Instrument pricing and dealer kickbacks

June 17, 2016 at 04:23 PM · Apologies in advance for the long post (my first - I just joined!).

The other day, I had a long conversation with the owner a local violin shop that has me questioning everything I thought I knew about string instruments.

I called the store - which I believe is a respected one that has been around for a long time - and spoke at length with the owner. I told her that I was looking for a cello (I play violin, but recently have been thinking of getting back into cello) and that I was looking for something in the $5-7K range, similar to my Jay Haide violin. Boy did I get an earful.

After telling me that she doesn't deal much in cellos and trying to convince me that I really want a viola instead, she told me that she absolutely refuses to deal in any Chinese instruments. In the past I've dismissed such thinking as narrow-minded. But she told me a couple of things that gave me pause:

First, she said that my Haide is worth about $100 (I paid $2,400!), because the Chinese wood used to make it is fast-growing and therefore must be baked and/or chemically treated. The instruments made of this wood, especially larger ones like cellos and basses, are likely to "fail" down the line (whatever that means).

Second, the dealers charge "ridiculously inflated" prices for Chinese instruments because of a widespread system of teacher/dealer kickbacks. I had heard of this practice, but (naively?) assumed that only a few bad apples were actually engaged in it. She says there are only two other shops within 100 miles of NYC NOT doing it.

So what I'm wondering is: what is the expected lifespan of a Chinese-wood violin? Is European wood the only way to go? I went into my purchase believing that there was a difference between the "VSOs" and higher-end Chinese instruments. According to this shop owner, the only difference is marketing/pricing/scamming.

Replies (22)

June 17, 2016 at 05:11 PM · OMG! I sure hope she is wrong. My Jay-Haide a l'ancienne cello is now 12 years old and still going strong (very strong). Ifshin Violins, near me, imports the Jay-Haide instruments (named for the owner of the store, Jay Ifshin, and his chief technician, Haide Lin - and they tell me they is made in their workshop in China and finished in their US store). Ifshin Violins is a 13,500 sq. ft. shop in El Cerrito, CA that sells and works on instruments of the highest caliber - I've played Stradivari and Guarneri instruments in that shop - and had in hand a Kittel bow. They have been my "go-to" shop for 21 years.

There is no question that the prices charged for instruments made in China are "inflated." They are inflated by the cost of transportation, by tariff, by middle-man profits, and dealer profits and everybody's overhead cost of being in business. But that is true of everything we purchase. Violin makers I know spend about 120 hours hand making a violin and about 300 hours making a cello. You can figure out what that is worth at $1/hr, $10/hr, and $100/hr and those might equate to the cost of making for an Asian national (at least a few years ago), an American or European who does it as an avocation and a "flow-end irst-world" professional who has to deduct his overhead costs from his profit just to put food on the table and a roof over his family's head.

One one my violins, bought by us brand new from the maker in 1951 is made of American woods and competed very nicely with a (real) Strad the last time I had it worked on. Maple and Spruce woods from China could be very similar to those from America - and the next higher level of Jay-Haide instruments are made from European woods.

There is a lot of "funny business" in the string instrument trade - and I've know that for 65 years. A lot of "tales" are told by dealers and a lot of bragging is done by some makers. And there have been many law suits and some fines and arrests related to the business.

Let's hope the dishonesty is not quite as wide spread as you have been told, because the people who buy and play these things are, by and large, a pretty nice lot.


June 17, 2016 at 05:28 PM · Kickbacks are nothing's a practice that has been around for ages. I for one refuse to participate as I consider it unethical, and the few shops that I send my students to locally know that.

> she absolutely refuses to deal in any Chinese instruments

That's her right as a business owner. I'm sure there's plenty of shops that refuse to sell "x" product because of concerns over their quality, longevity, provenance, etc.

At the same time though, I wouldn't cast such a wide net. Jay Ifshin and Haide Lin partnered, set up, and manage their workshop together to make available a line of affordable but high quality instruments. Why would Ifshin, a not unpopular shop out here on the west coast, risk their reputation putting out junk? This shop owner is probably just jealous of Jay and Haide's success, and isn't able to sell her own overpriced junk without attacking her competitor's work.

June 17, 2016 at 05:31 PM · Really curious about who the dealer is. There are tons of dealers in NYC and the practice of teacher kickbacks is a very uncommon one.

The "worth" of an instrument is its market price. MostJay Haide and similar workshop instruments are sold by string shops, and they typically allow trade-ins on student instruments at full value or near-full-value, so your investment is to some degree protected.

