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The Future of Automatic Musical Instruments

This article was written by Dave Bowers for the Mechanical Music Digest on June 12, 2009. It is republished here with the express written permission of both the author and the MMDigest. This work is covered by editorial copyright and may not be republished without the express written permission of both the author and the MMDigest. I personally thank Mr. Bowers and Mr. Rhodes for allowing this article to be republished at Player-Care.com. This information is valuable to anyone wishing to understand the future of this industry. Signed: John A Tuttle

From: qdbarchive@metrocast.net.geentroep (Dave Bowers)
To: Mechanical Music Digest MMDigest
Date: Fri, 12 Jun 2009 09:10:58 -0400

Subject: The Future of Automatic Musical Instruments

I have been reading the commentaries about the "death" of player pianos and reproducing pianos. And, there is no doubt that today in 2009 certain coin-operated pianos, such as the popular Seeburg cabinet models, are no more expensive today than they were 30 years ago.

For a hobby such as automatic musical instruments to be dynamic it has to have a number of factors that come together all at once. These factors are not unique to automatic musical instruments, but also apply to other fields (such as rare coins, which has been my business all of my life). These are what I might call observable realities -- perhaps worth contemplating in the search for understanding:

(1) Items should be collected and desired for their curious and interesting value as messengers from the past -- antiques from a bygone era. In the course of helping conduct Hathaway & Bowers and American International Galleries I answered a lot of questions and did a lot of contemplation.

Using Regina music boxes as a popular example, these were not collected for their music alone, as LP records and, later cassettes, provided all of the music anyone could desire. Moreover, someone buying, for example, a Regina 27-inch disc-changing music box, a "poster example" of a desired item, and getting with it say a couple dozen discs, would typically recognize only a handful of tunes.

Nor were they collected as reminders of childhood, as no one in 1967 (when Hathaway & Bowers was founded) cherished memories of a Regina disc changer in their neighborhood drug store, or an Ampico playing in their living room. Similarly, in rare coins a 1652 Massachusetts Pine Tree shilling does not evoke memories of having these in pocket change. The purchase of a letter written by George Washington, or Harry Truman, or Robert E. Lee is not purchased because the buyer wants the information in those letters.

The reason these things are popular is because they are collectible as antiques. Time and again, at Hathaway & Bowers and at American International Galleries, someone would want to get one each of the three popular disc diameters of Regina music boxes (15-1/2", 20-3/4", and 27 inches), or they already had an Ampico but wanted a Duo-Art or a Welte to go with it, etc. This is the _rationale_ of the permanent value of such antiques.

(2) According to Gresham's Law in economics, the bad drives out the good. If a government prints a huge amount of paper money with no backing, the value of this drops. In automatic musical instruments, modern substitutes or clones of antique instruments diminish the value of antiques.

In the 1970s an entire subculture arose of taking an ordinary household upright piano and adding a motor, pump, bells, drums, glass, and the like to create a modern orchestrion using, for example, Coinola "O" rolls. Whereas a Seeburg Style G orchestrion might cost $10,000 to $20,000 then, a new orchestrion would cost less, not require restoration, and had its own appeal.

Similarly, there have been any number of clones of classic cars that are cheaper than the originals. Today, these made-up modern orchestrions are frequently sold in auctions, hardly ever described as a "modern orchestrion made using an old piano and adding instruments to it." Instead, they are pictured and simply called an "orchestrion." Although these can be fine in their own right, they are not antiques and are "bad" in the sense of Gresham's Law. A Seeburg, Wurlitzer, or Nelson-Wiggen orchestrion today in 2009 has a lower value than it would if new orchestrions had not been made.

For the collector of reproducing pianos who owns one simply for the joy of listening to the music of pianists of the early 20th century, the modern electronic Yamaha is just as good for listening, and the music supply (copies of old-time piano rolls) is cheaper and more extensive. Someone wanting to listen to such music would probably be more satisfied by buying a modern Yamaha than buying an Ampico grand and a Duo-Art grand and having both restored.

Because of this, reproducing grand pianos are worth less than they were in 1967, which was 42 years ago. Similarly, the availability and cheap cost of calliope reproductions has driven down the value of and desire for the classic Tangley CA-42 or the National calliopes of the 1920s. In coins, deceptive modern counterfeits drive down the value of authentic coins.

