It wasn’t until I’d spent a few years in London that I started to notice the pianos. There were the pianos in the stations — King’s Cross, Tottenham Court Road, Lewisham, the underpass by Herne Hill. There was the piano that I sometimes overheard on the way to the bus stop. There were the pianos in the pubs. One had a sign on the lid, laminated to protect it from spilt drinks, that simply said: “Please do not play the piano.”
This was a city that seemed to have more pianos than it needed. As a mediocre pianist with a repertoire vanishing by the year (I’m now down to the first half of Chopin’s “Nocturne in C Sharp Minor”, the second half of Coldplay’s “The Scientist” and a blues arrangement of “Over the Rainbow”), I thought it might be worth buying one before I’d forgotten how to play anything at all.
When I went on the internet to assess the options, I was met with an unexpected sight: waves of pianos, second-hand, priced at £0. The condition was only that you took them away. Sometimes, the Gumtree ads hinted at the reasons. One said it was because the owner lived in a flat, which was ominous, given that I also lived in a flat. Most of them were in need of tuning or repairs.
This great coastal shelf of pianos, I later discovered, could be traced to the north London factories a century earlier, part of a vast industry as integral to the city’s identity as gin or shipping insurance. The instruments they produced were at the fulcrum of social life; when you got married, you bought a bed and you bought a piano.
In an age of screens and electricity, there were clearly hard questions to be asked of these wooden machines, their underlying technology little changed since the reign of Queen Victoria. The next time I was in a pub, I spoke to the bartender about the ignored piano in the corner. It had been cheaper than Sky Sports, he said. But then they’d decided to get Sky Sports anyway.
Pianos had gone from cutting-edge entertainment services to antique, in three generations. Not a single piano factory remains in London. But what had become of the tuners and restorers, the dealers and shops, the elderly neighbour who can hold a tune?
Beyond their decline, pianos also seemed to hold some clues about the changing nature of modern life. Once they sanctified the very concept of home; today they’re ill-suited to an environment of declining urban space and transient, depersonalised living. And, almost as though someone saw all this coming, they’re heavy. They’re so heavy that you have to bring in specialists to get them out of the building.
“The houses of London are full of these old pianos that no one can quite
be bothered to sort out until they’re forced to,” says Stephen Willett, the owner of a piano removals company. “They’re waiting for fate.”
As a young man in the 1960s, Bill Kibby-Johnson learnt how to tune pianos. As the decades wore on, going from home to home, he would occasionally get offered one for free.
They were being given away for one simple reason: their value was less than the cost of repair. This was partly because of their age and partly because of the devastating impact of central heating. Kibby-Johnson guesses that, by now, the average instrument in the average front room is probably Edwardian.
These piano offerings, he says, were “a piece of history that was going to get burnt”. So, to save them from the funeral pyre, he began taking them in, and the collection soon outgrew his home in Suffolk. At one point, the cottage hosted three pianos and a harmonium. Last year, he moved to a farmhouse in the Lincolnshire countryside.
It was a bright summer’s day when I visited but you wouldn’t know it from inside the barn, which is filled with approximately 50 pianos. The collection begins in the 18th century. As with the best history books, the transitions creep up on you; around halfway through, the pianos stop having candleholders. None look properly playable without extensive restoration work. One is sprouting what looks like a nest. Some have cracked keys, which makes them look even more like teeth than you suddenly realise they always did.
Kibby-Johnson is trying to piece together a museum, but it’s a difficult task. He’s hoping to raise funding for a better building. The walls are decorated with old adverts and notices. One in particular caught my eye: a sign about an organisation called Great Yarmouth Paranormal Investigations, which visited in 2012 and found evidence of “residual” presences attached to some of the instruments.
In the UK, the fall in piano sales is well documented. About 5,000 are sold annually, according to data from the Music Industries Association, compared with 30,000 in the 1980s. Less well known is the impact this has had on the trades those sales sustained.
When Kibby-Johnson trained as a tuner in the 1960s, he could see himself making quite a good living, but recently, he’d struggled to find enough instruments to tune. He studied at the London College of Furniture, on a course that no longer exists.
Few of the courses still exist. The Royal National College for the Blind, in Hereford, no longer offers training in piano tuning — a skill that once employed men who lost their sight in the trenches of the first world war. The same pattern held in the restoration trades that keep old pianos alive. One piano restorer I spoke to, Lucy Coad, said she couldn’t find any trained young people to work with. It wasn’t just pianos either — the welder she’d worked with on a recent job had the same problem.
The trade of actually making pianos, meanwhile, had almost died out in the UK, before coming back to life. Adam Cox launched Cavendish Pianos after the Yamaha-owned Kemble, Britain’s only surviving piano maker, moved production to east Asia in 2009. He employs young workers who have studied at Newark College, one of the last bastions of technical piano education in the UK.
In the middle of his workshop, there’s an opened-up piano. Even though I’ve played the instrument for over two decades, it’s the first time I’ve grasped how they really work. There’s an iron frame, and felt-tipped hammers strike the strings. But the music is in the soundboard — a thin layer of wood cut from trees that grow slowly at great altitude, often in the Alps or Tibet.
Cavendish has so far made and sold 179 instruments. The classic model costs £4,995. When I ask Cox what he thinks of the free pianos on the internet, he says that if there were no scrap value for cars, there would be millions of cars going for £0. It’s an interesting comparison. Cavendish is based in a building that was once a blacksmith’s forge. On the workshop wall, there’s a decorated map of the old piano factories of Camden, but the place feels like a refuge from the city. You couldn’t do this there.
