This article is part of briefing paper for the MCA summit, Australian Musical Futures: Towards 2020, Sydney 5 September 2008.

Instrument Supply

On the face of it, there is no problem of availability. Australia imports what it needs.

The total value of musical equipment sold in Australia is a little over $600 million per annum. This includes instruments, printed music, professional audio products and computer music software. The total number of items imported exceeds two million pieces. Excluding PA equipment (speakers, mixers, amplifier, processors and microphones), the total value of musical instrument sales is around $400 million, including computer music software items as in many cases they serve as musical instruments.

The sales numbers for various instruments give a different perspective on the shape of musical life in Australia. Guitars have the most sales of any of the instruments (231,000 units) followed by recorders (220,000 – though declining over the past decade from around 300,000 units per annum) and then the electronic keyboard (85,000 units). By comparison with the latter there are around 15,000 piano imports (including digital pianos). Other instruments with considerable sales are flutes, 10,000, trumpets, 6,000 and orchestral stringed instruments, 20,000.

Print music is worth $33 million and accessories a further $60 million (reeds, mouthpieces, stands, strings, pads, rosin etc.). Both 2006 and 2007 have been record years for numbers of units imported.

Supply of High-End String Instruments

The one area in which supply is an issue is with high end orchestral string instruments. Readers will know of the press reports of the loan to Richard Tognetti of a $10 million Guarneri de Gesu violin.1 This is the most expensive instrument known to us but nevertheless, instruments that match the talents of very good professional players cost from hundreds of thousands into millions of dollars. The market for fine instruments has passed out of the hands of musicians into the hands of corporations and high-wealth individuals. In Europe, Asia and America, there is a good number of such owners who, in many cases, then loan the instruments to fine players from their own countries. Indeed, there is a consortium in Norway with $50 million to spend and one in Taipei with $300 million. The Canada Council, equivalent of the Australia Council, runs an instrument bank. There is little equivalent activity in Australia. The consequence is that our musicians compete not only against foreign musicians but their instruments.

MCA a couple of months ago established the MCA National Instrument Bank to try to address the problem. It has made a modest beginning with two instruments, a violin and a cello, suitable for highly talented young players.

Supply of Student Instruments

There is no lack of instruments available but as with any other commodity, instruments are not within the means of all families nor indeed, all schools. This of course constrains the spread of music-making in Australia. In real terms the combination of an improved Australian dollar exchange rates and lower production costs, especially from China, has reduced the real cost of instruments significantly since 2000. The average value of a musical instrument imported into Australia has fallen by around 30% since 2000. Adding inflation back in, the differential is something like 50% between the average import prices in 2000 and 2007. That said, high end quality products – pianos, guitars, woodwind, brass etc. – continue to increase in price, possibly another example of high labour content and low productivity growth. There is no way around craftsmanship and exotic materials if you want a high quality product. The real price benefit is seen in the entry point instruments.

It should be noted that while initial cost is an issue, the real barrier is the cost of learning. A satisfactory Chinese violin, suitable for the initial few years of learning, can be bought for around $300. But over say two years of learning, the initial investment in the instrument would be no more than 12% of the total cost to the family assuming 40 weeks of private lessons at $25 per lesson for each of the two years. Add on costs such as strings, texts and so on. Figures for learning a guitar or keyboard would be similar. Purchase of a trumpet, flute, clarinet would make up 20-25% of the total cost of learning, saxophone up to 30%, piano in excess of 50% of the total cost, all, of course, because the instruments cost more, not that the lessons cost less.

So it is the commitment to funding lessons that is the main obstacle for most families. This is one reason that it is so important that instrumental instruction is offered through the schools.

Local manufacture of instruments

Decades ago, there was a substantial manufacture of pianos in Australia under the Beale brand. The Beale name is still owned in Australia by Australis, but for many years now has been made in China.

One of the surviving industrial producers of instruments is Maton Guitars in Box Hill, Melbourne. Maton has been in business for 60 years and has success in Australia and to some extent, internationally. It appears to be a viable and well-respected business. Another is Epoch Musical Instruments, which produces a range of electric violins, ‘cellos and basses. Unlike Maton, most of its product is sold overseas.

Rode Microphones is an internationally recognised producer from Silverwater in Sydney, operating at an industrial scale.

