The Myths and Realities of Chinese Made Musical Instruments



trumpet-300For more than a decade now band directors have lamented the influx of ultra low-cost musical instrument brands being made overseas in China and in other countries.  The complaints have, for the most part, centered around intonation problems, lack of durability, and difficulty in getting repairs done quickly.  To have heard the complaints back in the late 1990’s one would have thought that absolutely nothing good in the way of musical instruments ever came out of China in those early years.

 The accusations flew and lawsuits ensued, with manufacturers clamping down hard on music educators and giving us all a reality check on what we can and cannot legally say when recommending musical instruments for our students.

The Current Reality of Musical Instrument Manufacturing

or Why Are The Chinese Taking Over My Band? 

The current reality of musical instrument manufacturing is no longer as cut and dried as it once was.  In 2012 there are literally dozens of different music instrument manufacturers and almost all of them, even the major brands, do some if not all of the manufacturing in China or elsewhere in the world.  Even brands that most people associate with home made American craftsmanship such as Conn, King, and Jupiter have some if not all of their manufacturing process being done in other countries (at least for some of their beginner model instruments).

It would be hard for anyone to deny that the musical instrument industry has exploded over the past ten years.  Where it was once enough to tell a student to go down to the music store and buy a horn now band instruments can be found in dozens of places from discount chains like Walmart to toy stores like FAO Schwarz.  There are two basic reasons for this trend, and as one might expect both have to do with money.  

Money Speaks Louder Than You Do

First, the consumer naturally wants to get away with paying the least amount possible for a product.  If a manufacturer can make an instrument cheaper and still turn a profit they will do it  and continue to do it so long as there is a demand. To get a better understanding of how this affects things you have to understand how music instrument retailing works.  For many decades most music stores only sold instruments made by the major players in the industry.  Near the end of last century the growth in demand for instruments and the growth of manufacturing capability in China and elsewhere prompted more and more companies to start making instruments in order to cash in on the growing number of students taking instrumental music classes all over the world (including the growing desire for music education in third world countries).  

Here in the United States while we may have a much higher standard of living parents are still trying to scrape by as economically as possible.  When an uninformed parent sees a $300 saxophone in one place and a $1300 saxophone in another it doesn't take a degree in economics to tell you which one they are going to pick. It also makes sense to remember that in our increasingly throw away society a parent with a new band student in the family often sees the purchase of a low cost instrument in a much different way then a teacher does. 

The Drop Out Factor:  If a family purchases a $300 alto saxophone from an online retailer like Amazon and then the student drops out, the family is only out that initial investment of $300.  If however a family purchases a new, major brand name instrument and then a few months or a year later the student drops out they will probably lose at least $200 or more in depreciation costs when trying to sell that used instrument.  

Cost Effectiveness:  The cost of repairs added to the cost of the initial investment in the instrument is still probably going to be less expensive than buying a top brand instrument or, if it can’t be repaired the family can buy simply buy another new one for roughly the same price.  

The Upgrade Incentive:  While this is not very common I have had a few people mention they were purchasing low cost instruments because if the student stayed with it they would upgrade to a better, intermediate quality instrument once the student has committed to staying in the program.  

The Growth of Store Brand Instruments

A Good, Durable, Common Ground

The second reason for the explosive growth of new instrument brands has to do with middle tier instruments.  Often known as “store brand” or “custom brand” instruments these are manufacturers that sell directly and exclusively through established music retail stores.  These brands include such names as Accent, Anthem, Barclay, and Antigua.  The incentive for stores to carry these brands (aside from trying to compete with the ultra cheap discount brands) is that in general musical instrument retailers want to be able to differentiate themselves from each other when competing not just with other local music stores but also through Internet based electronic storefronts. 

At the same time more and more music stores have been opening to meet the increased demand for instruments, and each of these stores wants something new to set themselves apart from the other retailer down the street.  To stay competitive they  need to find brands of instruments that can directly compete with other stores at comparable prices.  To do this many stores will negotiate with manufacturers to give themselve some degree of exclusivity in their region of the country.  This means that just because you can't find the same store brand instrument at other stores it does not mean that it is an "unknown" or low quality brand, it is probably just being sold exclusively through that one area retailer or chain of music stores. It is all about competition and supply vs. demand.  Having new brands from new manufacturers helps drive down the price of instruments.  This is NOT a bad thing.  

Cheap Musical Instruments Play To A Different Audience

And They Serve An Important Purpose...

The silver lining in all of this is that even though lower prices often signal cheaper construction these lower prices also lower the cost of entry for new musicians.  This results in the potential for more students to take up an instrument and join your band.  So long as the quality of the instrument is “good enough,” we should not be trash talking the cheap instrument brands.  Doing so may inadvertantly put a negative stigma on those students who, for no fault of their own, wind up playing on them because that is all that their family can afford.  

In a future article we will discuss how to broach the subject of instrument purchasing with your students and their families.  For now though, remember to keep things positive.  Talk up the good brands and those you know your local retailers can easily and quickly repair but avoid saying bad things about specific brands.  This can have negative effects not only on your student’s attitude toward playing the instrument but leaves you open for potential lawsuits from manufacturers.

About The Author
Chad Criswell

Chad Criswell is a career music educator working in the Iowa public schools.  His articles have appeared in dozens of publications both online and in print.  He currently serves as the national music technology writer for NAfME's Teaching Music Magazine and has presented sessions at numerous music education conferences including the 2012 Midwest Band and Orchestra Clinic.


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