If by "worth" you're counting only the cost of materials, that's a totally different story. A car is "worth" only so much as its scrap metal, by that measure.

June 17, 2016 at 05:31 PM · (duplicate)

June 17, 2016 at 05:33 PM · My luthier in Paris swears by Jay Haide for sales of Chinese violins, but has had quality problems with cheaper makes.

June 17, 2016 at 05:34 PM · As soon as ANYONE dares tell you to play the viola, they should be immediately slapped in the face!

The nerve!

June 17, 2016 at 06:12 PM · I don't see how Ifshin violins has enough room in their store to handle the high volume of Jay Haide instruments which are supposedly finished in America, perhaps they have a separate factory.

I think the OP's shop is right that many Chinese made instruments are excessively marked up by their retailers, as to that stuff about wood being treated because its fast growing, sounds like nonsense.

June 17, 2016 at 06:59 PM · The shop is in northern New Jersey...I'll just leave it at that.

I'm not so concerned about the monetary value of the violin - I have no plans to sell it in the near future. But I did want to see whether anyone else had heard about this practice of treating the wood - it sounds like it's not really a thing?

In general, I thought that the owner was just a bit too aggressive, both in her vehement refusal to consider Chinese instruments and in her insistence that she is the only honest dealer in the tri-state area. It's one thing to try to convince me that your products and service are superior, but "all the other guys are crooks, including the place that sold you your violin" is not really a great sales tactic, in my opinion.

Seraphim: LOL...I love the viola, by the way - it's a wonderful (and underrated) instrument. But I do miss the cello, especially these days, as my scales/etudes/rep increasingly have me going way up on that E string!

June 17, 2016 at 07:00 PM · Technically, this is not a kick-back. It is called entrepreneurship. Nobody is stopping you to import string instruments from China and sell them here.

As per pricing... there are violins made in China sold for $500 CAD or less. With JH violins, I can only assume that "inflated" price is due to alleged NA labor costs.

June 17, 2016 at 07:51 PM · Student violins made in China are, in my opinion, no better or worse in quality than new or old, student instruments made in Europe. The reason they have become so prevalent in the the market, is the exploitation of cheap Asian labour and an artificial exchange rate. This means it is significantly cheaper for the dealer to import an instrument that is ready for sale, than to refurbish an older trade instrument. Paying first world prices to reshoot a fingerboard, fit a new new bridge, mend cracks, touch up varnish (whilst paying for American or European workers wages) means there is not an easy and ready profit with older student instruments. Hence the the preponderance of Chinese instruments on the market with their apparently generous markup.

Cheers Carlo

June 17, 2016 at 08:07 PM · Kickbacks are unfortunately a common practice, but I have noticed more and more shops seem to be doing away with it.

Chinese instruments are marked up considerably, but that's not as simple as it sounds: Dealers buy the instruments from Chinese workshops and often get a wide variety of quality in their order, so they have to sort through hundreds of instruments to pick out the good ones if they are reputable dealers like Jay Haide. There are also import taxes, shipping, and other such things. Also many times they import unfinished instruments ("in the white" as its known) and finish and set them up here, so yes they may pay the makers in China $100 for a violin, but a reputable dealer will put hours of work into making sure it is a quality instrument for their customers here.

So yes, they are marked up. But are violin shops in the charitable business of finding you a good deal (in which case they would sell it to you with just a small finder's fee), or do they have to make a living too, pay employees, all that stuff?

Now if you want to talk about ridiculous mark ups, look at the $100,000+ instruments!

As for the wood used, some is good quality, properly air-dried over the years, just as stable as anything you'd get here or in Europe (though some folks argue European woods sound the best regardless). But the majority is not. That is another aspect that a reputable importer should sort through.

The strings instruments world is also full of snobs, who will turn their noses up to anything that wasn't made by some master maker in Europe a few centuries ago. There are plenty of master makers alive and well nowadays producing fantastic instruments. ...some are even Chinese. ;)

June 17, 2016 at 08:27 PM · I know in the UK some dealers select and import promising instruments from China and then fit new pegs, bridges, tailpieces,strings etc and set them up. They acquire them for about £200-£400 and spend provably £300-£400 on them - total cost about £600-£800. But they sell them for about £1,800 - £2,000

I've had one of these out on trial and it was nice, but I had doubts about the sound carrying, and the student (not mine) who played it to me at a distance was such a crummy player I still had no idea if it would carry.

I have friends who have got these fiddles and have done the same thing, so for about£600 or less they have a nice violin that may be worth quite a bit more.

