Commissions for teachers

May 24, 2012 at 04:47 PM · I will out with it. I do take a small commission from violin dealers when they sell instruments to my students.

This search does take a lot of my time. I may try twenty violins over several hours before narrowing down the search to three for him or her to try. I also negotiate the price on their behalf and MOST IMPORTANTLY I tell them I will be getting a commission from the dealer, and I tell them how much I am getting. I then declare it on my tax return.

Is this morally wrong? The dealer sells an instrument, my student gets a great violin, and I get my commission. Is it not a win win for everybody?

Cheers Carlo

Replies (100)

May 24, 2012 at 05:16 PM · If it's all up front...I have no issues with it.

May 24, 2012 at 06:53 PM · My first response was never--but upon actually reading, if you are investing that much into it and if you are all up front with it, then I think it's perfectly fair of both dealer and student/family for you to be recompensed reasonably. You are helping them both achieve a profit.

I've never really thought about it though, so curious what others have to say.

May 24, 2012 at 07:15 PM · As above I think you are doing it very reasonably. Perhaps the only ethical issue is that you are limiting which shop the student buys the violin from. Thus, if there were a far better deal at another one you would in effect be getting a commission to help steer away from that opportunity.

That could be solved two ways: one is to ask for a commission from the student - in which case you only have thier best interests at heart (and not the dealers ;) ) or, to establish the same commission relationship at all the dealers in your area. I like the latter the most since then you are truly unimpeded and the student gets to experience several dealerships (and learns the all imporant area of how to buy instruments etc).

But, as said, I am splitting hairs a bit since you are being so up front about it - after all the student could decide to buy one without your help.

May 24, 2012 at 07:20 PM · Some teachers treat the shopping time like a lesson -- which seems totally reasonable to me.

May 24, 2012 at 07:31 PM · Elise brings up a good point.

Are you giving equal consideration to sources which don't pay commissions? If not, is that in the best interest of the student?

By the way, I think it's perfectly reasonable that a teacher be compensated for their time and expertise in helping select an instrument. But when it's the dealer who pays, all kinds of potential conflict of interest issues can come up. For example, what happens if one dealer pays twice as much as another? That might not be a stumbling block for you, but do you know people for whom it might be?

Honestly, the whole practice leaves a bit of a bad taste in my mouth, though I think you're handling it much better than most.

I wonder what would happen, throughout the business, if every instrument was required to sell just on its own merit?

When I was a kid, I was always offered discounts on instruments, and I was told that it was because I was a student of "so-and-so". Years later, I found out that this was because he didn't accept commissions, instructing shops to give it to his students as a discount instead. I thought that was pretty cool. However, evaluations were done during lesson time. He didn't go out looking for me.

May 24, 2012 at 08:08 PM · It sounds like Carlo is being completely ethical. And being so ethical, I have a feeling that if a student brought a violin for Carlo's opinion for which he did not stand to make a comission but which Carlo deemed better, he would say so.

May 24, 2012 at 09:45 PM · Since ultimately the student is the one paying the commission (don't think that cost of the teacher commission isn't figured into the purchase price), I think if the teacher is going to be paid, let the student pay the teacher for their time directly. Puts every dealer on even footing, and removes any shadow of doubt.

May 24, 2012 at 09:49 PM · @Raphael, thank you for your kind words.

Most of my students are at expensive private London schools and the parents are rather wealthy heads of companies or top bankers. They know how business works and know there is no such thing as free lunch. They welcome my help and do not mind me recieving a commission. I am always up-front about it and they put their trust in me to find them the best possible instrument. I always put my students interests first but I feel that my time and advice has a monetary value. I certainly save them both their time and their money as most of them would not be able to choose a good violin on their own. Nobody is is being lied to and there are no secret backhanders.

I do limit myself to smaller independent dealers. This is because the big London dealers (no names but you can work out who I mean) charge up to 100% more for similar fiddles. I am sure they would offer a healthy commission if I asked for it but I feel they charge too much for their instruments so I don't go there as it is not in my students best interests.

I have also gone to auction viewings with my students and tried violins on their behalf. This can take up to half a day. In this case I charge them my normal hourly rate for the time involved and this works out about the same as any commission I would have received.

Finally, if students are short of money and need a better violin, I will directly import a Chinese fiddle (not a VSO) have it set up correctly and they get this at the actual cost.

Cheers Carlo

May 24, 2012 at 11:00 PM · @Jim Fellows:

There is another reason that I support your "teacher should be paid for his or her time" approach...

Suppose, with a "commision" arrangement, the teacher puts in the time, but the student does not purchase the instrument. Why should the teacher be denied compensation for the time, and assistance, invested?

All the best,

Lothar

May 25, 2012 at 01:29 AM · Because Lothar, the teacher is not functioning as a teacher any more but as a sales person and sales people don't make money unless they make a sale....

OTOH if the student asked the teacher to help find an instrument then the teacher could do it either on commission (a percentage of the sales price) or on an hourly bases (a fee regardless of the sales price, perhaps the same as the lesson fee).

Of course the fiscally prudent teacher might charge the student AND the dealer...

BTW, thanks for the additional clarification Carlo, you already are providing a lot of choice for the student. IMO the student is very lucky to have you help...

May 25, 2012 at 02:27 AM · If the commission is a flat fee or hourly fee then I think it is ok, but if you are getting a percentage of the sale price, then there is potential for conflict of interest. But I tend to agree with David. It is a slippery slope if you get paid by the dealer. If the student is willing to pay, that is a far better arrangement.

May 25, 2012 at 07:16 AM · Hi Carlo

To paraphrase a lot of what has been said above, I think the way you're handling it is perfectly ethical. They key here is (a) transparency - the student & parents know you are remunerated and through which arrangement, and (b) honesty on the part of the teacher in selecting instruments purely on their merits, not based on the % of commission they're getting. As some have already said, this entails using various dealers to source instruments amongst others.

When you are researching and testing instruments for students you are indeed selling your time and expertise and therefore it's no different from getting a solicitor's advice for instance, and should be remunerated (in particular if the time involved is quite significant). As a violin maker and dealer I've never had a problem with such instances, as long as the conditions above are met. The way I usually work this out is to pay a percentage of the sale price to the teacher, which is deducted from my own margin, so the price to pay for the student is unchanged, only my profit is reduced. I see it as paying commission to a sales agent, a bit like if you were selling your house through an estate agent.

May 25, 2012 at 09:17 AM · Perhaps the question should have been, "When is it NOT ok to take a commission on an instrument sold to a student?"

How common are secret commissions anyway?

Cheers Carlo

May 25, 2012 at 10:18 AM · "Perhaps the question should have been, "When is it NOT ok to take a commission on an instrument sold to a student?" "

________________________

I used to get occasional inquiries from students of a certain teacher. The challenge was finding creative and polite ways of putting them off, because I didn't want to waste my time or theirs, our money for shipping, or their travel money. The outcome with this teacher was a foregone conclusion to many of us who don't pay commissions.

And making an instrument available so this high-profile teacher could trash it wasn't something that I anticipated with glee. LOL

May 25, 2012 at 10:54 AM · "The way I usually work this out is to pay a percentage of the sale price to the teacher, which is deducted from my own margin, so the price to pay for the student is unchanged, only my profit is reduced."

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Marc, that's a creative way to spin it, but let's face it. Where is the commission money going to come from, other than from a margin? A wealthy philanthropist, perhaps? LOL

Taking it from the dealers margin doesn't make it free to the purchaser, because the average margin needs to be higher to accommodate the times when a commission is paid. It also means that when someone purchases an instrument where you pay no commission, they are subsidizing the commissions on other sales.

I could have sold instruments to students of the teacher mentioned in my last post, but I would have needed to jack prices up to be able to afford to do it. Unless I raised the price just for these students (which I don't think would be fair, the arrangement wasn't their fault after all), all my customers would have paid more, and that wouldn't have been fair either. Why should they pay more so money can go to someone elses teacher?