What you can do, though, is hold an auction. Four times a year, Conway Hall in Holborn is filled with second-hand pianos — they’re jammed in, as though they’re making up the audience.
Piano Auctions describes itself as the world’s leading piano auctioneer. It is also the world’s only specialist piano auctioneer. “You’ve got to ask yourself why,” says Séan McIlroy, a sharply dressed former antiques professional who runs the business alongside Richard Reason.
What a piano costs today
Steinway grand piano
Broadway MK11 digital baby grand
Cavendish classic piano
1913 Bechstein grand piano at auction
Yamaha P-125, one of the best-selling digital pianos
Victorian upright piano, advertised on Gumtree
Not all of the old, unused pianos of England end up on Gumtree. Some might end up here. They ultimately come from what both McIlroy and Reason, independently, and on several occasions, refer to as the four Ds. The day before the June auction, McIlroy confidently expects to sell 98 per cent of the pianos: “Our downsizers don’t want them back, our dead people don’t want them back, our divorced people don’t want them back, and our people in debt don’t want them back.”
The business advertises for people to sell, as well as buy, pianos. Most of the calls they get are for pianos they don’t want, because they aren’t worth anything. So, they target high-value readers, like those of the Times or Telegraph. “We once made the mistake of advertising in the Daily Mail,” says McIlroy. “The phone was off the hook for weeks”.
We wander around, looking at different models: Steinways, Blüthners, the odd Yamaha. We pause by a Wilhelm Steinberg, a historic German make. But, in some kind of metaphor for globalisation, it turns out the piano was actually built in China, where a company now owns the brand. In 2014, 382,000 pianos were made in the country, equal to 80 per cent of total global production, according to Daxue Consulting. A growing proportion of homes in China’s cities now host a piano.
It used to be the factories and shops of London that sent pianos across the world. The day I visited Markson Pianos, near Regent’s Park, the sign on the front was being replaced for the first time since 1962. Back then, the business used to ship pianos to the Bahamas. It still sells about 500 pianos a year.
Simon Markson, one of two cousins running the business, says there have been quiet periods. On occasion, he’s walked “the length and breadth of London” to drum up business. There are only a handful of competitors in the city now. Julian Markson, Simon’s cousin, recalls when a director at Baldwin, a US piano company, came to London in the 1970s. “He said, I looked at the Yellow Pages — you have more piano retailers in London than in the entire state of New York, you can’t survive”. In 1983, Baldwin’s holding company went bankrupt.
Beyond the high street, the city has changed in perhaps even deeper ways. With all the property conversions that are going on nowadays, Julian says, it’s hard to get pianos into a room. Staircases, no longer as big as they used to be, don’t have the “turn”. You have to send it through the first-floor window in a crane, which might cost as much as the piano. As with central heating, it was as though the modern home were conspiring against the piano.
Markson Pianos also sells digital pianos — no crane required. In the UK, sales of these have risen to 25,000 a year. Once you add together acoustic and digital piano sales, the figures haven’t changed that much. People obviously still play; digital pianos that begin to replicate the touch of an actual piano start at about £400. One obvious difference, as per the iPhone, is that software quickly becomes redundant. The piano, by contrast, is basically the same machine it was in the 19th century.
New technology, though, is blending with old. Silent pianos, ideal for the modern city, combine digital elements with real acoustics. You can play them with headphones on, in complete privacy. Markson’s also had a Disklavier in its workshop: a kind of Yamaha grand that can, in effect, play itself.
If you didn’t know what was going on beneath the lid, you might mistake the description for that of pianolas, invented more than a century earlier. There had been one in the corner of Kibby-Johnson’s barn. He’d demonstrated how it worked, pressing the pedals with his feet, and told me that on other models, the keys move down of their own accord as the music plays.
Kibby-Johnson has been worried about pianos getting burnt. But they often met a very different end. In the 1950s and 1960s, a strange phenomenon swept England. Groups of men wielding sledgehammers would compete to smash pianos to pieces, which had to be small enough to pass through a letterbox. There used to be a Guinness World Record for piano smashing. There’s even a video on YouTube. But the commenters below are so upset by the scene that an acknowledgment was published, and the record was subsequently retired.
It is tempting to read many things into that phenomenon — the iconoclasm of the postwar years; a mourning of old technologies as new ones overwhelm us. When I asked people who witnessed the contests, though, it was simpler. Old pianos were a nuisance back then, like old televisions might be today.
The piano isn’t dead. It’s just that many of them aren’t quite alive. The trades that tune them, restore them, even value and sell them, are waning. And the real proof of their decline is the nostalgia. In London, that’s one reason they end up in stations. It might also be because they don’t fit in the flats carved from the city’s terraced houses, which is why I never ended up buying one, even for a price of nothing.
It is in the home, after all, that the fate of the piano is written. Towards the end of our conversation, Simon Markson had described a recent visit to a north London house. The piano was a good German make, and had been in the family so long that it seemed worth restoring. But there were complications. The pedal had hardly any metal left, and the owner didn’t want it to be replaced, because it was part of the instrument’s history. There was a cigarette burn, but she didn’t want that removed. That was Uncle Ted’s, she said, he always put his cigarette there. And in the end, after they’d weighed it up, they decided that they wouldn’t restore the piano. They’d just leave it as it was.
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Thomas Hale is a reporter for FT Alphaville