The digital revolution has upset a lot of industries, but perhaps none more so than the music industry. With file sharing and streaming via subscription services the norm, the sight of vast collections of CDs stacked up around a home entertainment system is already becoming a rarity in living rooms.
As a heritage brand with a 160-year track record of hand-crafting high-end pianos, Steinway & Sons is not the obvious candidate to be moving into this space. But times they are a-changing, according to CEO Michael Sweeney, and the company has recently created its first significant product innovation in 70 years.
“In today’s marketplace brands like ours must continue to innovate in order to remain relevant to the world around us, but that doesn’t mean that quality and craftsmanship can suffer.”
The result is the Spirio, a modern re-interpretation of the player piano whose software is built into select grand pianos made in the company’s factories in New York and Hamburg. The idea was to utilise the brand’s connections with top concert pianists – 90 per cent of concert pianists play Steinways – to record its own digital catalogue of music that’s then programmed into its pianos.
So the consumer will have an aesthetically beautiful instrument they can play at home, but also switch it to player mode for a personal performance from some of the world’s greatest concert pianists, or simply leave them tinkling, invisibly, in the background during a cocktail party.
Player pianos were enormously popular at the turn of the 20th century, but the modern player piano – which has only been around for the last 25 years or so – is a different beast altogether. Steinway has teamed up with Wayne Stahnke, an innovator in the field, to reproduce all the subtle phrasing, damper and keyshift pedaling and delicate dynamics that you’d expect to hear in a live performance.
“While high end audio systems are looking for the optimum sound, which is realising what real instruments sound like in a real place, the Spirio actually is the acoustical experience because it’s happening mechanically,” says Eric Friedner, head of music, tech and media at Steinway. “It’s not an attempt to reproduce the acoustic sound of a piano through another system, we’re reproducing it on the instrument itself.”
But unlike the instrument itself, you have far more control over the volume controlled via an app. Steinway is also throwing an iPad in with the cost of the piano – and rightly so, some might say, with a price tag of approximately £74,000.
The project also has artists wandering in and out of Steinway’s Manhattan office every day, recording new tracks for the repertoire which is updated with staples from the classical, jazz and popular music world via the app monthly, for no extra charge. It’s an intriguing experiment into how digital music can be packaged for a luxury or auteur consumer.
“It’s for that much larger market who can afford a Steinway and can appreciate the music, but don’t necessarily know how to play the piano at the level of those great artists,” says Friedner. “[The digital revolution] is expanding the opportunity for people to appreciate the products that we sell.”