Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Toy Meets Horn?

If you've walked into a Wal-Mart or Sam's Club in the past couple of years, you may have been surprised to see that they've started selling musical instruments. (I, of course, visit those two stores as seldom as possible, but I did see the same thing in a Hastings in Denton about a year ago.) Although they've been denounced as "toys" and "instrument-shaped objects" in some circles, these products, from a company called First Act, are trying to compete with the Selmers and Yamahas (or at least the Prestinis and Vespros) for the growing beginner market. I wouldn't ever recommend them to any student of mine, and most band directors I know avoid them like the plague, but basically my thought was, "whatever--let them try the market; it's a free country." But I wasn't exactly thrilled to read this story:
First Act Inc., a musical products company, has won a $20.7 million jury verdict against Dallas-based Brook Mays Music Co., which was found liable for making false advertising statements.

First Act, which sells low-priced guitars, musical toys and band instruments such as horns and saxophones to Wal-Mart, Target and other big-box retailers, hailed the decision as a victory for consumers.

"The verdict is a clear win for every potential music student and for the most fundamental principles of providing great value to consumers," Bernard Chiu, chairman of the Boston-based company, said in a prepared statement.

Brook Mays, a 104-year-old music retailer with 63 stores in eight states, including Texas, plans to ask the trial judge to review the verdict before company officials decide whether to appeal, the company said. The verdict was announced Friday in Boston.
Maybe their tactics weren't the best, but I think Brook Mays might have a point here. The question is, are they trying to squash a competitor, or are they simply standing up for at least minimum standards for what constitutes a musical instrument? (FULL DISCLOSURE: I teach a small studio at a Brook Mays-owned store, but I am compensated directly by the parents of the students and not the company itself.)

There have been low-end horns out there for years; I can even remember our sixth-grade band directors warning us not to buy our horns from the Sears catalog (yes, they used to sell them there!). Nobody's saying that a company doesn't have the right to manufacture and sell these lower-end instruments, but the rest of the world doesn't have to acknowledge them as legitimate or allow them to permeate our schools. The story continues:
First Act, which was formed a decade ago and now has 180 employees, has drawn the wrath of traditional musical instrument retailers such as Brook Mays since it started selling band instruments to mass merchants five years ago. The private company's instruments are made in China and are less expensive than those sold at traditional music stores.

First Act sued Brook Mays two years ago, alleging that the retailer engaged in "a calculated smear campaign" that sought to prevent schoolchildren, band directors and others from buying its musical instruments.

The company alleged that in 2003 Brook Mays distributed fliers and 8,000 e-mails to music educators, parents and others warning that First Act's instruments "break and parts are not available." It won a preliminary injunction against Brook Mays in March 2004 to stop additional distribution of the fliers and e-mails.
If experience has shown that the instruments do break a lot and it's difficult to get parts, then this was probably the reason that Brook Mays decided to "get the word out" like they did.

A bandmate of mine who's worked in the major instrument industry cast some light on this subject. The problem is, the major music retailers' repair shops include warranties with their work; if these instruments do break down frequently, despite multiple trips to the repair shop, then the shop's own image takes an undeserved hit, and they lose their shirts on unsuccessful warranty work. In this situation, refusing to repair these instruments seems like a reasonable practice to me. (Indeed, a trip to First Act's site lists only four authorized repair shops for their instruments within fifty miles of my ZIP code...and I live in a major metropolitan area.)

Even if this information being dispersed by a retalier may have been (at least legally) a questionable tactic, it's not like the word hasn't gotten out already. Trust me, my fellow music educators and I make horn recommendations all the time, and we're not afraid to tell a student or parent if a horn is bad, or even if an entire brand of horn is bad. Word-of-mouth, message boards...if something's not good, people will know. (I'll never forget when a student of mine got a "Borg" horn at Sam's Club [supposedly made by the same company] that he was hoping to use as a marching horn; the band director went ballistic and wouldn't allow it on the field. I played the instrument, incidentally, and it was...mediocre at best, but, as always, the durability over the long haul is the biggest factor.)

Perhaps a poster to another message board says it best:
The instruments sold at Sam's and WalMart are affectionately known to band directors as "I.S.O.'s" - Instrument Shaped Objects.

