It is common for piano manufacturers to tout a list of artists with whom they enjoy some sort of connection. Sometimes that connection is rather tenuous since that artist may have affiliations with more than one company and, frequently, they have been dead for a number of years.
However, artist endorsements form a sort of seal of approval for wary piano purchasers who don’t necessarily trust their own ears. Often buying a piano with artist endorsements is an easy way to demonstrate ones own cultural sophistication, even when one knows and cares little about the piano. But, are lists of artist endorsements truly a gauge of the quality of a piano and its appropriateness for you?
To use an clever example by someone in the business, think about the Lincoln Town Car. If you call for a car service in New York City, most likely you will be picked up in a Lincoln Town Car. Since many professional drivers in NYC use the Lincoln Town Car, does that mean that it is the best car for everybody?
Artist endorsements are rarely free. The artist is looking for something as is the manufacturer, otherwise why do it? The maker is looking for big names who allow the maker to freely use their identity in their advertising. The artist is looking for access to pianos, for home, concerts and recordings. The artist usually hopes to get this for free, but that is rarely the case.
What follows is kind of long and twisted, but it comes from deep personal experience. If you really want to understand the world of concert pianos, at least in the US, you may want to struggle through.
Let’s pretend there are 2 major makers with significant artist endorsement programs; lets call them Company 1 and Company 2. Company 1 has been in the artist side of the business for decades and has a long list of major artists who have endorsed their pianos. Many of the current names do not have strong household name recognition which leads to the emphasis on artists who have passed away. Company 1 also has a vast number of their own concert pianos stationed at concert halls around the country. These pianos are owned by Company 1, loaned to the venue for free or a nominal annual charge. Consequently Company 1 has some control over who uses these pianos, as they are Company 1’s property, not that of the concert venue. The implication here is that one must be an artist associated with Company 1 to be able to use these pianos.
So, Artist 1, wishing to be able to freely play the concert pianos in various venues approaches Company 1 about becoming a “Company 1 artist”. Lets say the first requirement is that Artist 1 own a piano made by Company 1. Usually because of the dominance of Company 1 in the market place, this is not a problem as the artist already owns one, but often Artist 1 is compelled to buy the lowest priced Company 1 makes, which explains the large number of Company 1 uprights owned by professional pianists.
So far, so good. But, what happens when Artist 1 plays in a venue that does not have a piano? In this case the artist or venue is compelled to rent an appropriate piano and the artist is strongly encouraged to rent only a piano made by Company 1.
What happens when Artist 1 plays in a venue that has a beautiful piano, not made by Company 1. In this case, the artist is STRONGLY encouraged by Company 1 to avoid playing the non-Company 1 piano in public and should therefore rent a Company 1 piano. Often the venue chooses not to get involved in renting a piano, since they already own a beautiful piano, thank you, and the burden comes down on Artist 1 to shell out the $1500 or so to rent one. If the artist has enough clout, they can pressure the venue into covering the rental, but the list of artists with that kind of clout is getting smaller.
What happens if the piano supplied by Company 1 is not in good condition? This might happen as it is the classic behavior of a monopolist. If everybody has to play this piano anyway, why should we spend money to maintain it? In this case Artist 1 (being a Company 1 artist) is again STRONGLY encourage to play the piano, and just shut up about the condition. After all, it was fine for Artist XYZ who played it (1, 2, 20) years ago. In this case everybody; the artist, audience and venue is cheated. Only Company 1 comes out ahead.
So let’s go to Company 2, newer on the scene but with a serious dedication to make a presence on the professional market and the deep pockets needed to support the effort. Let’s also pretend that the concert piano made by Company 2 is really quite good. Different, of course, from the instruments made by Company 1, but with a substantial range and color all its own. If you were Company 2, how would you proceed?
One logical option is to develop an artist roster of your own. After all, there are a lot of professional pianists out there, many of whom have tried and liked your piano. How about “signing them up”? And, as is logical, let’s work with young artists, the ones who can support our efforts for a long time. Let’s send pianos, provide practice instruments and provide a range of support, at Company 2’s expense, since this kind of long term relationship development will pay off in the end, right?
The problem is that you are fighting a monopoly and artists frequently have to make decisions that are based on politics and economics rather than the simple concept of which piano do they like best.
For example, let’s say that Artist 2, signed by Company 2, gets an opportunity to play with a major orchestra. Let’s say this orchestra has a piano placed in the hall by Company 1. Let’s say that Artist 2 asks that a piano from Company 2 be brought in for the performance. What do you think happens?
What frequently happens is that the orchestra strongly recommends that Artist 2 abandon the idea, since it is trouble and hassle for the orchestra, and Company 1 has put pressure on the orchestra to prevent any encroachment on their territory. Let’s say that there are spoken or unspoken threats about Artist 2’s likelihood of every playing with that major orchestra again if Artist 2 continues to pursue the foolhardy quest of playing a piano they prefer.
Result? Artist 2, who prefers the piano made by Company 2, plays a piano he or she doesn’t like, under pressure for non-artistic reasons.
This happens more often then you think and even goes so far as causing artists to sign up with Company 1 just to avoid the hassle. They may prefer other instruments but decide to suck it up for reasons other than artistic integrity.
Can you count who gets cheated? Don’t forget the audience who may never know the musical experienced they have missed.