Chinese horns are here to stay
To some, the recent wave of low cost Chinese imports proves that domestic builders and retailers have lost touch and gotten fat from overcharging and under-delivering with respect to horn quality and service. To some, it indicates just how crazy the race to the bottom has been on price and how stupid the average consumer has become. Still others see it as the natural evolution of horn making from hand crafting to mass producing that has occurred in hundreds of other crafts and industries. Regardless, Chinese horns are here to stay and need to be incorporated in how we view the life cycle of players and equipment.
I’ll say firstly that anything that lowers the barrier to entry into music is fantastic. We need more art and more joy in the world and music is a great place to find it. If someone decides to learn a new instrument and choses ours, having a choice that is easily accessible on a variety of budgets is great! If a parent needs a horn for a kid to replace the sinus infection inducing, nasty mint smelling, huge wooden case lugging rental from the local guitar store, I say the arrival of another option is totally welcome! But let’s call them what they are in that case; cheap horns for people who would love to join our community but need a low risk way to do it.
Competing against low cost Chinese horns doesn’t personally concern me. I know that there are folks claiming they beat custom horns in A/B tests. In most cases I don’t buy that (more on that below.) I’ll take it seriously when professional players are willing to bet their careers and the futures of their families on playing one of these horns every day in a professional capacity.
That said, the aggressive marketing of Chinese horns in the US is a shot across the bow for hand makers. Participating in horn craft is not a right for anyone with some dollars to throw at fancy shops and equipment, but rather a privilege earned through study, risk taking, and commitment to the instrument and those that play it. Hand horn craft ought to be capable of far more than even the best factory laborers. The fact that this is not always the case says that our craft makers are doing a poor job of pushing the envelope forward to give players the best playing experience.
Hand craft benefits from a lack of standardization and objective quality targets. This is a great thing as it allows craftswomen and men to pursue many avenues and take risks exploring things that may or may not be commercially viable. However, it relies on people to have their own internal quality control standards (a potential problem depending on the maker.) The problem is not that Chinese horns are here, the problem is that current hand craft isn’t proving to be clearly better. Too many mediocre horns are being made and sold as “custom horns”. It has diluted the idea that hand made horns are unique, valuable, and something special. If we as American horn makers want to have a chance at making any significant separation between our work and Chinese factory imports, we have to do better. We need to invest more in development, create more transparency, and make it clear through our actions, not our Facebook posts, that we are taking on the hard but important work of moving horn craft forward.
After all, if we don’t push ahead, who will the Chinese copy ten years from now?