These are some of the issues which come up, and why some of us have decided not to be involved in it. In situations where the commission isn't disclosed to the purchaser, there are serious questions about whether it's even legal (in the US), according to one attorney who specializes in the violin trade.

Oh, if I didn't make it clear before, I am strongly in support of teachers being paid for their time and expertise, and that includes assistance with equipment purchases.

But of the two methods of compensation discussed here, I think one clearly works out better overall for purchasers, particularly since those of us in the business know that not every teacher is as ethical as Carlo, nor is every dealer or maker.

May 25, 2012 at 01:05 PM · I think that the bottom line is at the end of the sales chain: is the student paying too much? If the student is getting a decent violin at a fair retail price, even if not a big bargain, I don't see a problem.

Yes, there is potential for conflict of interest, if the student is also trying other violins on his own, where there would be no comission for the teacher. And yes, I do know of cases of high-profile teachers in high-profile schools who made life difficult for an honest maker or broker to get a violin to a student. It comes down to the ethics of the teacher in wanting the best for his student.

I've only been involved with selling violins and bows to students a few times, and there was never a problem, and it never seemed so complicated. I always told them (and/or their parents) that I was also making something. In one case of an adult student, I encouraged him to also look on his own, which he did. But one violin that I found him was just clearly superior in tone and price. When all is said and done, it comes down to trust and ethics. If a student found something better, I'd ackowledge that, and wouldn't steer him wrong. I also wouldn't charge them for my time if an instrument I recommended did not sell. Sometimes it's just like that.

Sometimes colleagues have asked me if I have anything for their students at a certain price range. If I do, I'll say "I need to get X amount for it. You could add Y to it, and they'll still get it well below the replacement value." Sometimes the teachers do so, and sometimes they say "It's OK. I want ny student to get it for as low a price as possible, and I'll forgo adding anything."

May 25, 2012 at 01:42 PM · To David Burgess:

I'm afraid I have to take exception to your comment in response to my post - and your sarcastic tone. I do not hike my prices in order to afford to pay commissions to teachers. I charge £3,500 for violins and £4,000 for violas I make, regardless of whether they're sold via a teacher or not - do you think these are inflated prices for newly made instruments in Britain? Sales through a teacher are the exception rather than the rule in my case, and I will indeed reduce my margin in those instances because it's good for business generally and in the long run is beneficial to my workshop.

May 25, 2012 at 02:06 PM · "I charge £3,500 for violins and £4,000 for violas I make, regardless of whether they're sold via a teacher or not - do you think these are inflated prices for newly made instruments in Britain?"

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Depends on how they turn out, I suppose, and on what you feel you need to do to get people to buy them.

May 25, 2012 at 02:11 PM · In my opinion the best way to handle this is for the student to pay the teacher an hourly fee for the service of helping select a violin. If there is a difference between teaching time and violin-selection time (i.e., if time is not simply time) then this can be reflected in the price schedule established by the studio. It's important to understand that there is no system that will ever be impervious to abuse. In the pay-by-the-hour model, the teacher could always send the student back to the store for a few more violins just to increase the number of billable hours. I can't imagine a teacher actually doing that, but this possibility does argue for the flat commission.

Under the hourly fee model, one could hire a different teacher to help evaluate violins. Let's say I wanted help evaluating violins at a shop in Chicago. I could ask around who is a good teacher and violinist in Chicago and offer to pay that person a fee to help me in the shop. If one is going to be spending a lot of money on a violin, a few hundred dollars in consulting fees seems like it could be well spent this way.

May 25, 2012 at 02:21 PM · To David Burgess: They turn out very nicely, thank you (and you don't need to add arrogance to sarcasm by the way). I think you should worry less about commissions paid to teachers, and more about violin makers who charge exhorbitant prices just because they can, because they've won a couple of medals at competitions and that all the sudden they decide the instruments they used to sell for $5,000 should now go for $25,000. That to me is hiking prices artificially in order to play the market conditions.

I know this may sound revolutionary for the trade, but I don't price my instruments based on "what (I) feel (I) need to do to get people to buy them" (as you say above) or how much I think I can get for them, but rather on the time I spend making one x an hourly rate + cost of materials. Much like most other crafts price their wares. But I suppose there are quite a few violin makers out there who think they're making art, little budding Picassos...

May 25, 2012 at 02:28 PM · Uh oh, sounds like you've got a bee in your boxers. LOL

If we stick to facts, I've never charged a premium for an instrument which won a competition, nor have I ever hiked prices upon winning a competition (to the best of my recollection).

I'd need to check again, but last time I checked, I'd kept my instrument price increases at a rate pretty close to the rate of currency inflation.

Was there anything else you would like me to address?

May 25, 2012 at 02:44 PM · Marc - just out of curiosity: what would you think if you sold a violin to someone for the 'fair manufacture price' of, say 10K and the buyer turned out to be a dealer with a client who was prepared to buy it for 100K- because that was its actuall 'fair market value'? You toiled for weeks for the 10K - he made 90K in an afternoon.

Much as I admire your position the fact is that everything has a double value: its actual cost of materials and labour, and its value as an item, be that as a collectible, a rarity or as a tool to make sound. Personally, I see absolutely nothing wrong with selling an item for the cost that a customer would pay for it - when you get down to it that is the only way to actually establish its correct (monetary) value.

May 25, 2012 at 02:56 PM · Elise - When it comes to new instruments from a living maker, there is little scope for what you fear could happen, because a buyer always has the option to go to the maker to buy one from him directly. That puts a stop to any speculation. The maker effectively sets the prices for the market generally when it comes to his instruments. I happen to have an instrument for sale from another living maker at the moment, and the first thing I did when I got it is to call her to know what her going rate was so I could price it accordingly.

As you can tell, all this is a bugbear of mine and I do get a bit over-excited about it (apologies!). Some people have elevated violin making to some form of art, but historically that's never been the case and it's really just skillful and informed carpentry (ok, maybe I'm pushing it just a bit here). And frankly I don't buy into the "the market knows best" argument. Look at what happened with the sub-prime mortgage crisis!

May 25, 2012 at 02:57 PM · @Paul. This would come down to who the buyer knows and trusts. Would you pay to take advice from a stranger (who may be getting a kick-back as well) or from the teacher you have established a relationship with over a number of years?

Buying and selling violins is a murky business and I pity the inexperienced student who walks into a big violin shop with a pile of cash and no help. There is too much scope for being overcharged and comming away with an inappropriate fiddle.

Cheers Carlo

May 25, 2012 at 03:18 PM · Yes, it's a murky business, and some expensive old instruments are even turning out to be something other than what owners bought them as.

If one is highly risk-averse, the safest thing is to buy a super cheap violin. That way, if it drops 100% in value, you're only out 150 bucks. ;-)

May 25, 2012 at 03:35 PM ·

May 25, 2012 at 03:44 PM ·

@Elise,

I communicated poorly...

I neglected to say that in my view the teacher should be compensated by the student an hourly rate for any assistance provided in the process of exploring the purchase of an instrument.

With that financial relationship, the teacher is not acting as a sales person, and so, in my view, should be compensated by the student even if no purchase is made.

All the best,

Lothar

May 25, 2012 at 03:53 PM · Edit:

This was once a response to a now-deleted post.

May 25, 2012 at 04:02 PM ·

@Marc,

You wrote, in part:

"I know this may sound revolutionary for the trade, but I don't price my instruments based on "what (I) feel (I) need to do to get people to buy them" (as you say above) or how much I think I can get for them, but rather on the time I spend making one x an hourly rate + cost of materials."

but mention nothing about how one might determine that "hourly rate."

You seem to imply that the determination of that rate is strictly an "internal" matter.

But, if we understand "value" to be the price agreeed upon by a willing seller and willing buyer, then would not one's hourly rate depend on such external variables as reputation, or resale value as determined by the buyer? Would not your hourly rate change were you to move your shop to an area in which it became far more costly for you to purchase or rent work space?