Attend the musical instrument convention in China and discover why in general terms, Australia could probably put its energies to better use than in trying to create industrial manufacture of musical instruments. The number and variety of instruments being manufactured there is jaw-dropping, all, of course, with similar cost advantages to those found in say clothing and footware manufacture.

Hand-Crafted Instruments

On the other hand, there appears to be room for hand-crafted instrument making in Australia, if only because for the makers it is a vocation from which they draw non-financial rewards.

There are two companies working on production of innovative piano designs. Stuart and Sons has a workshop in Newcastle where it produces extremely beautiful looking grand pianos with a number of innovations in stringing and other aspects. Albert Music made an investment in the Stuart inventions, allowing the construction of the pianos to be set up on a businesslike basis. The instruments are essentially hand-built and costly but the operation appears to be doing well. Stuart’s have some flair for promotion leading to prominent media coverage and presumably to sales.

Ron Overs (Overs Pianos), who runs a piano tuning and repair business from modest premises in Concord West, a Sydney suburb, has made even more thorough-going design changes. He has reconfigured the piano action, halving friction, and made important changes to stringing, soundboard and other components, winning praise from peers and musicians. Some instruments have been sold to institutions such as the Sydney Conservatorium where they seem to engender support from the pianists.

As to other instruments, there has long been a diverse cottage industry of handcrafting. There are some 500 makers in Australia, amateur and professional. The predominant instruments are the violin family, guitars and keyboards but there is quite a list of instrument types made here:

  • Accordions and concertinas
  • Bagpipes
  • Banjos and mandolins
  • Dulcimers, psalteries and zithers
  • Early keyboards including harpsichords, clavichords & fortepianos
  • Flutes, recorders and whistles
  • Guitars – acoustic and electric
  • Harps – Aeolian, Celtic, folk & concert
  • Hurdy-gurdies
  • Lutes and other early and ethnic plucked strings
  • Oboes and orchestral reeds
  • Organs – pipe & reed
  • Steel drums
  • Violin family including violins, violas, ‘cellos and double basses, bows & accessories
  • Early strings including viols and period bows

According to the editor of the newsletter of the makers’ association, in another knowledge base article, some makers achieve a very high quality and international sales. However, the total value of the sector is probably a tiny percentage of instrument sales, let alone the total music sector.

A problem for potential sales is that there is no concerted marketing effort by these makers and probably they find customers mainly by word of mouth. Professional makers have left the only national organisation, the Australian Association of Musical Instrument Makers (AAMIM), which at least has the newsletter and used to present annual showcases.

Locally Designed or Made Digital Music Equipment and Software

The Fairlight Computer Musical Instrument was a world-class innovation in the 70s and 80s but later was overtaken by competitors. In Perth, there was a more recent and more populist invention, the Thummer, a hand-held computer musical instrument enthusiastically promoted by its inventor but perhaps lacking some important ingredients for musical success – and in any case, recently removed to the USA.

There is innovative work in computer music. Two world class software producers are In the Chair and Music Maestro. Datasonics supplies its Music Maestro products to several US State Authorities and also the UK. Rising Software produce Auralia, aural training software.

Possible Issues

Availability of Fine Orchestral String Instruments for our Best Players

The structure for addressing this has been put together by the MCA. Success depends upon support by those who can afford to buy and loan the instruments.

Supply of Student Instruments

MCA is discussing a pilot program in which it would partner with SA schools to encourage citizens to take unplayed instruments out of closets and donate them to school music programs. There are many complexities around such a program. While it may seem a no-brainer, arrangements have to be made and funding found for transport, drop-off points, assessments, repairs, administration. MCA is also considering another program to bring together lenders and borrowers of mid-level instruments. Resources are a problem with both of these initiatives.

There is another problem that has seen a number of schools out of pocket. While it is possible to purchase Chinese instruments that are good and work as they should, there are a number of products being made that only resemble musical instruments: trumpet-shaped objects that do not have functioning valves, violins whose bridge design is so flawed as to render them unplayable and so on. These are too often sold on the internet. The products are on the face of it cheap – a violin for say $50 to 70 – but it won’t play. Too many schools and parents are getting ripped off by these ‘instruments’. Some of the mass marketers have recently begun selling instruments, some of which are marginal in quality.

