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.

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