All the best,

Lothar

May 25, 2012 at 04:05 PM ·

Buying a violin is caveat emptor, and those who can appreciate a good violin can tell if it suits their needs, and if it's a student, they shouldn't spend too much until they can hear and feel the difference themselves. There are many well-meaning teachers who don't take commissions, but who can't tell good violins from bad violins. Others will do anything to make a buck. It's hard out there. With full disclosure, commissions are ok to me.

Medals can be good-especially if they involve blind listening tests. It's a kind of certification that rarely exists in the violin world. They give some degree of recognition and validity. What they're worth is up to the customer, but if they help on resale, they definitely have value.

May 25, 2012 at 04:11 PM · Lothar, you're right, someone's hourly rate will depend on where they live, how experienced they are, how long they've been in business, their overhead costs, etc. My point was that I find it important for there to be a connection between the price of a new instrument and the time spent x hourly wage, and that it should be the main factor in pricing a new instrument. Of course one can inflate their hourly rate which makes my point moot, but if you pay yourself a fair hourly wage once the factors above considered then we shouldn't see some of the over-inflated prices on the market.

May 25, 2012 at 04:43 PM · It's interesting to speculate on what a "fair hourly wage" is, and how it should be determined.

Marc, if every other maker in Europe started charging 30K, and you had plenty of business, would you continue where you are, or would you bump your prices up a little bit, grateful that others had paved the way, and thankful that you finally have a little surplus to fix the brakes on your car?

To the best of my knowledge, nobody's getting rich from making, at least not from making alone. I have no issue with makers who charge a lot more than I do. I applaud them. Violin and bow makers have mostly been earning dirt since about 1750, and during my career, we're showing signs of finally emerging from that period, at least enough that there are quite a few makers now who can afford to make full-time. In the US, that was pretty much unheard of prior to about 1970.

May 25, 2012 at 10:02 PM · David - that's exactly what I'm objecting to, people charging 30K for a new violin because circumstances have made it possible for them to do so, regardless of what they consider it fair to charge for the time they have spent working on an instrument. I would never do that and I'm astonished that you don't seem to see a problem with it. I don't know how much you charge for your violins, but if someone charges 30K for one, and let's say sells 7 in a year for argument's sake, that's 210K of income! Do you think that's fair??

To move away from my personal situation, you may have heard of a British maker named Christopher Rowe. He graduated from one of the top European schools, has been making instruments for a long time and has won numerous awards. I've had his instruments in hand, and they are beautifully made and sound incredible. He is incredibly busy and in high demand (he supplies the busiest and oldest West end shop in London amongst others), but despite all this, his instruments are still in the £5K range. He doesn't charge £5K because he can't charge more or because others have not paved the way for higher prices as you say; he does it because he has integrity and is not greedy. So there you go. And if you can't make a good violin for £5K, I think you need to go back to the drawing board...

May 25, 2012 at 10:44 PM · Marc, I'm beginning to think you're a little naive about business economics. A 210K gross income can have varying relationships to personal income. It could work out to 100K, zero, or even negative income.

In the meantime, I think people might be able to get some good deals from makers who haven't figured this stuff out yet.

We also might be able to get some good deals from quartets which will play wedding gigs for 25 dollars. ;-)

It's practically rape if any musician charges more! LOL

May 26, 2012 at 02:47 AM · Marc,

Call me a capitalist, but what's the harm in charging what the market will bear? Let's say you happen to have a Strad that you inherited from your great, great, great grandfather. Would you sell it for £5K? Using your logic, a Picasso painting should be £50. After all, it didn't take him very long to do some of his paintings.

May 26, 2012 at 08:31 AM · Smiley, what's wrong with "charging what the market will bear" is most musicians around the world priced out of antique Italian instruments, wealthy investors ganging up to set up funds to invest in expensive Cremonese violins and therefore pushing prices up, people who make a fortune in another industry and then decide to build a collection of Strads and Del Gesus and are able to pay prices beyond what most of us common mortals can bear, most top soloists these days unable to afford to buy the kind of instrument they need to perform on, etc., etc... And at the other end of the spectrum just lots of good harworking musicians unable to buy themselves a decent instrument good enough for their musicianship.

As I said above, market economies are great to some extent, but as the sub-prime mortgage crisis has shown in the banking industry, it has its limits. You had Lehman brothers there, we had RBS here. All these bankers made a lot of money by "charging what the market will bear", and now that they've gone bankrupt we, small taxpayers, have to bail them out! I realise this will not come intuitively to someone who was born and bred in America, where market is king and any intervention or regulation is deemed an act of "communism", but it's the truth.

Some makers might get a kick out of selling their violins for 30K. It makes them feel they've arrived maybe, or maybe they feel the price they charge is a measure of their success. I get a kick out of helping musicians, by making instruments and repairs affordable.

PS. To David: You can call me naive. I call it honesty and integrity.

May 26, 2012 at 12:01 PM · "And if you can't make a good violin for £5K, I think you need to go back to the drawing board..."

Marc, I can make a "violin shaped object" for £5K, but not something coming close to the quality I'm interested in. Neither can you. And it's sad if you can't tell the difference between your work, and that of some of the more expensive makers.

That's not just talk. My money is where my mouth is. I currently own violins by three of these more expensive makers.

Sorry for needing to be so blunt. I tried being polite, even a little humorous, and sidestep that matter, but I guess it was time to cut to the chase.

I wonder whether your "hourly rate" method of determining price really justifies charging around 8000 dollars though, when people can get a Chinese violin for about $150, including a case and bow, and can get a half-decent one for about $4000. Are you sure you're not ripping people off? That's a question which comes up for me when I apply your own pricing judgements. Your violins are actually quite expensive, compared to a decent hand-made factory Chinese one. Are they really worth twice the price, or is the difference ego-driven? (something you accused other makers of doing, which could just as easily apply to you)

My qualifications for saying these things? I've closely examined and played thousands of violins from all over the world, much of it when serving on the judging panels of the world's top instrument making competitions.

I look forward to you continuing to improve your making, and your ability to discern between various levels of making. Learning to discern is essential. You can't improve if you can't tell the difference. That's as true in making a violin as it is in playing one.

If you respond with another tirade, that's worth looking at if you want to improve (which all the best makers I know are constantly trying to do), because it may be indicative of a learning barrier. I've been involved in mentoring some pretty good people in our trade, and out of that, I'd rather see you direct that energy into learning.

Best to you on your continuing journey.

May 26, 2012 at 04:00 PM · David - you are incredibly arrogant and patronising. I wonder what your judgement of my work is based on, other than prejudices and pre-conceived ideas. I must have touched on a nerve for you to be so rude and spiteful - I wonder who's got their knickers in a twist now?

I have no interest in continuing this tit for a tat with you any further, so if we could please agree to leave it at this for our mutual benefit and that of anyone still reading (although I doubt there are many left...). We have veered so much off subject (teachers' commissions) anyway that it's pretty pointless. Good luck with the making!

May 26, 2012 at 04:33 PM · Marc,

I think it is fine that you are selling your violins so cheap, commendable if your motives are what you say, but I think you might be crossing the line when you try to dictate what someone else charges, or pass judgement. I know of a wealthy luthier in China who is making instruments and donating them to talented musicians for free. Compared to him, your instruments are expensive. If he told you that you are ripping people off, how would it make you feel? I think that is why you struck a nerve with DB. My hat is off to David for winning acclaim in a difficult profession and being able to earn a decent wage.

May 26, 2012 at 04:48 PM · Back to the subject at hand, Carlo as long as you offer transparency, then it is fine, but if I were buying a violin, I personally would not ask for your help. Violin pricing is negotiable. When there is an additional commission involved, then chances are I will not get the best price. Instead, I would do the initial vetting, and bring several instruments to a lesson or two to get your opinion on them. In fact, that is exactly what I did when I purchased my current fiddle.

But I agree, you can and should charge for your time. As long as the student is willing to pay for it, then there is no problem.

BTW, since you are claiming transparency, how much do you charge to help someone find a fiddle? Is it a fixed amount, hourly, or based on the sale price of the violin?

