Blown away! How we beat the £30 clarinet1st Mar '16
Hazel Davis meets an instrument maker who has seen the luxury market from both sides now
Company: Hanson Clarinets Trading in: China, UK Sector: Musical instruments
“They could easily make a clarinet tube in China with their technology but they perceive imported British goods as high quality”
It was a form of home-coming. When Hanson Clarinets signed a deal this month to export components to one of the most highly-regarded musical instrument manufacturers in Tianjin, northern China, it brought the company, whose founder started out as a consultant to instrument factories in the Far East, full circle.
The West Yorkshire-based company is the UK’s largest clarinet maker, operating from a factory in the village of Marsden, where founder Alastair Hanson lives with his musician wife and two children. It also makes saxophones, parts for guitars and brass instruments, as well as selling and repairing instruments.
Hanson started making instruments as a child in the shed at his parents’ home in Bradford. He founded the company in 1989 after studying music and instrument technology in Leeds, before taking up the consultancy role in China.
“The Chinese instruments being played here were of a dreadful quality,” he recalls. “The engineering and materials were very poor and I went over to see why.”
The regime at the time meant that engineers weren’t really aware of what they were making. "I remember arriving at a factory in Beijing, working on machine layouts in my mid-twenties. I was firmly of the opinion that I could teach them a thing or two. It turned out that they were far better engineers than I could hope to become, but had bad equipment and didn’t know what they were making.”
Trumpets were tested using Chinese musical scales, which use five notes rather than Western ones, which use seven, so nobody knew how awful they sounded. “I showed them how to produce a musical instrument that had a longer life. I also asked for different materials and different machines. The results were immediately good.”
Mass demand for musical instruments drove down prices in the mid-Noughties, and they could be bought for under £30 in some UK supermarkets, so Hanson’s own instruments could no longer compete.
“Essentially, if it requires a lot of handiwork [such as metalwork] we can’t be competitive,” says Hanson, “But if it’s something we can automate, such as the tube on a clarinet, which can be robot-fed, we can make it economically.”
Hanson moved away from exporting components for the luxury market a few years ago, due to lack of demand, but found success exporting fully-assembled instruments to China instead. The average price for these is £1,000-£2,000. “With these finished, branded items,” says Hanson, “the customer is certainly buying into the Made in Britain tag.
“They could easily make a clarinet tube in China with the technology they have now but they perceive imported British goods as high quality.”
Now, for the first time in years, the company is back supplying bulk components to China. It expects turnover to rise by up to £400,000 in the next two years, with the whole increase being accounted for by items for final sale in the Chinese market.
Hanson isn’t sure why. “I wish I had a smart answer. There was a huge fall globally in 2011-12 when the English procurement of musical instruments for school lessons finished, so maybe this is just a recovery. Or perhaps moving into the higher end of the market has created more demand.”
An appearance at the Beijing clarinet conference last August prompted a new surge in orders: “It might just be that they were reminded of our reputation.”
In 2011 the company became the world’s first Forest Stewardship Council-certified woodwind instrument maker, helping to conserve endangered forests through fair and sustainable harvesting of African blackwood, which is prized by instrument makers for its mechanical and tonal qualities.
There are global restrictions on exporting controlled species, but, says Hanson: “We can now sell an African blackwood instrument anywhere in the world and supply a piece of paper Customs are happy with. Ten years ago this was a huge issue for us.”
The Tianjin deal is for 500 to 1,000 instrument “sets” a month. These are body components used by the Chinese to assemble complete instruments with metal parts made over there. Hanson says it could be significantly more.
“They’re selling into the home market. We used to supply components to make a Chinese product that sold to the European market. Now we are selling to their market and that’s really exciting.”