Notes on the Violin Business

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Most of these essays are serving double duty. On one hand I seek to educate and guide professional musicians, students, and families while at the same time critiquing and analyzing the violin business from an insider’s perspective for my colleagues. This dual-purpose style may lend itself at times to more strident language alongside more informational passages. It is my utmost desire to avoid being labeled as a naysayer or crank – my goal is simply to improve the lot of musicians, instrument makers, and dealers. Thank you.

The violin business can be quite opaque and confusing to outsiders, and it takes years of experience working on every side of it to even begin to grasp it fully. It’s also a business of extremes. On one hand deals involving tens of thousands of dollars are agreed to with nothing but a handshake, while on the other, shop owners have taken expensive instruments in on consignment, sold them for large and possibly inflated sums and then neglected to pay the owner. I have met many honest and dedicated shop workers and owners who strive day in and day out to provide the best service and advice they can, who fret over proper pricing and attributions, and are very serious about making sure the instruments they sell are in top condition. I have had clients tell me they were sold an unnecessary, expensive and invasive repair, such as a new bassbar, while a simple sound adjustment would have sufficed. Instruments have been sold for multiples of their actual market value and outright fakes foisted upon unsuspecting musicians. I’ve also seen folks who come into a shop to sell an old violin told by the proprietor that their fiddle is in fact worth far more than they are asking for as well as many small acts of generosity, usually towards cash strapped students.

Many players are intimidated or put-off by violin shop salesmen and dealers, many times for good reason, other times because they are simply ill-informed. It’s important to realize that most salesmen in violin shops work on commission, so this can account for high pressure sales tactics and in the case of teachers, endless sales calls. Many salesmen are quite knowledgeable and passionate about instruments and plenty of them are musicians themselves. However, just because someone is selling you an instrument doesn’t mean they know what they are talking about or have done their homework. Sometimes you never get to work directly with an owner or proprietor of a shop, only the salesman – this can be quite frustrating and off-putting. It is very important to feel comfortable with the person with whom you are dealing. Resist tough salesmanship and follow your instincts – pay attention to how you are treated. Do they insult your instrument? Do they even pay any attention to you at all? Are they primarily interested in where you play or who you study with? If you are made to feel defensive or uncomfortable, maybe you should consider dealing with another shop. Find someone who listens – someone who doesn’t simply see you as a source for potential profit. If you are having an issue with your bow or instrument, do they start from the easiest, least invasive solution before moving on to more complicated and expensive procedures? Hopefully you can build a relationship with a shop you can trust.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ask pertinent questions and do some independent research on your own. Who made the instrument and how do they know that? What is the condition of the instrument? What repairs have been done in the shop and are there any older repairs? Will the shop guarantee these repairs? If there is a certificate ask to see it, or if there is a certificate promised (meaning it will be generated at the time of sale) what will the exact language be? In the case of bows, what is the weight and balance? Are all the parts original? What is their trade-in policy? Ask about the price – how was it arrived at? Feel free to do some online research, but realize that any auction results you may find usually reflect a wholesale price on an item of unknown quality and condition. I’d suggest focusing on forums and other shop websites that actually list retail prices. A good shop will make sure to answer all of these questions before you take the instrument out on approval. This is not only the right thing to do, it is simply good sales technique – answering and eliminating any possible objections.

Word of mouth is very important. Does the shop fix for free repairs that fail or do they simply recharge you? Have people purchased quality instruments at reasonable prices? Does the shop stand behind the items they sell, or is it simply a case of caveat emptor? Has the shop actually honored a trade-in? Do they treat you well without coming off as obsequious or patronizing? Do they shame you or berate you if you don’t decide to purchase something from them? Don’t allow yourself to be abused – use your emotional IQ and logic. If something seems wrong – it’s usually for a reason.

Just because the business “looks” like a fancy violin shop doesn’t mean it’s financially stable. There are very high overheads in this business and there are most likely a number of shops that look good on the outside, but are in fact quite rotten on the inside. I’m convinced that the specter of financial ruin and the resulting sense of desperation is the root of most dishonesty in the violin business. The other reasons are greed and basic incompetence.