May 26, 2012 at 05:04 PM · Smiley, anybody's violins are going to be expensive compared to a free one! One has to make a living, which clearly your wealthy Chinese maker hasn't got to do (at least not from making instruments). Well done to David for winning medals, it is commendable indeed, and my initial point wasn't directed at him particularly (I don't even know how much he sells his violins for), but makers who sell violins for 30K or more clearly want you to believe that it's not possible to make a concert violin of the quality they make for less. Assuming they pay themselves $30 an hour, do they really spend 1,000 hours making one!?

Going back to my example of Christopher Rowe (and again to try and steer the debate away from my own work), I don't know if you've ever come across or played one of his violins, but I doubt you would think of them as inferior to those made by some of these expensive makers. And I doubt that David has seen or played one either, or he would not say that all you can do for £5K is a VSO. Christopher is not a judge at competitions, he doesn't write articles for The Strad, or doesn't spend hours posting stuff in discussions on Violinist.com (he doesn't even have a website!). He just makes really good instruments from the Isle of Wight, with no hype attached. That's the kind of maker I want to be.

Anyway, that's a lot of ranting for someone who just wrote he didn't want to continue writing about this any further...

May 26, 2012 at 05:27 PM · If David charged $7,500 for his violins, he'd have a 50-year waiting list. How fair would that be?

May 26, 2012 at 05:34 PM · He wouldn't. Nobody waits 50 years for a violin.

May 26, 2012 at 05:39 PM · Something is worth what somebody is willing to pay. This applies to violins as it does to cars, houses, jewellery and oil paintings.

May 26, 2012 at 05:42 PM · Brian, yes that's what many have already said above. My contention is that maybe that's not always a good thing, when it means musicians can't afford to buy instruments they need. See one of my posts above for more details.

May 26, 2012 at 05:47 PM · "And I doubt that David has seen or played one either, or he would not say that all you can do for £5K is a VSO."

__________________________

Sorry for entering this again when I'd much rather move on, but the above is not what I said or meant, and I'd rather things I said didn't get twisted too much.

I didn’t say that nobody who’s charging £5K can make a good instrument. That might be possible, particularly if they have other income, such as from repairs and dealing. And a good instrument can be made for $2000, or for free, as others have pointed out.

What I said is that I can’t make a violin close to the quality I’m interested in for £5K, and neither can Marc (based on viewing his work).

I'll try again to let Marc have the last word.

May 26, 2012 at 05:49 PM · Viewing what work exactly David?

Sorry for re-entering this as well, but you'll soon be rid of me don't worry - I'm off to dinner in 15!

May 26, 2012 at 06:10 PM · @Smiley. You have enough knowledge to choose a violin but many of my students do not. I followed your search for a fiddle with great interest and you certainly did your homework and found yourself your dream instrument at a good price.

I charge the parents an hourly rate if choosing an instrument at auction and I take 5% of the sale price of instruments bought from a dealer. I know colleagues who take 15% or 20% but at that level the amount of money involved cannot help but corrupt.

Prices for fiddles are negotiable and I do negotiate on their behalf as I have said. Usually I can get 10% off the listed price. I am sure this is due to me taking only a small commission. This is disclosed in advance to the parents of my students and they are happy with this arrangement. We discuss in advance the price range in which they are looking. As I have stated before most of my students are the children of very wealthy professionals (heads of banks and investment companies). You would be surprised to know how much they are happy to spend on a 12 year old child. They want the best for their children and are prepared to put their hands in their very deep pockets.

Cheers Carlo

May 26, 2012 at 07:09 PM · Hi Carlo,

5% seems reasonable, but I believe charging a percentage could easily result in a conflict of interest. Rich parents trying to decide which violin is better for their little pumpkin -- one for $10K and another for $20K. You could really hit a home run if they bought one for $150K. I'm not suggesting that you would push them to a more expensive instrument just to get a bigger commission (would you?), but hopefully you understand my concern.

Please do not take this the wrong way, but since you are asking, then I will give my honest feeling. Because of the above potential for conflict of interest, I do not believe what you are doing is 100% in the best interest of your students. A more fair approach would be to charge for your time.

May 26, 2012 at 08:08 PM ·

Hi Smiley,

Earlier, you responded to Marc and wrote, in part:

"I think it is fine that you are selling your violins so cheap, commendable if your motives are what you say, but I think you might be crossing the line when you try to dictate what someone else charges, or pass judgement."

I want you to know that I agree completely, and certainly believe that to be very well said.

All the best,

Lothar

May 26, 2012 at 08:13 PM · @Smiley. Most instruments they buy are in the 5 to 10k range. This gives me no more than the hourly rate I would charge for my time. I'm not going to disclose what that is here. I have never pushed a more expensive violin to get a commission, nor would I. As I have stated before, I also declare this on my tax return. I accept that you believe that I may not be putting my students interests first and I respect your opinion.

I believe I am acting ethically by disclosing in advance what I will receive. My students act on my advice with full knowledge of costs they are incurring. Where there is a moral issue is when the commission is 15-20% and it is secret.

I knew this would be controversial when I posted this subject. I am pleased with the responses and inputs received. It is a subject that needs to be aired because I feel that for some professionals it is a way to push prices higher and make a lot of money unethically and possibly illegally at the expense of their students.

Cheers Carlo

May 26, 2012 at 08:50 PM · The violin market has been fraught with peril for centuries; the fact that high-dollar fraud is not unknown tends to make the uninitiated rather nervous.

For this reason, I believe that paying an expert (or at least a person with considerably more knowledge of the subject than I) is a reasonable proposition. If that person is a, and more specifically, my teacher, so much the better, as he or she will have information regarding my skills and needs.

Having the details of the transaction out in front is essential toward preserving trust.

That said, carrying on about the high prices some violins (and makers, at least those lucky enough to be among the living) achieve is an exercise in futility, at best. The fact that expensive violins are out of reach of many players is not necessarily a bad thing; a limited supply of a desirable product will move prices toward a reasonable balance.

The fact that many very expensive instruments embody their value more because of their provenance than their sound and playability lends the search for professional-quality instruments a nice set of variables; you don not have to play a Strad to succeed as a soloist, but if you do succeed, you may be able to afford one. If you play well enough, you may be lent one by a collector. If you are capable of evaluating a modern instrument with an eye toward your needs, you may find what you want at a reasonable price.

If it happens that certain makers are able to provide instruments which meet the needs of professional players, it is not only reasonable, but probably essential, that they adjust their prices to match their market. Efficient use of resources is an important factor in everyone's life; the exact nature of the exchange of value for value is a very personal set of variables.

Disparaging the advice of those who have gone beyond one's level of achievement and (perhaps) expertise might be seen as mean-spirited, or short-sighted. On the other hand, sometimes advice is worth what you pay for it.

On the internet, of course, it is priceless. So to speak.

May 26, 2012 at 09:14 PM · Carlo,

Point taken, and I agree. Good to get this stuff out in the open.

On a side note, when I was shopping for my violin, my teacher at the time volunteered to meet me at the shop to try out instruments. I suspected that he was getting a commission, but later found out that he was not. He just had a genuine interest in violins and helping me get a better one.

I just thought I should mention it because as you pointed out, there are greedy people out there and they will try to make a buck any way they can, but on the flip side, there are also teachers that really care for their students and are willing to volunteer their time.

May 26, 2012 at 09:18 PM · I am not in the market for a new violin. If I were looking, as an amateur, I would think it reasonable to pay a teacher or pro to help me find a good violin. I would rather pay for their time than have them on commission. However, if the OP's clients are OK with him working on commission, that's up to them. It sounds like he is being up front about it.

As for the other conversation going on here, barring a lottery win, I will never be in a position to own one of Mr Burgess' violins, but I don't have any objection to him making violins I can't afford.

I drive an economy car because it's what my budget allows, and it gets me where I need to go. However, if other people have different driving needs and want a more powerful or more luxurious car, with more fine touches than my econobox, I won't say they shouldn't be able to get a Mercedes or Rolls Royce if they want it.

