How Vienna’s Piano Makers Weathered the Crisis

During the pandemic, many people had more time on their hands and spent most of it at home. With concert venues closed for months on end, some rediscovered their love of playing music themselves. In the United States, piano sales reportedly soared during quarantine, with one retailer recording “the best three months that [he’d] seen in retail,” wrote The New York Times on June 29.  That piano sales did not decrease but indeed increased has been an unexpected surprise in the U.S. in a time of staggering  unemployment, shorter hours and heavier financial burdens, suggesting that this crisis has affected people’s spirits differently to, say, the financial crisis of 2008. 

So what happened in the classical musical capital of Vienna?

A Small Awakening

Klaviermachermeister, a piano store in Vienna’s 7th district, has been selling and servicing pianos here for the past 27 years, as well as training apprentices in piano construction and maintenance. Headed by Mr. Heinz Letuha, a teacher of piano construction at the University of Performing Arts Vienna (mdw) and vice president of the Austrian Piano Builders’ Association, Klaviermachermeister sells mid-to-high-end pianos, with price tags ranging from €5000 to €30.0000. 

“There has been a small awakening, you could say,” reports Letuha, as people have become more attuned to quality and sustainability. “It has become easier to explain to the client the social aspects of purchasing a piano” – by which he meant the secondary considerations, such as supporting a store that trains the next generation of piano builders, as Letuha proudly does. He calls it the “generational social contract.” This change in attitudes toward sustainability and more mindful consumer behavior has been tracked in other markets as well, such as fashion, as documented by a July 17 McKinsey survey, where  “surveyed consumers expect brands to take care of their employees, as well as workers […highlighting] the need for brands to maintain ethical commitments, despite the crisis.”

Toward the end of April, Letuha says, the phone began to ring. Client pianos were badly in need of tuning, as seasonal temperatures rose. Then as quarantine lifted, Klaviermachermeister serviced and recorded a slight uptake in piano sales to private clients over last year, as many people decided to replace their old instruments. Still, it was not dramatic, he said. 

Institutional Support

For the very top segment of the piano market, private sales were predictably down, according to sales manager Vladimir Bulzan of premium Austrian piano maker Bösendorfer. Headquartered in Vienna, within the building of the Wiener Musikverein on Bösendorferstrasse, the high-end brand sells mostly grand (rather than upright) pianos with their least expensive model going for around €70,000. They weathered the crisis with the help of institutional clients whose orders had been placed pre-crisis, said Bulzan.  Bösendorfer’s German-American counterpart in the premium segment, Steinway, declined to comment on their European sales numbers post-quarantine. 

Perhaps surprisingly, the institutions that kept Bösendorfer going were federally-sponsored, according to Bulzan. The City of Vienna “was no help,” he said. This was backed up by Letuha, who was particularly frustrated by the lack of funding for young pianists at the district Musikschulen, city sponsored after-school institutes for instrumental and ensemble training, of which there are some 370 in Austria. On average, around 80% of their expenditures are financed by the state, with the remaining 20% paid for by modest tuition fees. Of the 370, only 15, or 4% are in Vienna, surprisingly low when Vienna makes up 21% of the population. 

“If you are a young child in need of a piano teacher in Vienna, good luck,” he said. “There simply aren’t enough.” 

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