Friday, 28 September 2012

Flutes and Economics

That adage about people overly concerned with money that suggests that they know the price of everything but the value of nothing got me thinking about the price, and the value of flutes. As someone whose profession is intimately tied up with this, it’s something that I give quite a bit of thought to, and yet find it hard to come to any logical conclusion.
There are two quite distinct areas here, new flutes, such as I make, and associated with them in the same general area of interest, old, mainly English, 8 keyed flutes.
What determines price and value in both areas is distinct.
Lets look at new flutes first.
Here the normal factors that determine the price of most handmade products have an obvious importance. Firstly objective things, which are inescapable for all makers, but will obviously vary according to location and other circumstances:
Cost of raw materials
Time taken in manufacture
Cost of manufacture ( workshop costs, insurance, purchase and replacement of tools and machinery)
Secondly ( largely) subjective things:
Quality of work
Reputation of maker
These last two not necessarily being the same thing.
Supply and demand then positions a particular makers work in the market.
(I should add here that I’m talking about fully professional makers here, that rely totally on the income generated. Hobby makers, I’d argue, are able to operate in a very different financial environment.)
The supply and demand thing is quite different, or rather was quite different for newly made flutes, for prior to the late seventies there was no supply, and the demand only began when myself and others began to provide a supply.
In my own case, the first instruments that I produced commercially were priced at £100. To try and place this figure,  which is in the currency of the time, the punt, the average industrial manufacturing wage at the time was £82 per week, and a pint would have cost you 55 pence. Lets put all this into current Euros, and the flutes cost €127, the wages were €105, and the pint 70 cent. Put another way you could get 150 pints for the price of a flute in 1979, and today you would get 178 (at  sensible rural pub prices!)
That initial £100 pricing was really a shot in the dark. It seemed a nice round figure, but I really had no idea whether it was commercially viable or not, whether people would pay it for a new flute, and whether, depending on demand of course, it would provide me with a living. It should be remembered that a good old flute could be bought for £100-200 at the time. I had bought my first Rudall and Rose in 1977 for £150, and that was a dealer’s price…they could be had considerably cheaper at auctions. It pays to remember, though, that there was no one at the time available to restore a flute, unless you did it yourself.
Eventually, with more and more makers coming into the market throughout the 1980s, individual makers began to specialise, supplying particular markets with an increasing range of what was now widely known as the “Irish flute”.
The interesting thing to note here is that broadly speaking new flutes are basically the same price in comparison to the cost of living as they were when they first came on the market.
Where does this leave makers who are trying to make a living from flute making?
The fact that there are many many professional makers out there ( I proposed around 60 at the level I’m talking about in the second edition of the Flute Player’s Handbook, a couple of years ago) means that it is possible to make a living, and from what I know of other makers, I’d propose that professionals, no matter where they’re living, or what markets they are selling into, are making incomes in the same ballpark. This is despite levels of production, price to the consumer, waiting lists etc.
On the subject of waiting lists, one thing many people don’t realise is that the length of a waiting list is not necessarily related to demand, but rather is more closely related to the speed at which a particular maker works. Thus (and this statistic is quoted from a real situation] a five year waiting list may be the result of one maker producing five flutes a year against an order backlog of twenty five orders, where as a two year wait may be the result of another makers yearly production of twenty instruments, and an order backlog of forty.
I think that’s enough for now. I’ll get onto the pricing of old flutes in the next post.
Here’s something to think about before I leave. In late 19th century England, a top quality 8 keyed flute cost somewhere in the region of £12. If this flute was bought in, as very many were at this stage when the Boehm flute had become dominant, the maker would have received around £4. A middle class wage was in the range of £50-£150, so for someone in the lower eschelons a good flute (remembering that the 8 key flute was just about obsolete at that time ] would cost you a quarter of your yearly income.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

On the one hand.....