May 26, 2012 at 10:11 PM · Hi M.L.,

You wrote, in part:

"I drive an economy car because it's what my budget allows, and it gets me where I need to go. However, if other people have different driving needs and want a more powerful or more luxurious car, with more fine touches than my econobox, I won't say they shouldn't be able to get a Mercedes or Rolls Royce if they want it.

As for the other conversation going on here, barring a lottery win, I will never be in a position to own one of Mr Burgess' violins, but I don't have any objection to him making violins I can't afford."

With your example, you are touching on the part of the earlier conversation that I find most interesting:

Marc seems to be of the belief that (with regard to fiddles, and fiddle makers) the difference between more modest modes of travel and the Rolls is little but price. Because of that assumption, he apparently believes that there is something unethical about some makers charging much more than others.

All the best,

Lothar

May 26, 2012 at 11:11 PM · "That to me is hiking prices artificially in order to play the market conditions."

I find this assertion to a little naive (or disingenuous). If the demand is there, why would someone, regardless of what they're making or selling, keep the price low? Are you seriously telling me that if you won an international violin making competition and everyone suddenly had to have one of your fiddles, that you'd keep the price the same? How is that logical? Is it some kind of humanitarian gesture? The work "artificial" has no place in the statement above. It would only make sense if the luthier in question ARTIFICIALLY increased demand by secretly buying up all of his own instruments at shops, or some other fraudulent means, like shill bidding.

Slightly off-subject, but still relevant: The last violin a student bought, I didn't make a commission. But I did tell them to go back and negotiate a better deal. They saved 1/3 off the original offer. If I had gotten a commission, everyone would have won: dealer, student, and me for my time.

May 27, 2012 at 12:12 AM · Lothar wrote:

Marc seems to be of the belief that (with regard to fiddles, and fiddle makers) the difference between more modest modes of travel and the Rolls is little but price. Because of that assumption, he apparently believes that there is something unethical about some makers charging much more than others.

I have no personal knowledge as to the relative quality of Marc and David's violins. I figure if they are actually similar, then buyers will start flocking to the cheaper ones and the market will sort it out.

May 27, 2012 at 05:37 AM · Oh my goodness. What a thread.

Let's say a man charges $10,000 for violins that he's made, and he sells three in an afternoon. Then he charges $20,000 and they sell a little more slowly. Then he charges $30,000 and he's able to sell them roughly at the rate that he makes them. In my view the $30,000 price point is what would be called "logical". The $10,000 price point would be called "charity." If the man has sufficient insight into the value of his violins that he doesn't need to reach the price point empirically, so much the better.

Am I the only one who noticed that if a man can make 15 violins per year and sell them for $30,000 each, he's still making far less than the average professional hockey player? (Please don't accost me -- I have no idea how many good violins someone can make in a year -- 15 was just an example.)

Anyway it's really not David Burgess's fault that I can't afford to buy one of his violins. If I think I can get a better value in China or the UK or Eastern Europe, that's my prerogative.

The idea that rich tycoons will hoard all the world's very best violins could be a real problem, but buying the violins is not the problem ... failing to make them available to deserving violinists is.

May 27, 2012 at 08:21 AM · Reading the latest threads above, it's interesting to see that most people seem to be of the opinion that you should try to make as much money as you can in this world, and you'd be really stupid to charge less than the maximum amount of dosh you can get for a violin. It's clearly the philosophy that underpins the violin market (and most other markets for that matter), but if I can make people ponder for one second on the fact that there's another way, that it's possible to set prices not based on how much money you can get for something, but how much you believe it is fair to charge in order for you to make a decent living and at the same time make it affordable for most, then I'd feel I've achieved something...

May 27, 2012 at 08:43 AM · i agree with David that defining what is expensive and what is affordable, falls prey to relativity. and i agree that the more effort and experience you put into a violin, this should be reflected back through what the maker gains. but, there is a certain limit to how much a luthier can put into a violin, right? and , perhaps more importantly, how significant a violin is to society to comprehend it monetarily. and by consequence of all this, how much luthiers gain from this. but i see that it is not the violin that is actually the topic for many joining in this argument- it is the value of desire not the violin that is the real topic for them. you cannot price desire in a capitalist system, desire is its fuel.

i think the arguments for not putting a cap on the violin prices are fusing the idea of being driven by the market and the idea that one gets what one deserves and this fusion, in my mind, is muddied. again, in my mind it is the virtuality of fame that becomes the force that drives the top-level market.

ideally, this can be resolved if the violin makers, or experts working on behalf of the government, decide amongst each other (perhaps a union) to standardize prices based on the competence of the violin makers- if we accept that the objective quality of the violins can be assessed apart from the subjective preference of a kind of look and a kind of sound.

it would also set many a beginner's mind at ease, knowing that she or he can now shop and not be duped owing to his or her inexperience.

so i can see David's salient points but i also see that (correct me if i'm wrongly assuming), his content - and others' here, those primarily having been buyers themselves- with the situation is reflective of a content with the idea of free market. i'm not of that belief background so i don't subsribe to the assumed naturality of a limitless price ceiling. in spirit, i admire marc's sentiments. although, i'm no economist to decide on to what extent this is realistic or not.

on the other hand, marc, and with all due respect, your website does list a 1907 french violin priced at 12,000 quid..around 19,000 dollars. 1- do you think this price is "justified"? 2- is the price set down decidedly yours or that of the market? 3- do you think a distinction between old instruments and new is warranted and is applicable in this case? and if so, why should we pay more for history than for performance quality?

4- shouldn't old instruments also ahve a price capping as well? in that case, what is the limit on the value of such this particular violin and, correspondingly and what is the limit on a newer violin value of corresponding quality?

i'm actually curious and i don't mean to insult anyone's intelligence or provoke negativity.

i edited the above post numerous times...and i realize this does not pertain to the OP's topic so i hope i'm not being too naughty, but since this other topic was raised up, opportunistically

May 27, 2012 at 10:46 AM · Interesting discussion - but can I raise a point that has not come up? And that is liability.

If you serve to help a student purchase a violin - and then that violin turns out to be a fraud (not what the seller claimed it was) I think you are dead centre for a lawsuit. You might want to factor that into the commission - or (if its possible) pay for some sort of liability insurance.

May 27, 2012 at 11:10 AM · Tammuz, just to quickly respond regarding your comment on the French violin I have for sale on my website:

(a) It's not just a French violin, it's one made by reknown and respected maker Paul Blanchard and is in mint condition (never seen one as clean);

(b) I can't pull violins like this out of a hat. I have to buy them before I can sell them, and what I buy them for is based on market prices for this maker, so I do have to base my sale price on the market value as well if I don't want to make a loss.

(c) you may find that £12,000 for a violin of this quality by this maker is actually quite reasonable. I've seen them advertised elsewhere for a lot more.

May 27, 2012 at 11:49 AM · Marc has his own system of determining the value of his violins. That’s fine. But he appears to be very judgmental about systems other people use. He may believe that his system is somehow morally superior, or provides better value to musicians, but that belief is on very shaky ground.

As I mentioned earlier, I own instruments by three rather pricey living makers. Why? Because I find that I can draw inspiration from these instruments, and I believe they are superior to most of what’s out there. I’m not a dealer. However, I wouldn’t have done it, nor would I have thought I could afford it, if I wasn’t reasonably sure that I would ultimately be owning them for free.

Those are the qualities I look for. If I should find a less expensive instrument which meets those personal criteria, I would be interested in owning one of those as well.

Under the right circumstances, a musician too can basically have use of a violin indefinitely for free, or even make money, when one compares the purchase and sale price. That is a fairly unique situation for a tool. How much is your 5 year old computer worth? How much has your car depreciated? Professional clarinet players believe that their instruments “blow out” after a few years, and need to be replaced.

Could I believe that I had been ripped off by those greedy makers, and that musicians who purchase from them have been taken advantage of? Only if I had a class warfare mentality, failed to look at the whole picture, and couldn’t tell the difference between these instruments and cheaper instruments.

I know two of these makers pretty well. If either generates more than an upper middle class income, they have kept it hidden quite well.

