Innovative Yamaha Player Piano Could Tune Up a Flat Industry


Don't call it a player piano. To Terry Lewis at Yamaha Corp. of America, it's a Mark II Disklavier, and it's the last great hope of the piano industry.

Piano sales have been sinking for more than a decade. Changing musical tastes, cuts in school budgets for music instruction, the popularity of inexpensive electronic keyboards and tough competition for home entertainment dollars during the recession share the blame. But the Disklavier, Lewis said, is beginning to change that tune.

"It is the brightest product for the future, a new frontier beyond the piano market," said Lewis, vice president and general manager of Yamaha's keyboard division in Buena Park, the U.S. distributor for the Disklavier. "I refrain from calling it a player piano because it is not a nostalgia thing. It does much, much more."

The name, pronounced DISK-la-veer, comes from the computer disk that drives the instrument and lavier, a German word for an upright piano. The Disklavier can also be played like a standard piano.

During 1992, Yamaha sold 3,000 to 4,000 Disklaviers, counting second-generation grand piano models that the company began shipping in October. Prices range from $7,900 for a small upright to $43,000 for a grand piano. For retailers, the Disklavier generated annual sales of $50 million, Lewis said.

That wasn't enough, however, to revive the entire industry, which has seen its revenue decline since 1978, according to the Piano Manufacturers Industry Assn. in Dallas.

What is significant about the Disklavier, Lewis said, is that it is drawing new customers to a mature market. Though most piano buyers are musically inclined, he said, Disklavier customers often have no musical background.

U.S. piano sales slipped from about 282,000 in 1978 to about 102,884 in 1992, according to the American Music Conference, a music education association in Carlsbad. The figures don't include the large market in used pianos.

The value of retail piano sales for 1992 was $515 million, up from $498 million the year before, according to Music Trades magazine. But the number of pianos sold dropped 4% from 106,941. Paul Majeski, publisher of the Englewood, N.J.-based trade magazine, said that higher sales of more expensive grand pianos accounted for the rise in revenue.

Pianos hit their peak in 1924, when 354,000 were sold. Player pianos made up more than half of those sales. That segment of the market began to fade in the 1940s, however, as other forms of music, such as radios and record players, gained popularity.

"The changing family has also had a big impact on sales," Majeski said. "Playing the piano is not one of the requisites of being a good little boy or girl anymore."

Yamaha is hoping that the Disklavier will reverse the downward sales trend. The instrument, which plays prerecorded piano and orchestral music stored on 3.5-inch computer disks, accounted for 25% of piano sales last year by Yamaha, the market leader. About 230 disks are available, with more due out this year. They sell for $25 to $45 each and play for 40 to 90 minutes.

Further evidence of a player-piano revival comes from Disklavier's competitor in the market, PianoDisc, a product of Burgett Inc. in Sacramento.

Five years ago, Burgett began retrofitting standard pianos with player-piano technology. Sales reached 3,000 units, or $10 million, for 1992, spokesman Stephen Merritt said. Retrofit kits sell for $4,000 to $6,500 each. Some buyers are conventional piano makers that attach Burgett units to their own products.

Earlier this year, Burgett launched its own line of player pianos, manufactured partly by Young Chang Korea. The PianoDisc line plays the same 3.5-inch computer disk recordings as the Disklavier.

"The Disklavier is responsible for a resurgence in the market," Merritt said. "We are growing at a very fast rate, and we can offer a product that goes with any brand of piano, not just Yamaha models."

Field's Pianos and Organs in Santa Ana sells both Disklaviers and PianoDiscs.

"About 30% of our sales go out the door with player-piano features," said Gary Goldman, treasurer at the retailer, one of Yamaha's largest dealers. "Pianos haven't changed that much for 50 or 60 years, and they can last 100. When something like this comes out, it's a big change."

The new player pianos can repeat any performance note by note. They can add the sounds of other musical instruments for an orchestral-like performance by a virtuoso or a beginner, and they can replay the tunes of piano legends like Liberace.

The Disklavier is like an ordinary piano except for its precision fiber-optic sensors that measure and control the movements of piano keys, foot pedals, hammers and strings--all the working parts that produce the sound of a piano performance.

Yamaha engineers worked more than nine years to perfect the Disklavier in a joint venture with Okayama University in Japan. The first models, which included bulky control carts, hit the U.S. market in 1988. The newer models are more appealing; a control unit unobtrusively hitched to the right side of the keyboard is smaller and has better capabilities for editing and dubbing music.

When Yamaha introduced the second-generation models in October, it already had a backlog of $6 million in orders. (The company does not disclose sales of its privately held units, such as the keyboard division.)

The Disklavier sales increase is welcome news at the Yamaha division, which has seen ups and downs during its 33 years in Buena Park.

"We are not hiring, and we are making staff adjustments when we have to," said Steven G. Thatcher, corporate planning manager. "That is a departure for us, and

it is something that is happening in Japan as well."

For its fiscal year ended March 31, 1992, the Japanese parent company reported a profit of $44 million, down from earnings of $54.2 million for the previous 12 months. Sales, however, were up 8%, to $3.9 billion. The company also distributes guitars, amplifiers, synthesizers, brass and woodwind instruments and consumer electronics equipment. U.S. sales account for about 13% of annual revenue.

Lewis of the U.S. division has hired some big guns, including opera stars Luciano Pavarotti and Kathleen Battle, to help advertise the Disklavier. The company has also put Disklaviers in some Nordstrom department stores, hotel lobbies and the Mall of America in Minnesota.

Because of its high price, the electronic player piano isn't going to replace the guitar or other musical instruments familiar to rock 'n' roll fans.

"We're not going to turn the tide on a style of music," Lewis said, though he noted that "you could listen to the Beatles or Van Halen on your Disklavier."

"If consumer attitudes shift permanently," Lewis said, "we're going to have to change too. . . . Just because the piano has been around for 300 years does not mean it will be around for another 300."

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