A Fractured Domestic Music Education Market

We do not have a viable domestic market for some products because we have eight different state curricula for three million students over 12 years of learning. Work out the volumes on that basis.

Straying a little from the subject of instruments and equipment, a consequence of this situation is that there is a shortage of locally written and produced music curriculum materials; this could be satisfied commercially in a sufficiently aligned national market but not in markets in single states, some with very small populations. So production is then left to state governments/education authorities, most of which show little more than token interest in music education. Consequence: actual lack of curriculum materials, or importation from foreign countries.

A national music curriculum, or at least national key learning outcomes that allow some local flexibility, could far better support commercially viable initiatives in the production of both curricular materials and some equipment.

Hand-built pianos

A recorder can be made entirely from a piece of wood. A piano cannot avoid use of industrial processes, for instance, to cast the frame. You don’t set out to build just one piano. Even hand-built pianos must be made on the basis that there is some sort of production line which then requires a capital base. Hand-built pianos cannot compete on cost with pianos mass produced in China and so they must compete on quality and to some extent individuality, although not too much individuality because touring pianists do not want to find themselves in a concert hall with 2,000 listeners and a piano that is so unfamiliar that they cannot control it. Indeed, many no doubt will prefer a good old familiar Steinway so they don’t have to worry about that. So Australian piano makers are on a tight-rope. They have to appeal to the top end of a small market with high prices and few purchases, against long-established global competitors, with instruments that are different enough to be distinguishable and not so different that they frighten off the players. Above all, they have to compete with the name. In Australia, even Bösendorfer cannot compete with Steinway. Success in these circumstances is totally admirable.

Other Hand-Built Instruments

The MCA National Instrument Bank received a very agitated email from an Australian violin maker demanding to know why we were not promoting Australian instruments instead of Stradivarius and such. It’s a fair question and the answer is about market realities. As noted, there is no real attempt to create a market for these instruments beyond loyalties to individual makers. This appears to be an issue that cannot be managed by collaboration among the makers. Is there some other entity that would find it in its interests to solve the problem? And if there were, would the makers cooperate? Would the very best makers cooperate, or are they already successfully occupied?

Locally designed or made digital music equipment and software. In a comment not confined to but including digital musical equipment and software, Michael Smellie writes2:

Australia MUST establish some initiatives and stake out some intellectual property in the digital music arena. We must establish our equivalent of Silicon Valley and clearly music stands out as the place to start. There is a need to create a digital incubator and an accelerator to quickly get us up the knowledge curve. There are two aspects to this:

  • The first involves the creation of a network of digital innovators in the music space to enable them to leverage their work. This will bring shared learning and knowledge together to accelerate the development and the marketing process of digital initiatives and products. This network needs to at least be a virtual concept but would be even better if it were to have some physical proximity also. Without this, we cannot hope to compete with the innovation seen in other countries.
  • The second involves funding initiatives. I note that the Minister [for Arts, Peter Garrett] has already announced funding for a Creative Innovation Centre and that he is looking at providing microfinance opportunities to the music industry. These are both welcome and overdue. I would strongly suggest that these be implemented in some form of partnership with industry i.e. perhaps with private equity investors and existing industry investors. In this way, they are more likely to be self sustainable and to not fall under the influence of someone’s personal musical taste.


Richard Letts assisted by Ian Harvey. Submitted 16 September 2008


  2. Music Forum, August-October 2008↩︎

Dr Richard Letts AM is the founder and Director of The Music Trust, founder and former Executive Director of the Music Council of Australia (now Music Australia) and Past President of the International Music Council. He has held senior positions in music and culture in Australia and the United States, advocated for music and music education, conducted research, written policy documents, edited four periodicals, published four books and hundreds of articles.

Alan Harvey is Winthrop Professor of Neuroscience at the School of Anatomy, Physiology and Human Biology, University of Western Australia. He was born in London, UK. He has BA and MA from the University of Cambridge, PhD in visual neurophysiology from the Australian National University, Canberra. After time in the USA and at Flinders University in Adelaide, Alan Harvey came to UWA in 1984 and was promoted to Professor in 2001. As well as his active research in a broad range of topics including methods of repairing the central nervous system and caring for Alzheimer's disease, he has an interest in the evolution and neuroscience of music and is beginning to publish in that field (UWA staff profile accessed March 2014).

No comment yet, add your voice below!

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *