Roll Scanning: Everybody Profits

Craig Brougher

          I have to laugh a little at people who will not donate rolls to copy, electronically. Maybe they think they are protecting their investment, and maybe they think that those rolls are theirs, and nobody else is going to get them. Maybe they think that electronically copying rolls will be the death knell of the roll-making business and everybody will then be playing e-roll files to the exclusion of paper, and so they are just not going to be a part of that. I’ve got some big news for you guys.

          There has never been an art or a science that survived without making some wise and expedient changes. The evolutionary process in man’s endeavors must always exist and be allowed to proceed, or that business dies.

          Many years ago, Alexander Graham Bell was trying to sell the telephone concept to businesses. It required a complete rethinking of the way business was done. Those who realized, eventually, that a telephone might be a smart thing to invest in “evolved” and became big. It was the telephone that gave American business a real head-start since European businesses were not offered that advance quite as quickly, so America had the jump on the world. And not so much between customer or client and the product, but at first between businesses, themselves. They could transact business in a fraction of the time required the old fashioned way—by letter, or by carriage or train.

          But there were many thousands of traditional businesses who thought they’d wait awhile, and see how it turned out before they’d change the way they did business. Some said, “Our customers like to meet us eye to eye, and we conduct business with a handshake. A crackly voice over a wire cannot be trusted. Besides, Central can listen in and spy on our transactions. That does not fit our business model, or the method that our founders laid down. It is not that one-on-one relationship with the founder’s personal, hand-picked representatives that we think they should expect, and for right now, we will continue to do it our old way.

          Where are those businesses who waited, “just awhile longer” to see how it worked out for other companies? Or those who rejected the telephone on the basis that it lost that solid, in-touch relationship with those a customer did business with? Well, they are long gone. As a matter of fact, it happened so much faster than they had anticipated, that they were in the vortex of bankruptcy in only a few months or years after the first telephone books were printed. Poof-gone.

          Several mini-depressions were the direct result of business restructuring after the advent of the telephone. Yes, there were problems with phone connections and spying, but for every problem, there’s a solution. Unfortunately, many hard-headed businessmen were running companies at that time, and hated change. You see, their greatest fears envisioned changes in their company that they could not control, once they made the decision to evolve. And the whole reason for rejecting the idea was to concentrate their power and keep it by the method of hoarding. They relied on exclusivity. Exactly the same objective, only in different avenues, that roll collectors who refuse to share, use today.

          The reason I now have to laugh is because truly good business models incorporate both the telephone and one-on-one service with any individual or corporation they deal with. Whether the order is large or small, or whether the contact is only to complain, a smart company treats all inquiries the same, and makes friends in an exponential way. The evolutionary tactic of adding telephones enabled a smart company to give their customers MORE—not less personal attention and respect. How did they do that? They did not allow their telephone to “substitute” for the direct personal approach, but to supplement it. So while some chubby, cigar-smoking, 3-piece suiter in lamb chops envisioned himself as a tough, hard-nosed but principled corporate leader who “don’t need no phone,” true visionaries changed the way America did business, almost overnight.

          As time went on, the telephone was making its own technical changes, and improving the ways it could help companies. Every year, new programs and services were being offered, but that only improved the one-on-one relationship that business was able to maintain with other companies and their own customer base. Long before this happened, however, the companies slow to change were long gone.

          Mark Twain was a man who never made a dime in good investments because he watched for the wrong things. Clements was a great critic and humorist, but a poor visionary. He too was offered an opportunity to invest in Bell Telephone and turned it down, believing it was just another one of those fly-by-night deals. So we shouldn’t characterize everybody who lacks vision as ugly people in vests and lamb chops.

          The past always defines the future, and people with vision are easily able to make the connection. People without vision are doomed to repeat it. Player rolls are our hands-on personal connection with the past. We feel that by chucking up an old roll, we are participating with the same roll and the same activity, right on down to the 36” long shoe laces, that was enjoyed almost 100 years ago, and with that very same roll! We are right. And therein lies the problem. The roll accelerates to its own destruction as time goes on, and can no longer be played. But why did our grandfathers chuck up that roll to begin with? Did they just enjoy the feel of it, or the music? The spirit of player pianos was not the machinery or the firmware. It was strictly the music and the words. The total justification for all the time and money spent is decided by the music and those arrangements, which could not probably be duplicated today by modern artists at any price. Oh, they can be stylized similarly, and the sky’s the limit for new arrangements, but the originals are the classics, and the examples for any new work to come along.

          There’s a Barbeque restaurant in Kansas City called Arthur Bryants that has some of the best barbeque in the world—no joke. What was funny is, it used to be just a little dump on the northeast side of town in which you stood in line, gave them your order, and picked up your plate, your drink, found a table, and sat down. No waiters or anything. But boy, was it good!