So I’m not championing nor criticizing any kind of societal structure, including capitalism. I’m just living in our world reality, and recognizing that most of those pricey makers are striving to provide the best value they can for their clients, in the reality which exists. And doing a pretty good job of it.

If Marc is on some kind of personal vendetta (a bugboo is how I think he put it) against makers who charge more than he does, that sounds like a personal problem. It's pretty hard to justify on any rational basis.

May 27, 2012 at 02:22 PM ·

Hi David,

VERY well said...

All the best,

Lothar

May 27, 2012 at 03:56 PM · David, I'm not on any personal vendetta. It's worth noting the only reason we got into this argument in the first place is because you mocked my way of working out commissions to teachers (read the first few posts above if you've forgotten). I'm not more judgemental than you are - and I certainly didn't dare pass any judgement on your work; you, on the other hand, seem very happy to judge mine "based on viewing (my) work". Which work I wonder? I'm still waiting for an answer.

I'd also like to point out I'm not trying to dictate what others should do (as someone suggested above), and I have nothing against makers who charge more than I do. I'm sure they have their reasons for doing so. My workshop is part of my home and I don't employ staff so my overheads are quite low. I don't own a car, don't have an expensive lifestyle and therefore don't need to finance it. All this, coupled to the fact that I do repairs / restoration and occasionally sell antique instruments, means I can afford to keep my prices down.

What started as a kneejerk reaction to David's remarks seems to have turned into a debate about the economics of the violin trade and capitalism generally, which is not really what I intended. I was merely trying to express a point a view, the method which I use to price new instruments I make. And it's only fair I should be able to do that without fear of being mocked or patronised in return. David might think of Violinist.com as his own patch (he certainly appears to have a lot of support here) and as resident expert on lutherie questions he might not like intrusion from other makers into the debates, but I think he should respect their views and if he wishes to comment on what they say should do so in a respectful manner. It's just basic etiquette.

May 27, 2012 at 05:11 PM · Wow! You mean I might have a chance at winning the title, “Alpha Luthier of Vcom”?

I hope I win I hope I win I hope I win! LOL

Geez, dude, get a grip. Not everything needs to be seen through the lens of politics, greed, power struggles and intrigue. If that’s the kind of drama you need, you’d probably be better off watching “Housewives of Orange County".

As for the rest of your post, I'll let our past exchanges stand for themselves. Repetitive arguments get boring.

Now you can chastise me for being disrespectful for the sixth time. We savages in the US weren't raised with proper British decorum, ya know. ;-)

May 27, 2012 at 05:26 PM · I'm actually French, but been living in London for a while so I'll take the British comment I guess. And you have my vote David. And I will not cross you again, promise.

May 27, 2012 at 05:46 PM · My fiddle comes from an award winning maker who has spent at least 30 years in initial training and then repairing and making instruments. He is very bright and meticulous in his craft. Like Manfio and many others he makes notes on all his work to achieve consistency and to learn what works. He reads, goes to courses like Oberlin and constantly seeks to improve his craft. He makes exceptional violins. Just to know what the best wood is and where to get it, that by itself takes a lot of experience.( and money)

Now compare this to a high school teacher for example who went to University for 4 years, starts at about 40,000 canadian dollars per year which includes ( a lot of ) benefits and can make close to 70,000 dollars at the age Guy is now. She has no overhead costs and goes on courses paid for by the system. Teachers in Alberta can retire after 30 years and have a full pension. I don't envy them for the work they have to do; it is not easy. I don't think a good teacher is being overpaid.

Luthiers have a long period of training and rarely make a name for themselves until they have worked for 10 - 20 or so years. They have substantial overhead costs, no benefits, an uncertain profession when it comes to the economy and many are struggling now. It really would be very difficult for most luthiers here to charge 30 dollars per hour and support a single income family let alone put something aside for retirement. In the States one would need to pay for good medical and maybe liability insurance on top of this.

Like Marc I have a bit of a problem with the notion that everything financial should be guided by the concept of "what the market can bear". Maybe there was a bit of marxist influence in my European schooling way back as no doubt there was / is some of that in Britain. But the European countries - and likely other countries as well - have a tradition that goes back centuries before the advent of socialism where a craftsman was worth his wages and was proud of being part of a Guild that by and large set the price for labour. Exceptional craftsmen would attract the attention of nobility and end up working more in or for the courts with extra benefits of course. Starting in the Renaissance but mostly not until the age of Enlightenment did craftsmen become more independent and people like Antonio Stradivari did make a lot of money.

But the tradition of the Guild still continued in a diluted form. Society was much more static in many ways but also much more cohesive and people felt more part of a community. No doubt there also was more social control, but with this came more of a sense of responsibility for one's neighbour. I know this sense of community is still alive in many - particularly rural- parts of Europe and frankly no doubt in North America as well but it is fast disappearing. The consumerist and essentially egotistic and hedonistic culture as promoted by the media is pervading everything, and in the process creating a lot of unhappiness and spiritual emptiness.

Musicians rarely make a lot of money, certainly not counting the hours that go into becoming proficient on an instrument. ( I think it is true though that members of the major orchestras in the States make close to twice as much as say their colleagues in Canada. So more money is available for good instruments. But how long will this last?) It has been and probably always will be first of all a labour of love. I believe many luthiers - being a part of the music community - feel some responsibility towards musicians and would hate to charge based on " what the market can bear" alone. On the other hand it is only fair that an exceptional maker fetches more for an instrument.

The idealists think that socialism is based on justice and equality. Churchill rightly said that socialism is based on envy. Even if the idealists don't believe this, they will quickly find out if they join a union.

Nowadays socialism turns complaining into a virtue.

And coming from Europe one can see how it takes away responsibility from it's citizens to the point where many people feel entitled to everything.

Capitalism is ideally based on reward for effort and individual initiative. But today more than ever it appears it is based on greed.

(Definitions of greed:

1. A socialist invention, to justify their envy.

2. Greed is a good thing. Where would the economy be without greed -- sarc George Carlin.

3. Greed is what motivates the other people who have more wealth than I have.

4. Protestants: accumulation of wealth is only a sign of greed if you are too attached to it.

5. Catholics: accumulation of wealth is only a sign of greed if you don't give enough to charity.

6. Health and wealth evangelicals: accumulation of wealth means Gd has blessed us. What's your problem?

7. Insert own convenient definition.)

And the unbridled greed so evident in the financial and industrial world of today comes at the cost of devastated lives and the pensions of hard working people, among other things.

Take your pick.

No matter what system a society is based on: unless we as human beings get a bit away from our focus on individual material wealth and comfort and act more as a community with care and responsibility towards each other (and less fear of one another) the future does not bode well.

May 27, 2012 at 05:57 PM · capitalism is based upon healthy self-interest. It's corrupted by greed. Envy/greed is one of the seven deadly sins, ya know....and it is, as someone pointed out, the basis of socialism. People who worry about other people's violin prices must have some type of envy that they're not getting them. As between me and my luthier, I'm happy to have paid what I did for my violin, no regrets, and he's happy to have sold it. No one else's business...

May 27, 2012 at 06:17 PM · Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth...

May 27, 2012 at 06:24 PM · For those who feel that classic Italian violins are overpriced, I'd be glad to buy a Strad for high five figures. BTW, I already have a couple, so the labels would have me believe. So eat your hearts out.

For those who think that the government should step in and regulate violin prices, it's hard to know what to say, except to point out the level of success theat command economies have demonstrated over the last century.

For those who feel that capitalsim, socialism et al are best suited to determine how much you should pay me for my Strad, let me offer a few definitions:

Capitalism is the exploitation of man by man.

Socialism is just the reverse.

For those who think David Burgess should be voted Violin Czar of V.com, I remind you that one doesn't vote for czars. We are honored that he condescends to condescend. And I mean that in the best possible way.

May 27, 2012 at 06:28 PM · Edit, after seeing the next post:

Oops, sorry, I missed the part the part where Marc and I agreed to leave. Probably a really good idea. Hope at least one person was amused by this episode of "Dueling Violin Carver Geeks". :-)

May 27, 2012 at 06:38 PM · I thought we had agreed to leave it David. Are we going to try break the 100-post barrier on this one?

