Business & Economy

Flute makers, sellers flutter but survive in flat economy

A flutist checks out the selection of new flutes at the Flutacious! booth at the recent Natinoal Flute Association convention in Anaheim.
A flutist checks out the selection of new flutes at the Flutacious! booth at the recent Natinoal Flute Association convention in Anaheim.
Susan Valot/KPCC

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Just like a beginning flute player, the economy’s hit lots of bad notes lately. But flute makers and sellers say they have enough wind to keep going.

At the recent National Flute Association Convention in Anaheim, the exhibit hall is filled with table after table filled with flutes – silver flutes, gold flutes, even platinum flutes.

David Sills, a jazz musician who teaches music at Pasadena City College, checks out one of the flutes by playing it at the Flutacious! booth, a Glendale flute shop.

Each instrument has its own personality, much like Sills’ music students. He says the higher-end, handmade flutes play like butter – smooth and rich.

"The sound just speaks," Sills says. "You play a great new flute, the sound speaks, the keys move – I mean, playing technique scales and things is just very much easier. Much easier."

Sills, who usually plays the saxophone, is looking for a new flute to replace the one he’s played for nearly two decades.

"Basically, I’m looking for the best flute for the least amount of money," he says as he stands in front of dozens of flutes that line a table. "Now the problem is, usually the best flute is the most amount of money. So I’m dealing with that issue of, 'How much can I spend?' And you can spend a lot."

Some flutes can cost up to $50,000. As the price of gold, silver or platinum goes up, so does the price of a flute.

Sills planned to spend about $10,000, but after testing the flutes, he was leaning toward upping his budget to $15,000.

Cynthia Kelley, the owner of Flutacious!, asks if he's checked out their used flutes.

She says used flutes can be about 20 to 30 percent cheaper, though flutes made with precious metals tend to hold their value.

"We’ve definitely seen an increase in used flute sales and definitely people are taking a lot longer to make decisions and really watching the bottom dollar," Kelley says.

She says they’re waiting to see if prices will go down or if they really need a new flute.

Kelley says her business is hanging in there, though. Her shop both sells flutes and repairs them.

Flute shops can turn the economy’s flat note into a sweet cash register sound by concentrating on quality - or by finding a niche.

A couple of rows over from Flutacious!, a customer sits down to play a giant flute about as tall as a doorway, with keypads as wide around as tennis balls.

Shozo Ogura sells these deep-toned Kotato flutes in his Torrance shop, Ogura Flute Works. He says 99 percent of his customers are professional flute players who buy regardless of the economy.

"So the economy no matter. Just how do you like, you know?" he says with a laugh.

Some people like their flutes at a mid-range price. That’s the niche Chateau USA’s Band World Music is trying to fill.

The shop in Walnut opened about a year ago, but the factory that provides the flutes for it has been around for three decades.

"It just is not the same as it was with professionals paying $20,000 for an instrument that really cost maybe $1,000 or $2,000 to make," says Dan Oberst, the sales manager. "So now the reality between how much it cost to produce and how much people pay, how much they pay retail is coming into more realistic levels."

Oberst says he sees people biting the bullet and finally moving forward with their flute purchases despite the economy.

"Time is running out. People have been waiting now for a few years – waiting and nothing’s changing," he says. "So things are coming back in a way that they’re looking into the middle market, which is a good quality, but it needs to be at a good price."

That's exactly the niche for the shop Oberst oversees.

Oberst also sees a silver lining in school budget cuts. Schools have eliminated buying instruments for students.

"So schools have cut them out completely now. That’s what they’ve decided," Oberst says. "So now the parents are paying for the kids’ instruments."

And budget-conscious parents tend to buy from lower level or mid-level shops, like Oberst’s Band World Music.

Flute shop owner Cynthia Kelley, though, worries that cuts to music programs in schools will mean fewer kids exposed to the flute, and maybe fewer flute customers in the years to come.