Wednesday, February 09, 2011

How Do You Get To Carnegie Hall? Make Pianos

The heir was pawing through the Neflix streaming catalog, which consists mostly of movies that no one wants to see. Going where others do not often go can sometimes yield gems, found among the tailings -- while everybody else ranges all over the Big Rock Candy Mountain of entertainment and gets a bellyful, and a bellyache. And a headache, if it's in 3D. He found Note By Note, a little movie about the Steinway factory in Queens. It's terrific.

The movie is aimed at the urban intellectual. It is not a craft show, though lots of craft is shown. There's a hint of noble savage-worship from the filmmakers as they observe the people that make the things. I'm sure a lot of intellectual dots are connected wondering why every factory can't be like that. Maybe we can pass a law.

The dirty secret is that there can be only one factory like that. All the rest must be run out of business so that Steinway can charge a hundred large and get it. It reminds me of 95-year-old Yankees wondering why everyone doesn't eat only rhubarb, pork fat, and canned wax beans, take cold salt water baths and live in an unheated house -- which they paint every five years with good old lead paint, and wash the brushes out with gasoline. It killed everyone else that tried it, but the last person to tell the tale always says it made them what they were.

This observation shouldn't diminish the value of the work done in the factory, or the work that must be done to get the dough to buy one of the things, either. I get my economics right from the tap, so the word "factory" holds no terrors and few secrets. I like it in the original iteration: manufactory. It's the manu that matters. Always will. I have a teeny tiny embryonic version of what I watched on the screen. I'm still alive in an industry that's mostly dead, which is no small feat,  but I know to end up a Steinway in any business is very, very, unlikely. Someone's going to outlast me and get the only ring, as I've outlasted many others.

Steinway isn't kidding when it says it pretty much does everything the same way it always has. Check out this video from 1929, when some of my immigrant relatives were working in a piano factory in Boston, waiting for Steinway to put them out of business.

I've been a professional musician, likewise in a very small way, so Note By Note (note: website autoplays noise and music) doesn't leave me in the dust when the talent shows up. Like the Steinway factory guys, I don't presume to be just like them, but I know enough about the business to know what's going on with them. And let me tell you, the jerk that plays the Charles Ives cacophony at the end after torturing the Steinway people through the whole thing is being snickered at, deservedly, behind his back at the factory.What a fraud.

The tears in the eyes of the mother and father and grandparents when a teenager gets his Steinway and plays it beautifully for them in their living room is very, very real though, and worth the price of admission.


Rob De Witt said...

Man, those vids....

I worked in a Steinway franchise in around 1970, Whittle Music Company in Dallas. That's where I learned to finish, redoing old Steinways and Mason & Hamlins; my next gig was finishing new guitars for the 2nd S.L. Mossman catalog, a copy of which has somehow stuck with me through all the adventures since. The action shop was downstairs on the 2nd floor, run by a "retired" 49-year Steinway employee named Milt Snider, where they rebuilt the guts. And what a guy he was...

Great experience, and great stories. Thanks for putting this up.

Mizz E said...

I streamed the documentary "Exit from the Gift Shop" this afternoon. While it was an entertaining peek into an unfamiliar subculture, I'm glad to have fine films like this to counter the descent into trashy street art. Thank you for posting.

peter hoh said...

I love documentaries like this. Thanks for pointing it out.

Douglas2 said...

Most new piano buyers don't spring for a Steinway in their first new piano purchase, so they've resurrected the "Boston" name for lower-priced pianos that they have made in Asia, in order not to lose new customers to the galleries of competitors.
Bosendorfer did the same thing in Austria by starting the Brodmann piano company for the cheaper end of the market. They ended up spinning the company off when they started having financial difficulty. When Bosendorfer was eventually sold off, Brodmann very nearly bought their former parent company.

Sixty Grit said...

What's a Steinway?

About 800 pounds, says the guy who has moved them.

Jewel said...

Rob, my father continues to rebuild and refinish Steinway pianos. One of the best stories he tells of a Steinway he bought was how his skinflint brother had bought an old Steinway for 4000 bucks. He offered to sell it to my father for 5000. My father looked it over, saw that the keys were all stuck and some of the strings were broken and missing, and some of the hammers were rotted, gladly paid him the 5000 bucks.
After about six months he had restored it. The ivories were pristine, not a crack. He used heating pads to unstick all the keys, and restrung the missing strings, tested the others, and looked into the provenance of the piano. It had been built in 1928, and was one of the better years for Steinway. His piano was assessed at more than 40 000 dollars. I only wish I could have seen the look on my uncle's face when my father told him how much his 5000 dollar investment returned him.