May 27, 2012 at 08:26 PM · @Marc, Charging what the market can bear is not greed unless one holds a monopoly. If I find David's violins either to be above my price range or an inferior value, then I can buy one of yours, or one of Wojciech Topa's. I think it would be a big stretch to say that David Burgees holds a monopoly simply because he is the only one who happens to make David Burgess violins.

And one thing you have not considered in your accusations of greed is that one can make a great deal of money and then turn right around and do important charitable things with it. (snip)

@Elise (getting back on thread now), I agree that one might be exposed to liability for helping someone else choose a violin for a fee. One of the main functions of a written contract, however, is to establish the limits of the contractor's liability.

May 27, 2012 at 09:15 PM · ...which, Paul, is another good reason (if you need one) for being up-front.

Lets suppose a teacher helped a student buy a violin and obtained a commission from the store (but did not tell the student) and then the violin was found to be a fraud. The commission would come out in discovery and, as as I read it (I am not a lawyer) the teacher could actually have criminal liability, not just civil because it could be argued that htey helped pull of the con....

eek...

Even a contract might not protect you against that scenario...

May 27, 2012 at 09:58 PM · Paul, I said I'd stopped writing on this thread, but I can't let you insinuate that I accused David of being greedy. David strikes me as one of the good guys in this business, and despite our little game of ping pong earlier, I have nothing to say against him.

And you're right, one can make a great deal of money and turn around and give a lot of it to charity. It's the American model, the patron-of-the-arts model (and before that the medieval and renaissance models). It's happening here as well, government cuts in arts (including music) with the view that private wealthy patrons will come in and fill the gap left by the state's withdrawal. Unfortunately lots of these wealthy individuals are reconsidering their existing donations (in view of potential changes to the tax treatment of large donations), and new ones are not as forthcoming as hoped... If you ask me, I'd rather wealth was distributed more evenly, with the help of government intervention to fund sectors such as the arts that might suffer more than others in times of recession. But I'm getting into politics again, so I shall leave it here and let sleeping dogs lie...

May 27, 2012 at 10:57 PM · "If you ask me, I'd rather wealth was distributed more evenly, with the help of government intervention to fund sectors such as the arts that might suffer more than others in times of recession."

Marc, on this point I do fully agree. But I think whether that comes to pass is pretty well removed from what a man charges for his hand-made violins.

May 27, 2012 at 11:19 PM · Hi Marc,

You wrote, in part:

"If you ask me, I'd rather wealth was distributed more evenly, with the help of government intervention to fund sectors such as the arts that might suffer more than others in times of recession."

I am sincerely curious:

Were that to happen in the UK, would you expect to be on receiving, or the contributing end of such a re-distribution?

What of those artists (in this case violin makers) who, in your view, price their instruments at (far) too high a price?

All the best,

Lothar

May 27, 2012 at 11:47 PM · There might be something to be said for even distribution of wealth. My housekeeper (yes, I make enough money to afford one), said perhaps the happiest time of her life was during the cultural revolution in China.

Everyone worked just as hard and earned the same amount of money. High ranking supervisors made a little more than others, but it was not significant. If your neighbor was hungry, then so were you. Showers were a luxury, something that you had to wait in line for hours and could only afford once a week. People were basically dirt poor, but because everyone was the same, they were content, perhaps even happy.

The concept of working harder to earn more money simply didn't exist. The government gave you a job and you did it. Everyone was the same. This is not the type environment that fosters innovation and creativity, but it is what happens when you go to the extreme end of equality for all.

It is not exactly my idea of utopia, but for some, it is what seems fair. Call me selfish, but personally, I'll take capitalism. I don't mind busting my butt to get ahead. And I don't feel guilty for doing it.

May 28, 2012 at 12:44 AM · Maybe what Churchill said about democracy applies to capitalism as well: it is a poor system but it beats the alternatives.

May 28, 2012 at 01:08 AM · "My housekeeper (yes, I make enough money to afford one), said perhaps the happiest time of her life was during the cultural revolution in China."

Perhaps she was one of the lucky ones at whose door the Red Guards didn't show, or perhaps she wasn't made to engage in hours of self-criticism in front of all her neighbors, or perhaps she wasn't made to inform on her children or her parents. Either way, one has to suspect the accounts of the cultural revolution as a failure of memory.

If violin makers, especially the good ones, are not properly compensated, then they will choose other professions, and we musicians will be left with fewer choices.

May 28, 2012 at 01:43 AM · marc, how can wealth be redistributed unless it's taken from people at the point of a gun? (which is why taxmen are armed!) What gives you the right to want that? learning to earn your own money is hard, as is making violins, I'm sure. If you focused more on improving your own self & your work instead of taking from other people, your violins would probably sell for $40,000 and you could quit being so jealous of those who are valued more than you. Behind every utopian is a control freak....without a work ethic.

May 28, 2012 at 02:00 AM · Hi Tom,

You asked "marc, how can wealth be redistributed unless it's taken from people at the point of a gun?" but of course, it is done every day.

I don't know where you live, but I'm in the U.S. and every penny of tax I pay is ultimately used for some form of wealth redistribution. That is, the money I pay eventually finds its way into the pockets of others.

Though I can't say that I am happy about all of it, I don't recall any guns being involved.

All the best,

Lothar

May 28, 2012 at 02:26 AM · Lothar,

compliance with the tax laws is based on enforcement- you may do pay voluntarily, as most all of us choose or are conditioned to do, but laws are backed with a monopoly of legitimate power to use deadly force. Eliot Ness was a t-man...and ultimately his successors will come and get those who don't pay up!

Most all the people who sit around and figure out how to spend other people's money better than they can typically base all their premises on this type of collection...not on how they can earn the money and do their good deeds by the sweat of their brow.

Not to say there aren't good uses of money collected for taxes, and good purposes accomplished, etc., which there are, but it's not a voluntary pass the plate collection, either.

May 28, 2012 at 04:49 AM · Tom did you actually read Marc's posts through or is this some kind of knee jerk reaction? You conclude that because Marc has a problem with some of the things going on in the violin world he must be jealous? Mind you I don't see it as he does but I think i can see where he may be coming from.

Marc has been called naive because he doesn't base the price for a violin on what the market can bear but on an hourly rate he sets himself. He could maybe charge more if he compared his violins to others. People question his motives as suspect because he doesn't have the same belief in a healthy enough self interest I presume. Give me a break.

May 28, 2012 at 07:21 AM · Gosh, what do I wake up to this morning!? I thought this thread was nicely dying down. And here we are! American pre-election campaign! Conservatives vs. Liberals warfare!

Tom, we clearly know which camp you're in. I respect your point of view, but you probably also know (if you've read my posts above) I don't really agree with it. And I'm self-employed, working hard to make a living and finding it difficult in these times of recession (brought about by the bloody banking crisis!), so I could do with paying less taxes as well. But I'm happy to pay taxes, because that's what being part of a society is about. Taxes help build the things that individuals would not build out of "self-interest", they help maintain a health service and a transport system accessible to all (not only those who can afford it), and they help support the more vulnerable in society. And, more relevant to our debate, they support fields and industries that might not survive based on brutal capitalism only. Classical music is a case in point. None of the opera productions, top orchestras, etc. would survive were they to rely solely on ticket sales for funding. Another one is independent cinema. Personally I don't want to be forced to chose between "What to expect when you're expecting" and "MIB3" when I go see a film. Is this really what you want?

May 28, 2012 at 11:11 AM · Hi folks, and thanks for all the mentions, but I hope no one took my position as being sourced in defending my own prices. I tried to choose wording which didn’t say or suggest that, because that’s not where I would like the focus. I wanted it to focus more on new, individually made violin pricing in general.

There aren’t just a few, but a lot of really good makers whose work you can't get for cheap. I know many of them, see their modest life style, and know how in spite of that, they can still be struggling to pay the bills.

