Just about any saxophone you buy these days up to a certain price point will have been manufactured in China.
And you might be surprised to know that even some more expensive “professional” range instruments from big brand companies are made there. Many are really great quality, well designed instruments. But it wasn’t always like this.
In fact, there was a time not very long ago when “Chinese saxophone” was synonymous with cheap but really low quality instruments. Brands like Lark and Dolphin would strike fear into music teachers and, not without foundation, there was a general low opinion of any saxophone that came from that part of the world.
Although some players prefer a used saxophones because of the better value for money they often represent, lots of new saxophone players will choose to buy an entry level new saxophone, and that will almost certainly come from China.
So how did China become the main producer of beginner saxophones?
The back story (what it was like)
Traditionally in China, all musical instruments were made at the state owned Beijing Xinghai Musical Instruments company. They had a series of workshops – factory no.1, factory no.2 and so on that each specialised in certain instruments. Factory number 5 made wind instruments and although they had been producing instruments for decades, the manufacturing technology was very simple.
In fact, although there were some very skilled craftsmen, a lot of the workforce were unskilled farmers who might be given a simple job like polishing
a saxophone body. Often they didn’t know anything about the rest of the process, or even what it was they were working on.
Conditions in the factories were very basic too, often with a single light bulb in a room and the machinery was old and outdated. Plus the raw materials
being used were generally lower quality than you would see coming out of the European factories.
China had a huge, inexpensive workforce but the lack of design technology coupled with the working conditions and less skilled workers meant they couldn’t produce instruments to the same quality and consistency as the French, German and American manufacturers.
But that was about to change.
Around the end of the 1990’s the Chinese government began to support private investors in the musical instrument industry. A number of new factories were built and western instrument designers like myself were brought in to modernise the way things were done.
It was a very exciting time in China with a new perspective and drive to improve things. I was involved with the new Beijing Xinghai Minyao factory which we designed from the concrete slab upwards.
I’ll admit that I first went there arrogantly thinking that I knew more than they did about instrument making but it very quickly became clear that they were actually really experienced at making instruments. The problem was their machinery, materials and design drawings were terrible.
So the first thing I did was to make sure we had great designs for instruments that would be acoustically correct. I also made sure they had examples of the sort of standard they were aiming for so they could see what a great instrument looked like, what the finish was, what the bore looked like etc.
The next step was to bring the factory conditions and machinery up to modern standards. With the Minyao factory we ended up with underfloor heating and air conditioning. We even had a créche and a football field! In fact, for many of the workers, their factory conditions were better than they had at home.
So we ended up with a high tech factory with great designs and happy workers. Needless to say that factory, like many others that were modernising around that time, started to produce far superior instruments than before.
Around this time a number of huge factories like this sprung up in Northern China, some were producing a thousand or more trumpets a day. Many of these instruments were sold into the west under Chinese brands like Jolly Sun, but the factories also began to supply components to Western manufacturers. And it wasn’t long before many established brands outsourced all of their beginner and intermediate instruments to China.
Since China could produce instruments of equal quality but at a much lower price, it was really just an economic reality to outsource there. Once one big company started, it wasn’t long before others followed.
A step change in the UK
In 2007 the UK government launched a Wider Opportunities initiative where they pledged that every child should be able to learn a musical instrument. This was a great thing for the school kids of the UK but also caused an incredible explosion of the musical instrument market.
In fact, overnight, the UK market for instruments became bigger than the American market and for the following 4 years while this initiative ran, there were the biggest changes in musical instrument manufacture and distribution that had happened in decades.
The Wider Opportunities initiative opened the floodgates for Chinese instruments into the UK as local authorities purchased huge numbers of instruments, generally making their buying decisions based on price. The unfortunate consequence of this was that as the Chinese factories were expanding rapidly to meet demand, many of the established brands from Europe and the USA had a very hard time trying to compete.
When the initiative ended in 2011, there was another huge adjustment as Chinese factories found themselves with a massive surplus of instruments which ended up being sold off below cost to companies like Walmart and Aldi.
During the four years of 2007 to 2011, Chinese instrument manufacturing made huge advances by reinvesting in their technology, factories and staff so that by the end of this strange period, they were the dominant force in the instrument manufacturing world.
How it looks today
The Chinese instrument industry is still growing and changing in 2015. Although the overall standard of instruments is so much higher, a few factories have risen above the others and now specialise in producing instruments solely for well known Western brands. In fact the best factories are now so exclusive that they no longer exhibit at the international music fairs like the Frankfurt Music Messe. A big change from 15 years ago.
What’s next then?
There has been so much change in China over the last decade. As the Chinese workforce become more affluent and living standards increase, wages will also increase and this will eventually affect the cost of instruments they produce. Already I found on my most recent trip to China that clothes, for example, cost more in Beijing than they do in Manchester!
These days as a small British instrument maker, my company constantly gets requests to produce instrument components like clarinet bodies for Chinese instrument companies. These components are then used to make professional level instruments for Chinese customers. So, the manufacturing process has come full circle.
Chinese instrument manufacturing is here to stay and in many ways has been a great thing for players. There are now so many brilliant instruments available that are amazing value for money and the quality range is so consistent. The only real problem is choosing which one you’d take home!
About the author:
Alastair Hanson runs Hanson Musical Instruments from the sleepy hollow of Marsden in West Yorkshire, England where he manufactures and designs instruments and components for companies all around the world. Find out more at www.hansonmusic.co.uk.