I think only time will tell if these instruments are going to last and not deteriorate - probably by the time they are twenty years old we may know.

June 17, 2016 at 08:28 PM · Lydia said that the worth of an instrument is its market value. And that is basically true by definition, but it only matters if you plan on selling. Let's think about this another way. How much are you spending, and how much enjoyment are you going to get out of it? Another way to compare the cost of renting.

Let me tell you something that's really marked up and hard to re-sell: Fine jewelry. But that doesn't keep people from buying it.

Many Chinese instruments are quite good. The fact is that the violin shops cannot operate as a business without profiting on their goods and services.

Your northern New Jersey shop-owner sounds kind of nutty to me.

There ought to be a lot of used cellos in the $5000-7000 range available at shops in NYC.

June 17, 2016 at 08:33 PM · I'm a violist as well.

So, i know nothing about cellos. I did buy abow from here, and they specialize in cellos. Give them a call

June 17, 2016 at 09:19 PM · Ah. "New Jersey violin dealer" search on Google reveals who with pretty good odds, I think, considering the website in question also claims "honesty" and gripes about kickbacks. Looks like she sells mostly older, inexpensive student violins. (Worth remembering that those instruments are basically the workshop instruments of an earlier era.)

June 18, 2016 at 12:28 AM · There are three different issues here that should be treated separately. Actually four, with the first being the dealer. It's very common to have whatever instrument you bring into a shop denigrated by the owner or salesperson. It's just business-as-usual, and its the same in many industries: whatever comes in is crap, whatever is in the shop is solid gold. I've seen it before. If you try to sell them an instrument, it's worth very little. and a fake of course. Once they give you nothing and list it for sale, it's worth a fortune. And Italian from 1750.

What wood the instrument is made from and how it will fare in the future is a different question. Unless you know the factory where it came from and the origin of the wood, it's hard to really know. There may be no way to find out and verify. So it leads back to point #1.

Whether a teacher gets a kickback may be relevant, or it might not. I don't take a kickback, but some do. If the teacher doesn't take a cut, would the price be any different? Probably not--the dealer will just keep that much more. They may consider the cut just a marketing expense.

And "ridiculously inflated" prices? Well, it's hard to say. When buying an instrument, you determine what an appropriate price is by sound, workmanship, and comparison. No one is prevented from having some violins mailed from out of town for comparison

(obviously too expensive with cellos...). And the teacher should be listening blind and helping the student. People pay inflated prices when they don't do their homework.

Many of these Chinese brands and their prices can be found instantly with a Google search, so if someone pays $2000 for an $800 violin with a known brand it's their fault.

June 18, 2016 at 01:09 AM · I notice the shop that refuses to sell Chinese instruments at all has no problem importing the same sort of workshop fiddles from Eastern Europe.

June 18, 2016 at 01:27 AM · If we did not have the huge numbers of Chinese made violins in the world think of how expensive it would be to buy any sort of violin ?

June 18, 2016 at 01:33 AM · Many big dealers that sell Chinese violins have house brands that are labels put in specifically for the dealer, either by the dealer themselves or the manufacturer, so its often impossible to compare prices on the internet.

June 18, 2016 at 01:35 AM · The same was true of a lot of German dealers of what are now vintage and antique instruments, that's why its often impossible to pin down the actual makers when the label refers only to a dealer not the makers.

June 18, 2016 at 12:34 PM · My son has an excellent Jay Haide bass that has held up well for several years now. I have helped quite a few students choose violins, including some very nice sounding Chinese instruments. Chinese instruments are no more or no less then other student instruments – some are very good, some are not, many are in between. Claiming that all are of poor quality seems to me to have more than a whiff of racism.

I don't take kickbacks but unfortunately it is a prevalent practice, though I think she exaggerates the extent to which it inflates prices.

June 18, 2016 at 04:06 PM · If a violin teacher helps a student select a violin, one would assume that he or she would pick the violin that's best for the student since the teacher has a vested interest in producing a good player. But what happens if the teacher has found two instruments, and the one that's inferior comes from a shop the teacher knows will pay a "commission," (a euphemistic word for slipping money to someone else under the table), while the other shop does not pay commissions. Maybe the teacher's own child needs some expensive dental work, or the car needs new brakes, so . . .

The problem is obvious, but so is the solution. The teacher does deserve a fee for his or her efforts, but it should be paid by the student (or the student's parents), and not by the violin dealer. Many fine teachers I know would not dream of taking a payment from a dealer, but they often put in hours of work and draw on their years of experience in giving their advice. Let the payment be made by the party to whom the service is rendered.

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