Bit of an accident last Friday is keeping me out of the workshop so I have a bit of time on my hands (or rather hand) resulting in this and maybe one or two other rather long posts. 
This is something that I’ve been meaning to write about for quite some time.
I’m sure that, like me, many of you read and sometimes contribute to the on-line boards and discussion lists relating to traditional flute/Irish music.
            For those from outside Ireland in particular, this has become one of the main ways in which they keep in contact with the Irish music community in general, and in their own area of enthusiasm in particular.
            To those who have come to the music in the digital era, it can be hard to explain just how different it was back in the day, when the cassette recorder was considered to be the cutting edge of technology.
            When my own interest began to develop in the early 1970s the only sources of tunes or the way of playing them were a couple of dozen LP recordings, the players themselves, and if you were lucky what you or your friends recorded on the new fangled cassettes. There were also a few printed collections, but abc notation was unheard of, so this source was barred to anyone who wasn’t musically literate, and even then one still needed to hear the notes played by a traditional player to make any progress.
            Classes and formal tuition were scarce in general and unavailable in many areas. It required serious effort to try to learn traditional music.
            Of course this was not all bad. There’s an expression in Irish - cad is anamh is iontach- which simply means what’s rare is wonderful, which I think is appropriate here. Nowdays one can access even the most obscure recordings - even video recordings -  with a few clicks of the mouse, and there’s an element, for me anyway, of over exposure taking some of the good out of it. Eating an exotic food every day soon reduces it to the level of the mundane. I suppose that part of the attraction for me, and I’d suggest many others, was the esoteric and non-commercial nature of the music scene in those days.
            I have to confess to being partly resposible for this whole internet/traditional music thing. When I was a PhD student at UCC in the early 90s myself and one of my colleagues, Paul McGettrick set up the Irtrad-L discussion list which was the first of it’s kind, and amazingly this year has it’s 20th anniversary.
            Since then of course, there are such resources almost without number. But the question that has to be asked is...what effect has this had on the traditional music community?
One the major effects is that this community is now more than ever an international one, not that this is totally due to the internet. Since the first days of Irish emmigration Irish music has been international, but with the advent of the internet, this internationality has moved far beyond the original limits of the Irish diaspora, which were largely the USA and UK. Recently, for example, I have sold instruments to Mexico, Chile, Brazil, Belarus, and the Ukraine, something which definitely would not have happened in pre-internet  days.
However despite all this internationalism, is the internet really leading to a more homogenous traditional music culture?
One major factor that has become apparent to me, speaking as someone who is familiar with the Irish traditional music community both in Ireland and abroad, is that those outside Ireland are much more likely to be involved in the internet music community than those Irish born and still living in Ireland, despite the fact that the Irish are major participants in every other aspect of digital communications and social networks, twitter etc.
This of course, is one of the results of the spread of the popularity of Irish music abroad, and that popularity has,  for a considerable number of years spread far beyond the Irish diaspora, something which in some part has been due to the influence of the internet.
Within a comparitively short period of time, we have moved from a situation where Irish traditional music was the concern of a minority within Ireland, ( lets include the diaspora for accuracy) to the current state of affairs where that same group now find themselves as a minority in a world wide community.
How this situation is now presenting via the online media is essentially what concerns me in this post.
Having been, as I’ve pointed out, there from the very start, and having been at times a keen enough participant in the whole online area, I find that recently I’ve become simply a lurker, with little interest in active participation.
There are several reasons for this.
One of course, is lack of time, but if I were honest with myself and my readers here, I’d have to admit that in general the discussions and exchanges that take place among the online Irish music community are of little to interest me, and the reason I have no interest is that they largely deal with situations, topics, and areas of interest that have no relevance to me as a practising musician and instrument maker living in Ireland.
What worries me, is that very many of the participants appear to be involved for just that very reason...that in some way they’re now, even if vicariously part of the Irish traditional community that those of us living in Ireland (the heartland of it, I think you’d have to admit) are part of.
A board that perhaps many of you are probably familiar with, and one which I’ve been a member of for some years is the Chiff and Fipple forum.
This forum currently has over 10,000 members so to the uninitiated it can appear that they’re reading the distilled wisdom of a group of this size. Like almost every other online forum without exception though, the regular posters are a tiny percentage of the overall membership...not the fault of this or any other forum, of course.
What’s more worrying, and what has encouraged me into almost complete lurker mode on this and other forums, is that the opinions expressed, taken in total, reflect something completely different to those that I know are held by the traditional flute community in Ireland, on just about every thread discussed.
I’d argue that as a group, flute enthusiasts based in Ireland hold radically different views on all the common issues that are discussed from day to day on such forums, such as favourite recordings, players, styles, makers etc. This is not to say of course that such opinions are invalid in any way...except as being representative of Irish opinion, which is presumably what the majority of the forum members are keen to find out.
Of course such forums cannot and should not be restricted as to membership, something that would quickly lead to elitism.
But perhaps more people should be aware that many traditional Irish music forums are dominated by opinion from outside what might be considered the core group.