I used to work at a music store where the owner (a very funny guy) used to talk about the “big saxophone scare of the 1920’s” when virtually every home had at least one saxophone and American instrument factories were straining to meet demand. We’re still living with the remnants of this big saxophone scare: the used horn market is littered with old Conns, Bueschers, and the like that have survived from this era.
Today, we are truly living in the golden age of the saxophone. Players now have significantly more choices in instruments and accessories than at any other time in history. In addition to the proliferation of choices, good quality instruments can now be obtained at a most reasonable cost, especially when compared to prices of the past and adjusted for inflation. Saxophones today are a bargain, there’s no two ways about it.
In the process of this evolution in the saxophone market, there have been some significant winners and some significant casualties. The big winners have undoubtably been the Asian manufacturers. These companies have succeeded in achieving absolute market dominance in a fairly short period of time by applying realistic labor rates and (usually) high quality with very little actual innovation or product development.
The overwhelming majority of saxophones brought to market by these new market entrants are following what has become the design standard, the Selmer Super 80 Series II, and I’m not real sure there is a lot wrong with that. I think it is rather unfair to say that these horns are “copies”…..over time, almost all saxophones produced today have morphed into this configuration, simply because it works so well. I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. Of course, the level of execution varies from maker to maker, and there are plenty of minor variations on this theme, but I think we can safely say that the industry has found a standard configuration that works pretty well for the vast majority of players.
I think it is very important to understand that the companies which manufacture our saxophones for us are not like General Motors: the very largest manufacturer in the business only made a little over 22,000 horns last year…..most of the “well known” brands only produce a couple of thousand horns in a year.
We hear a great deal of pissing and moaning about the demise of the saxophone manufacturing business in the United States. The simple fact of the matter is that the USA companies simply allowed themselves to be priced out of the market by paying absolutely ridiculous wages to factory workers. It’s just not worth $40 per hour to solder key parts together, but that’s what they were paying. The myth of the “great Elkhart craftsmen” is just that: a myth. The guys who put the horns together in Elkhart possessed no more skill or expertise than their counterparts in Beijing or Taipei. The same materials are available worldwide. It gets down to the level of quality control you wish to offer and what you are willing to pay for labor.
So where is the industry headed? It’s very difficult to fully automate saxophone manufacturing, so there probably won’t be a lot of cost savings in the future due to automation and robotics. Wage rates in Asia have been steadily rising in China, Taiwan, and Japan. The factories will move to emerging nations such as Indonesia, India, and Viet Nam in order to hold down costs. In fact, factories are currently producing instruments in all these countries, and more factories are being built. The market for saxophone sales has changed considerably: the USA market is in decline, and the high growth markets are Russia and Brazil……I suspect that before long, China will overtake the rest of the world as a market for saxophones. The instrument is certainly gaining considerable popularity there.
All of this is certainly good news for saxophonists all over the world. It’s just hard to beat more choices, better quality, and lower prices!