There are shops in operation which own only a small proportion of their inventory and rely on the percentage of profit that consigned instruments provide. This is especially true of more expensive violins. It takes a lot of capital and effort to actually find, purchase, set-up, restore and repair these items, so many shops make a lot of their money selling violins for clients rather than building their own inventory. If you are buying a consigned bow or violin, realize that the dealer has less room to bargain with you. If the shop owns the item, there is much more leeway for negotiation. There is obviously much more profit in selling an item you actually own, rather than something you make 20% on. One of the possible side-effects of selling mainly consignment instruments is price inflation – the shop has agreed to get the owner or the other violin shop they borrowed it from a certain amount, so in an attempt to make more than 20% they may boost the price. Many shops are so dependent on consignments that they have boosted their official commission percentage.  They may also call the owner and see if they can get him to take less, further increasing their profit margin. This is only human nature, but endemic to the field. Remember, it is not against the law to charge too much for an item, it is illegal to misrepresent an item, so be careful.

If you are selling something through a shop, make sure that they are actually going to try and sell it, that you are comfortable with the price, and check in periodically to see if the item has sold. Many times, the shop will want to do work on the item, such as cut a bridge or do a rehair to help it sell – you can either pay the price of the repairs or ask that the cost be deducted from what you are owed when it sells. The shop should pay you what they owe you within a reasonable time after the sale. We do so as soon as the buyer’s check has cleared. There are certainly stories of shops selling items and not informing the owner for months. There are some infamous cases of shops getting behind on paying back consignees, finding themselves using recent sales to pay off older deals. This only works if there is a sustained high level of sales. However, these Ponzi type schemes almost always result in people getting ripped off.

When shopping for an instrument or bow, it’s important to give the shop a realistic price range and let them know if you need to trade in something towards the new purchase. Remember that violin shops are not in the business of buying items at a full retail price. Expect to be offered a wholesale price on your item. If you want more money, the shop can try and sell it on consignment for you, but they will take 20% or more and there is no guarantee that it will get sold. Consignment agreements are usually for a period of six to twelve months, should include a description of the item, explain clearly the amount you are asking for as well as the terms of payment. Remember it is difficult to sell violins and bows, so it is important to be patient. Also, making a profit is certainly not illegal, so don’t be offended if the shop owner offers a price for a trade-in that may be less than you paid. Please be aware that the shop owner is essentially buying your consignment.  If the instrument sells, he will have to stand behind it and possibly accept it as a trade-in in the future. Of course the way to make the most money is to sell the item yourself!

Many dealers and shop owners will tout the bow or instrument you are buying as a wise investment. While I do believe that there are certain items that would appeal to collectors, I think it is important to remember that you are searching for a tool that is designed to enable you to make music and hopefully, earn a living. If you are careful about the instrument or bow you purchase, you will get many years of use from it and at the end of that time it will surely have increased in value. Certain types of similarly priced items do retain value better than others however – compare a 1920’s German trade violin to a modern Romanian import for example. It is important to choose wisely, but I encourage you to concentrate on function and tone, always with an eye on quality. An analogy would be whether you are buying an old brick house as a home to live in and enjoy for many years or a condo in a trendy neighborhood that you hope to flip for a profit as soon as you can. Don’t forget that when you do go to sell your violin, you will have to pay someone to sell it – to the tune of at least 20%, and recently even more. The truth is that if you get what you paid for it at the end of say, a decade of use, you are doing very well.  In what other field can you buy an item, use it for years, and break even, and even perhaps reap a modest profit, when you sell it? Unless you are a collector with money to spare, try to resist the investment come-on.

I love what I do – I get to work with my hands and be my own boss. I’m very grateful to be involved in such a creative, dynamic business. Don’t forget that for every bad apple, there are numerous honest and helpful luthiers and experts. Many of them are my friends, trusted colleagues, teachers and mentors. I enjoy my customers, have learned so much from them and find fulfillment in helping musicians of every level and walk of life. What I’ve written is not an expose or condemnation of my field, it is simply an attempt at consumer education and protection. I encourage all string musicians to continue to educate themselves about their musical tools and ask questions. I urge all my luthier and dealer contemporaries to strive to follow the simple dictum that states:

Treat others as you would have them treat you.

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