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China's cheap musical instruments strike a chord in world markets

PINGGU, China—From violins and pianos, and on to bassoons, guitars, cellos and nearly every other musical instrument, China is taking the global music market by storm.

China already makes more violins and pianos than any other nation on Earth, and its production of brass, woodwind and electronic instruments is soaring.

Workshops in factory towns such as Pinggu, on the northeastern outskirts of Beijing, pump out thousands of instruments a month for youngsters across the United States and the Western world.

Meandering through his factory's showroom, Liu Jianli holds up various violins, cellos and guitars and reads out the low prices that undercut his overseas competitors.

"There's no way for them to stop China from taking over the market," Liu said, adding that his company, Beijing Yiyuan Musical Instruments Co. Ltd, is doubling production in the next year.

Experts in the United States say Chinese companies are overcoming a rap for shoddy production, improving quality even as they write a score for global growth.

"At one point, the Chinese stuff was really awful, terrible. They'd fall apart. But guess what? They are getting better," said Brian Majeski, editor of The Music Trades, a 115-year-old specialty magazine. "They are making inroads in everything. There's been an explosion of small factories."

It's a trend that affects vast numbers of youth—and parents—in the United States. Between 1.2 percent and 1.4 percent of the 57 million students in U.S. primary and secondary schools, public and private, play musical instruments. It's a safe bet that most of the instruments they use are now made in China, even if there's no sticker or engraving noting the country of origin.

"Many teachers in the States and Europe advise their students not to buy violins from China," Liu said. As a result, "a lot of our clients request unmarked violins."

Experts in the United States say competition among Chinese factories is forcing a steady improvement in quality, even as prices remain low. While some violins still come with warped fingerboards and poorly fitted bridges, others are properly fitted.

"There are very good—maybe not great but very good—products coming out of China. And very soon they will have great products," said Joe Lamond, the president of the International Music Products Association, a nonprofit trade group in Carlsbad, Calif.

China produces about 370,000 of the 600,000 pianos made worldwide each year, said Zeng Zemin, general manager of the Beijing Xinghai Piano Group Ltd, one of the largest piano makers in China. China's factories also produce 900,000 of the 1.5 million wind instruments made around the globe each year, said Zeng, who's deputy chief of a trade group of China's instrument makers.

China has 65 percent to 70 percent of the market for violins and cellos sold in the United States. The rest come from Romania, Germany, Italy and the Czech Republic.

"The price (of Chinese violins) is just ridiculous. It's very cheap. The Germans are just barely hanging on because of the Chinese prices," said Neil R. Lilien of Meisel Stringed Instruments in Springfield, N.J., an instrument importer and wholesaler.

Liu, the Chinese factory owner, says his operations produce 25,000 handmade violins, 6,000 cellos and 3,500 violas per year, 90 percent of them for export.

He sells violins to U.S. importers for as low as $79 apiece.

Liu makes no bones about the pressure on his workers to quicken production.

"In foreign countries, the craftsmen only produce three violins a year. They do 10 a month here," said Liu, 37, whose long flowing beard and waist-length hair give him the appearance of a musician rather than a self-described "peasant carpenter."

Huge U.S. chain stores, such as Costco, Wal-Mart and Sam's Club, are beginning to sell low-cost instruments, appealing to spontaneous buyers. Those stores have been partly behind a fivefold increase in the sales of electric and acoustic guitars in the U.S. market since 2000.

"The average selling price (of a guitar) has gone down from $630 or $640 to somewhere in the $300s. That is almost a direct result of Chinese manufacturing," Lamond said.

While low-cost producers thrive in China, renowned makers of high-end pianos and other instruments still do well in the West. Steinway & Sons, the prestigious New York-based piano maker, produced 5,000 pianos last year and had sales of $200 million.

In contrast, Xinghai Piano, one of eight major piano makers in China, manufactured 40,000 pianos and had sales of about $80 million last year.

Liu pooh-poohed some European traditions for making stringed instruments, such as allowing maple and spruce to dry for decades before shaping the wood into instruments.

"They age wood 50 years before making the violins. But we Chinese are different. We've broken those traditions. We can dry wood in ovens," Liu said. "There is such huge demand in the market, you can't wait 50 years!"

Traditionalists beg to differ. Zheng Quan, China's most renowned violin maker, who charges upward of $10,000 per instrument, decried the shortcuts.

"Many Chinese factories do not process wood in a scientific way," Zheng said. "To make a violin takes a long time. You need natural drying, not artificial drying."

Zheng, who uses wood dried for at least two decades, said some Chinese violin makers boil wood, then dry it, saying the technique prevents cracking.

Such methods help the companies produce at a rapid pace.

"Every time I go (to China), there's a new factory. I don't understand it. They think the United States is a bottomless pit. And it's not. It's getting to be saturated," said Lilien, the New Jersey wholesaler.

At Xinghai Piano, though, executives have a keen eye on the domestic market as well as the export market, seeing growth of 10 percent to 15 percent a year in sales in China, a nation of 1.3 billion people with millions of new piano aficionados.

"There is a very big potential market in China," Zeng said, as he walked along an assembly line of upright pianos. "In Beijing alone, 8,000 pianos a year are sold. For the foreseeable future, instruments in China will continue to rise."


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): CHINA+INSTRUMENTS

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