(2a) If someone buys a modern made-up orchestrion for, say, $10,000 and then hears about the Musical Box Society or AMICA and goes to a meeting, he or she will probably hear, "What you bought is a piece of modern zzz (you fill it in) and it has no real value." If someone buys a fake 1652 Pine Tree shilling on the Internet for a bargain $500, instead of the $5,000 a real one might cost, and goes to an American Numismatic Association convention, he or she will be told, "You bought a piece of worthless junk."

In both of these scenarios, each hobby has probably lost a person who could have developed a real interest. The bad has driven out the good.

(3) The hobby of amateur restoration. Beginning in the 1960s when the Vestal Press (Harvey and Marion Roehl) sold tens of thousands of copies of Larry Givens' "Rebuilding the Player Piano", an entire subculture of restorers developed. It was fun to buy an unrestored player for $200 to $500 or so, take it home, order cloth, leather, and rubber parts from Durrell Armstrong or somewhere else, and bring a long-silent player back to life. It took time to do this, but it was fun.

I started by knowing absolutely nothing about the subject, but under the guidance of Harvey and Marion, who were neighbors at the time, I rebuilt (including restringing the piano and refinishing the case) a Seeburg Style L coin piano and a Style G piano. I worked with Harvey and Marion on restoring a player piano for a local rest home (we found a piano and contributed our work). Today, time capital is much more valuable. What with the Internet (in particular) and other things to do, the idea of spending a couple hundred hours rebuilding a player is not as attractive.

(4) The Vestal Press in its day was an important factor in this dynamism. The Roehls kept a steady stream of new books and reprints on the market, creating interest. Musical museums were open to the public at the Cliff House, Deansboro (New York), Sikeston (Paul Eakins in Missouri), Svoboda's Nickelodeon Tavern (Chicago Heights, Illinois), Disneyland, Knott's Berry Farm, Horn's (later Bellm's) Cars and Music of Yesterday in Sarasota, the Stagecoach Museum (Osborne Klavestad in Shakopee, Minnesota), and a half dozen other places. Many people who visited these displays became collectors. Today, the Vestal Press is gone, with no modern equivalent. Today, very few museums feature coin pianos or orchestrions that people can play.

(5) Commercial restoration has become expensive. The price of labor has risen. While in the 1960s it might have been possible to have a Wurlitzer CX or Seeburg G orchestrion completely professionally restored for, say, $4,000 to $5,000, today the cost is several times that.

(6) Positive factors still in place are these:

(6a) The Musical Box Society and AMICA are both alive and well and furnish a common meeting ground for birds of a similar musical feather. Occasionally, politics and grandstanding takes place as officers make up rules or want to emphasize their importance -- these are detrimental to each organization and keep people away. (In the early 1960s I was told that coin-operated pianos and orchestrions had no place in the affairs of the Musical Box Society, for example, and in the same decade in AMICA there was a huge amount of bickering about personalities). However, by and large both MBSI and AMICA have done fine.

_Central_ to the success of each society is an interesting magazine with a capable editor. This is much more important than who is or is not the current president of a group or who is on the board of directors. The more diverse the content of these magazines, the better -- a mix of modern social news and gatherings, historical research, and more, plus a diversity of coverage; a Fischer upright Ampico piano is as important as is a Hupfeld Helios orchestrion or an unrestored Ariston reed organ. Information on restoring, displaying, and sharing your interest is important.

(7) For the future to be strong for our hobby, I see that these are needed, including factors already in place:

a. MBSI and AMICA to remain strong, campaign for new members, and, above all, issue a parade of interesting "must read" publications.

b. Reference books should be distributed as widely as possible, and new books written and published. It would be nice to have a modern incarnation of the Vestal Press.

c. Meetings such as conventions, rallies, open houses by collectors, and the like are essential -- the more the better.

d. A business/supply industry including capable restorers, recut music rolls and reproductions of old music discs, supplies for do-it-yourself rebuilders and the like needs to be nourished.

e. The more dealers who buy and sell instruments and publish catalogues (or Internet offerings) the better. Ideally, such sellers should include detailed descriptions of the items offered, so that the buyers, upon receipt, will find an item to be exactly as expected, with no surprises.

f. Emphasis needs to be made on the desirability of instruments as antiques and collectibles, not as the best source for old-time music.

These are some of my thoughts, to the extent they may be of interest to you.

Dave Bowers Wolfeboro Falls, New Hampshire, USA

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This page was last revised February 11, 2013 by John A. Tuttle, who Assumes No Liability
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