ones will hold up well over their 40-year lifespan. …and we can take pianos apart and show you what makes ours better than anyone else’s in town.
Like Gist Piano Center, I am far less impressed by a fancy logo or a high price tag. I have seen how brand names can lead folks astray time and time again. Instead, I am much more interested in the quality of a piano’s construction – much more concerned about the instrument’s design than its marketing… and I’m much more attracted to its performance than to its luxury price tag. THAT is what makes Gist different. We are working hard with our community partners to build a new generation of piano players and we are dedicated to making sure we outfit those players with THE best instruments their money can buy. Which piano is best? Once you take the time to get to know us, I can say this with confidence. The best piano is the one we recommend just for you. Come in today and see what’s new! Better yet – ask us why we picked it! You’ll quickly see why an investment at Gist is truly a “sound” one.