HAMBURG - When a Chinese customer with a lot of money buys a Ferrari, as soon as the salesperson hands over the keys, the fun can begin. When a Chinese with a lot of money buys a Steinway, the grand piano is delivered, placed in the living room – and then what?
"Friends come over, see the instrument, and say ‘Play something!’" says Werner Husmann, managing director of Steinway & Sons in Europe and Asia.
Steinway builds the most expensive pianos on the planet – they are used by the world’s leading orchestras. And now the company has decided it’s going to teach huge numbers of people in this country of over 1.3 billion how to play the piano. The move has solid economic underpinnings – in 2012, China became the piano maker’s most important market, pushing Europe to second place.
"Many Chinese already take piano lessons, but it takes longer to be good at it than many – especially young – people expect," says Husmann.
The German-American manufacturer has developed a marketing strategy that it hopes will unleash a minor revolution in the classical music world. "We want music teachers to start using a different teaching method," Husmann says.
The method supposedly guarantees that after six months anybody can play a piece of music, without having to spend a lot of time on boring finger exercises along the way. Steinway recently brought the teachers of China’s major conservatories together to discuss the issue.
Such an undertaking would be a dramatic step for any piano company, but from Steinway – whose pianos represent the fruit of 125 patents, and who in the music world is considered untouchable, sainted even – it is mind-boggling.
A manufacturer who for over 150 years has brought the highest level of craftsmanship to piano building, whose instruments have been played by geniuses like Arthur Rubinstein, Cole Porter, Martha Argerich, is challenging the traditional methods of teaching classical music? Husmann has heard all the clucking before, and points out that while all of this may have been elevated to a kind of sainthood for Steinway – "most saints are dead."
A shrinking European market
The education offensive is an investment in the future, says the Hamburg native, who has been working for Steinway for 45 years and knows its philosophy thoroughly. "We will in no way be compromising quality, but we also have to create the framework so that we have enough customers over the next decades."
And the European market is shrinking. "In the past few months, demand has fallen 10 to 12%," he says, adding that the pinch is being felt far more by cheaper brands like Schimmel and Bechstein than it is by Steinway.
In China, private buyers comprise up to 65% of Steinway’s market, but in Europe only 40% of Steinway buyers are amateur musicians. Most European customers are professionals – music teachers, soloists.
"And a lot of people in Europe already have a piano," Husmann points out, so on the old continent the company is pursuing a strategy of keeping its sales stable.
Presently, Steinway is getting negative publicity because of a scandal in Switzerland where the Swiss Confederation’s Antitrust Commission (WEKO) has opened an investigation over allegations of unfair competitions by the company’s Swiss dealers. WEKO is also investigating Steinway & Sons Hamburg for unfair competitive behavior in the distribution of grand and upright pianos.
About this Husmann says: "We don’t yet know exactly what we’re being accused of." Sales in Europe and Asia are controlled by Hamburg, but the firm’s New York factory supplies the American market.
Another major growth market is the Arab Emirates. But as in China, selling pianos in the Middle East also requires pioneering initiatives. Here, four-hour crash courses are offered to lure locals to what is for them an exotic instrument.
In the Emirates, as it is in China, a Steinway grand piano is more a symbol of an up-market lifestyle than it is something to aspire playing. So here too "we’re competing with other luxury goods for the favor of wealthy customers," says Husmann.
In the rich oil states, a Steinway grand piano is not a best-selling item. Because for status-conscious Arabs, as with status-conscious Chinese, there’s an important difference between a Ferrari and a Steinway: you can’t show it off in the street.