Economy

Steinway Grand Piano Challenges Ferrari As The New Chinese Status Symbol

Steinway Grand Piano Challenges Ferrari As The New Chinese Status Symbol
Melanie Wassink

HAMBURG - When a Chinese customer with a lot of money buys a Ferrari, as soon as the salesperson hands over the keys, the fun can begin. When a Chinese with a lot of money buys a Steinway, the grand piano is delivered, placed in the living room – and then what?

"Friends come over, see the instrument, and say ‘Play something!’" says Werner Husmann, managing director of Steinway & Sons in Europe and Asia.

Steinway builds the most expensive pianos on the planet – they are used by the world’s leading orchestras. And now the company has decided it’s going to teach huge numbers of people in this country of over 1.3 billion how to play the piano. The move has solid economic underpinnings – in 2012, China became the piano maker’s most important market, pushing Europe to second place.

"Many Chinese already take piano lessons, but it takes longer to be good at it than many – especially young – people expect," says Husmann.

The German-American manufacturer has developed a marketing strategy that it hopes will unleash a minor revolution in the classical music world. "We want music teachers to start using a different teaching method," Husmann says.

The method supposedly guarantees that after six months anybody can play a piece of music, without having to spend a lot of time on boring finger exercises along the way. Steinway recently brought the teachers of China’s major conservatories together to discuss the issue.

Such an undertaking would be a dramatic step for any piano company, but from Steinway – whose pianos represent the fruit of 125 patents, and who in the music world is considered untouchable, sainted even – it is mind-boggling.

A manufacturer who for over 150 years has brought the highest level of craftsmanship to piano building, whose instruments have been played by geniuses like Arthur Rubinstein, Cole Porter, Martha Argerich, is challenging the traditional methods of teaching classical music? Husmann has heard all the clucking before, and points out that while all of this may have been elevated to a kind of sainthood for Steinway – "most saints are dead."

A shrinking European market

The education offensive is an investment in the future, says the Hamburg native, who has been working for Steinway for 45 years and knows its philosophy thoroughly. "We will in no way be compromising quality, but we also have to create the framework so that we have enough customers over the next decades."

And the European market is shrinking. "In the past few months, demand has fallen 10 to 12%," he says, adding that the pinch is being felt far more by cheaper brands like Schimmel and Bechstein than it is by Steinway.

In China, private buyers comprise up to 65% of Steinway’s market, but in Europe only 40% of Steinway buyers are amateur musicians. Most European customers are professionals – music teachers, soloists.

"And a lot of people in Europe already have a piano," Husmann points out, so on the old continent the company is pursuing a strategy of keeping its sales stable.

Presently, Steinway is getting negative publicity because of a scandal in Switzerland where the Swiss Confederation’s Antitrust Commission (WEKO) has opened an investigation over allegations of unfair competitions by the company’s Swiss dealers. WEKO is also investigating Steinway & Sons Hamburg for unfair competitive behavior in the distribution of grand and upright pianos.

About this Husmann says: "We don’t yet know exactly what we’re being accused of." Sales in Europe and Asia are controlled by Hamburg, but the firm’s New York factory supplies the American market.

Another major growth market is the Arab Emirates. But as in China, selling pianos in the Middle East also requires pioneering initiatives. Here, four-hour crash courses are offered to lure locals to what is for them an exotic instrument.

In the Emirates, as it is in China, a Steinway grand piano is more a symbol of an up-market lifestyle than it is something to aspire playing. So here too "we’re competing with other luxury goods for the favor of wealthy customers," says Husmann.

In the rich oil states, a Steinway grand piano is not a best-selling item. Because for status-conscious Arabs, as with status-conscious Chinese, there’s an important difference between a Ferrari and a Steinway: you can’t show it off in the street.

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Society

Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game

Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.

In the Netflix series, losers of the game face death

Yip Wing Sum

-Analysis-

SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.

The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.


It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.

Seoul housing prices top London and New York

In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.

According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.

Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.

One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.

According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.

Playing the stock market

At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.

A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."

In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.

42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s

Simon Shin/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Game of survival

In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.

But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.

This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.

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