          Then Kansas Citians decided to hold barbeque contests, declare winners ever year, and from this came different flavors of sauce and methods of cooking, and eventually, new restaurants. Arthur Bryants was taking a back seat quickly. Many people had never even heard of them, so they changed tactics, built a new restaurant in a good part of town, and suddenly their business flourished as never before. In other words, when other people got involved and tried to outdo them, it helped everybody, including Bryants. But would Bryants ever think to add competition in order to increase interest in barbeque? Of course not!

          It just like my rebuilding business. I’m always looking to know reliable and honest rebuilders, and am willing to help them out, because one good rebuilder will go broke, but dozens of good rebuilders will resurrect the business, improve the supply of parts and supplies, and provide a network of helping hands and friends in the business, all over the country, both for referrals and sharing.

          Likewise with the roll business. Roll manufacturers know that the more interest in the original MUSIC, then the more interest in their rolls, as well. This is a business, ultimately, that defines music for music’s sake. We need collectors, honest critics of performance, hardworking, thorough rebuilders, good suppliers, and lots of player piano rolls, because every pneumatic player piano has a trackerbar!

          If you visit a piano store today you see many player pianos, but you cannot interact with them, whatsoever. You cannot easily pick your tunes on some of them. And words to songs? Forget it. But if you have a pneumatic player piano, not only is it far longer lasting and trouble-free, relatively speaking, but it plays both rolls and if so outfitted, e-rolls as well. There’s a time when you want to gather around that piano for a little “one-on-one” sing along, or “he who picks, pumps” session, where everybody’s running to the roll cabinet to find one they want to hear. To do that with midi files and computers is not likely. And the old-fashioned enjoyment is still available instantly on any pneumatic player, motor-driven, or not. You cannot beat a player piano roll scrolling by with words. It is forever fascinating, to everybody!

          When thousands of owners have their instruments converted to play e-rolls, what happens? Is it to the exclusion of that precious one-on-one relationship with the player roll? Just the opposite, ultimately speaking. First, they discover that their player might use some maintenance or basic rebuilding. Next, once they’ve invested money in their piano, they want some new rolls for it. Then they hear about an interface that will play their piano for background music when they aren’t there to pedal it. They invest in a retrofit. But untended background music, as great as it is, doesn’t satisfy all the uses of their “new” piano, and without rolls, it’s only half-alive. That personal touch is embodied in the words on paper, scrolling by, so the fun isn’t all there with e-rolls. Each mutually excels the other.

          It’s like an ice cream parlor moving in next door to a Chili shop. The owner is dreading it, but finds out that it’s a synergistic relationship. One hand washes the other, and pretty soon the draw of one shop improves the business in the other, as well.

          Meanwhile, there are still a few old curmudgeons left who admire their old roll collections from afar. They seldom play them. They just acquire them. But they get a chuckle at the “millions” who would love to hear them and can’t have them, until he sells a few, “and it’s going to cost ‘em plenty.” Sooner or later though, he will play a roll he hasn’t heard in years, and it rips to shreds. He grabs another one, and the same thing happens. A third, and the tab just falls off this dry-rotted, embrittled paper, and a mental image appears above his balding head in this little balloon, entitled, “The Dog and the Bone.”

          He has been snookered by his own selfishness and incapacity to share. Not only could he have been enjoying what others were now enjoying, but he could have been listening to all their thousands of rolls too, and had the same personal satisfaction that he too contributed to the art he so admired. But as soon as he reached for even more rolls to hoard, he unbeknownst was losing that which he already had. Finally, he ended up with nothing.

          The old roll market is fading fast, because those rolls’ conditions are deteriorating at an ever increasing rate. Our hope for the future are new rolls, and hopefully with words, and maybe even pictures too. Perhaps somebody will consider selling them both ways. There is always a way to make a product desirable at a reasonable price. But even new rolls are impossible to make unless you have masters to run the punches with. And certain forms of MIDI will probably be what is used. Without scanners, the roll business also is dead, because the original masters are rotting away and going fast.

          Evolution? It exists in every human endeavor, and unless understood, accepted, and acted upon, that endeavor will fail. It is a law, not a possibility. And there will always be people in every human endeavor who lack vision and foresight, and try to hold on to the past until it’s too late for them. You visualize an old fogey with an armful of rotting paper rolls, saying “No matter what they try to do, they aren’t getting my rolls.”

          It’s like the many bankrupted businesses that said, “No matter how they try to sell me on them new-fangled phone things, I know better.” Sometimes, we need to take a page from those who have a different idea. We need to respect all points of view so that we can profit more from everybody. It doesn’t cost us a dime to listen to the other viewpoint, does it?

I Don't..

This page was last revised on March 11, 2014

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