They are made with cheap wood and aluminum and the mechanisms and keys do not work for more than a few months before sticking or bending out of shape with regular use. Beginners are tough on instruments and as hard as we teach them to take good care and be responsible, accidents do happen. Then try to take ti to WalMart for a repair... or better yet... try to take it to a real instrument repair shop.

In order to help your young band student achieve success AND save your wallet a lot of replancement costs, the best choice, in my professional opinion, is an authorized music dealer. Yamaha, King, Conn, LeBlanc, Buffet, Ludwig, Pearl... all are great musical instrument manufacturers with YEARS of proven quality and reliability.
--from a Texas band director
This does beg a larger question, though, to which you can respond in the comments: If the only instrument a student can afford is a "lowest-tier" model like this, is it better than nothing? In other words, would the potential durability and quality issues counteract the joy of getting to play in the first place, or would the school be better off soliciting donations of unused instruments from former band students to meet the needs of disadvantaged kids?

If Brook Mays does decide to appeal, it would be interesting to see them bring forth legions of people who have had bad experiences with these instruments. If they really do fall apart over time, then was the advertising truly false? Stay tuned; I'll post updates on the subject as they arise.

Sittin' in a winter wonderland: All after-school activities were cancelled in my district today, so I was pretty much done teaching by 2:00 (though one brave soul--or at least his mom, since he's in middle school and doesn't drive--did trudge out here for a lesson at the house). And now, the waiting game continues until morning, when we find out the status of school for tomorrow. I'm hoping for at least a partial day, since I have performances and rehearsals at the college, and we have a concert coming up on Saturday.

Blowing out the candles, half a world away: Happy 21st to my Australian blogger buddy James. I had to send him his e-card last night before I went to bed, since it hasn't been Wednesday down there for many hours now.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: J-Guar, talking with me on AIM tonight, lamented the fact that UNT had cancelled classes for tomorrow during the time his jury was supposed to be; he had even picked a perfect mid-morning time. Upon hearing that, I said "the best-laid plans...", to which he replied "of ice and men." Laughter ensued.


Ms. Worley said...

I'm decidedly band-ignorant, but I teach at a school with The King Of All Band Directors (self-proclaimed but generally agreed upon) and I know he nuts out thoroughly when a sixth grader (or anyone, obviously) shows up with a Sam's Club instrument. He goes to great lengths to make recommendations of a variety of instruments and price points in his MASSIVE beginning band handbook, and he takes it personally when a family goes against all of his recommendations for a cheap instrument.
All this being said, it's up to the band directors to make the recommendations on which instruments to buy... not for Brooks Mays the Music Store to smear the competition... especially when the competitor's product is self-smearing.
As to offering cost-effective choices for those that need it, maybe I've just been living in Plano too long, but do most band programs offer instruments for rent? I know we do, and we also scholarship kids as necessary so that they can still do the learning-an-instrument thing.

pscooper634 said...

On this subject I bought some First Act drum sticks because i needed some crappy sticks that i didn't care if they went to crap. Well the went to crap really quckly! I think i go to play with each pair for about an hour before they spontaneously combusted. This is also jazz drumming so not too hard on the sticks. It makes me wonder if cheaper is always better. The only thing that a First Act anything is good for is decorating the inside of a garbage can!

Shawn said...

I read that article about Istrument Shaped Objects and it's very interesting, I hope that they begin to pull those things... it's just stupid silly.

Anonymous said...

I don't even know where to start...I am afraid we are getting to the point where an individual cannot give a negative opinion on a product in the United States without fearing slander lawsuits form big corporations. This is the second lawsuit I have seen in the last year where a company who is producing poor work sues when someone says they are producing poor work. Argh! So much for free speech. It appears that it is okay to slander the government 24-7, but don't you dare slander a multi-million dollar company who produces junk. Grr. *End Rant

Anonymous said...

This is probably the only time I will side with Brook Mays on something. I do hope the courts reverse the decision.

It's just sad. How do you expect a kid to figure out if they like music or not when their instrument sucks? It's not like they can tell at that age/experience level that it is the instrument, and not them.

On the repair tech end of it.. I've had to work on numerous low quality horns (i.e. - pot metal). Keys have broken off and had to be resoldered many a time. I can't even imagine having to work on something WORSE than one of those.