Our US professional group, The American Federation of violin and bow makers, recently decided to hold their conventions every two years, rather than every year. A big reason for that change was that many members couldn’t afford to attend a convention every year. We even had some members leave the group, because just paying the dues was too much of a financial burden.

As I mentioned earlier, full-time violin makers were pretty much unheard of in the US before about 1975. It’s not that there wasn’t interest. The money wasn’t there to support it. Some instruments were made, but mostly as a sideline by people who had other sources of income, and other ways to spend their time when sales of their instruments weren’t sufficient, such as dealing, repair, and sales of supplies and accessories. In other words, it was subsidized, almost a hobby, and really didn't have the benefit of full-time professional attention. When someone could buy a Strad for 20K, there just wasn’t much interest in buying a high-quality new violin which reflected the actual cost of making it.

What’s changed since then? The old instruments have gone way up in price. I don’t need to get into whether this is good or bad, because that’s not relevant to this. What’s relevant is that it happened. The result was that it created a hole and a demand near the bottom of the price structure, which expanded to the point where it began to look like it might be possible to actually make a living from making. That was the beginning of our modern renaissance in violin making.

On whether there might be a few makers charging more than "necessary" (to eek out a humble living, or whatever else that might mean):

I don't doubt it. There are few violin makers who couldn’t have done something else for a living. Some are well educated in other areas. Some are freaking brilliant, and I have no doubt that many could have made a lot more money going into other professions. So in a way, violin making is competing for talent with other professions. Love of the craft will help make up some of the income difference, but as the brief history above of our business illustrates, love alone isn’t enough. The love has always been there. The money hasn’t.

So I have no problem whatsoever with makers who charge a lot more than I do. If they didn’t, we might not have them.

The way things stand, musicians can decide for themselves what the work of an expensive violin maker is worth. That may not be utopia, and it's not to say that their choices can’t be manipulated, but that system seems hard to improve on. You already know what I think, demonstrated by my own purchases of instruments by makers who are considered pricey. And you already know that the purchases didn't rely on my having high income, because I don’t expect ownership to have cost me anything, if and when these instruments are eventually re-sold.

Hope that was helpful in "fleshing out" the subject.

May 28, 2012 at 12:14 PM ·

Hi David,

I have found your comments to be most interesting, but would like to add a thought:

You wrote, in part:

"So I have no problem whatsoever with makers who charge a lot more than I do. If they didn’t, we might not have them."

Indeed, without their very high prices, we might not have "them" but, there is at least the possibility that without them, we might not have “you” either.

As you may know, I'm in a trade that is about as different from yours as one might imagine, but their are parallels to the history of your profession. When I started out (during the Lincoln administration) one could count on the fingers of one hand all those who did the work I do as their full time “job.” There were many others who did similar work, but they all did it from their base as university professors, and it was clearly their role in the university that was their "real" profession identity.

Some charge five times what I charge (and by any rational standard, I am well compensated) and in truth, the existence of these talented high-fliers is very good for me. Those folks have pulled the economics of our our trade up, certainly to their own individual advantage, but also, in part, making it possible for others to do the work we love as a full time profession.

All the best,

Lothar

May 28, 2012 at 01:49 PM · David, do you guys go out for a beer in the evening at Oberlin? I would love to come over for a chit chat.

May 28, 2012 at 02:24 PM · Marc, I'm sorry if I mischaracterized your posts regarding David Burgess. I guess I read so much about greed in this thread that I must not have pinpointed the origins of that sentiment.

Your decision to pay yourself a certain hourly rate seems reasonable and honorable. That is your choice.

Back to my exchange with Elise (and back on thread), I agree that the sales commission (kick-back) exposes the violin teacher to liability that is not generally disclaimed by the student. It could be a fatal flaw in that model.

May 28, 2012 at 02:48 PM · I disagree that liability is a problem for the teacher. Dealers sell violins with certificates guaranteeing their instruments. If a violin proved to be not what it is stated on the certificate, the violin would be bought back by the dealer to save face.

Anyway, don't teachers have liability insurance? I have started a new post which discusses this issue.

Cheers Carlo

May 28, 2012 at 04:47 PM · Agree with Carlo. Correct me if I'm wrong, but a teacher would recommend an instrument on the basis of it's sound and playability characteristics and whether it is suitable for a particular student.

Can't see how there could be a liability issue there.

Would teachers feel qualified to judge on the authenticity of an instrument? Or whether it is a good investment? Maybe some do and that would be a different situation.

May 28, 2012 at 07:16 PM · The question of commissions may have less to do with the commission itself but the likelihood of moral hazard, of which other obvious ones exist in music:

1. Certificate fee based on instrument amount. If I remember correctly, Bein and Fushi charge 5% of a violin's value for the cost of a certificate of authenticity.

2. Teachers make more when a student has a longer lesson.

For the above, there is obvious moral hazard. Bein and Fushi have an incentive to value a violin more highly, and a teacher has the incentive to bump a student from 30 minutes to an hour. The question is, does B&F actually take advantage of this and raise the valuation of violins that come in for a certificate? And do teachers really ask students to have longer lessons for reasons of increased revenue? And are teachers in general more likely to recommend a violin because of the commission?

So perhaps the answer is that for any of the above, it's not necessarily the moral hazard that is wrong, but the decision to act on it.

I could understand, however, if one makes the argument that any amount of moral hazard is too much, even if the chances of acting on it are slim to none.

May 28, 2012 at 10:05 PM · I'm just glad that I don't have to base my prices on an hourly wage plus expenses. I've never timed myself, but I am very confident that every fiddle I've ever made took a different amount of time. And, while my expenses are lower than most, they still vary significantly. Pricing each instrument individually, through no fault of its own, would seem to be an unnecessary burden on me.

I've thought about raising my prices but I've heard too many stories of price rises resulting in increased demand and I don't need that.

Back on topic, I think Carlo is on pretty solid ground. I've never been approached about commissions but I know of a situation or too that were not aboveboard.

May 28, 2012 at 10:36 PM · Hi David: I thought your comments 5/28 were excellent and I believe accurate. Tommuz on another thread raised the question whether there is consistency of tone from violins made by well known contemporary makers such as yourself, Tatsuo Matsudo, Kelvin Scott, and Sam Z. Could you have a good player evaluate, same methods and conditions, say five of your violins, same model? Do you think others, such as the above would do the same? If not, why not?

May 28, 2012 at 11:32 PM · I don't like it. It smacks of bribery, an un-American institution.

When I went to dealers with students to find an instrument I not only did not get a commission, but I did not charge for my time. Perhaps that was stupid, but I felt that it would give me a better teaching experience and a better chance that the student would keep at it longer (also good for me).

If the teacher were to take a commission (since a violin teacher works as a wage slave), it seems more fair to split the commission with the student - if it exceeds the value of the time spent and to suffer the loss if it does not. In other words, by having the teacher help with the selection of the instrument, the student/family benefits from the teacher's professional connections.

Andy

May 29, 2012 at 12:20 AM · "I don’t expect ownership to have cost me anything, if and when these instruments are eventually re-sold."

David, we're running out of room on this thread, but I found this comment very interesting. Did you buy these violins primarily for your own enjoyment? Or mainly to analyze the work of your contemporaries? Or for investment? If the latter, then I am impressed that you've "put your money where your mouth is" regarding your choice to invest in newer instruments by living/recent makers. A reasonably well-known maker told me, with a characteristic twinkle in his eye, "You should buy my violin. It will go up in value when I die."

May 29, 2012 at 12:22 AM · I would not be comfortable with a teacher making a commission off my purchase. If I felt I couldn't trust the dealer to start with, I wouldn't be shopping there. Is the commission higher on some instruments they want to get out of inventory? There's a certain amount of subjectivity in buying a violin, and the presence of a commission could sway some teachers' opinions. I'd much rather use lesson time or pay a teacher directly than have them get a kick-back.

May 29, 2012 at 08:02 AM · okay, here's a question for all you supposedly honest types out there: How many of you declare ALL of your teaching income on your taxes?

I'll bet not many.

May 29, 2012 at 11:53 AM · Same question for playing income, Scott. Every cash gig? Every bar tip?

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