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Is The Customer Always Right?

As a piano tuner, I occasionally have to pronounce a customer's piano dead, ready for the landfill. This happened last month when I was asked to come tune an otherwise fine looking spinet piano. Spinets are the bane of the piano technician. At under four feet tall, the length of their strings are too short, and soundboards too small to create the sound you expect from a piano. With the keys too short and the action shrunk and crammed in too small a space, normal repairs are equivalent to removing a car's engine to change the spark plugs. Thank goodness they haven't been produced for decades. As the last surviving ones reach the end of their lives, they can pass through a number of hands causing all sorts of disappointment and expense. The customer always feels duped, because these pianos look all right, their keys may all be in place, the case may have been cared for and is a good piece of furniture. Folks sooner or later find out how little theirs is worth compared to the cost of moving or rebuilding it. Then they place it back on Craigslist for free for someone else to take off their hands. The next unsuspecting owner thinks they've got a deal until the piano tuner comes and informs them of the cost to make it functional. The cycle repeats.

The poor spinet can't please anyone. Its quality as a musical instrument is so poor that it doesn't flatter anyone who tries to play it, it doesn't satisfy the piano tuner since it rarely sounds appreciably better once tuned. Because of the way it's designed, normally affordable repairs are triple what they would be on any other piano. Why, you wonder, would such a pile of compromises ever be produced?

We, the customers, brought this on ourselves in collusion with piano makers. This sad state of affairs began in the 1950's when the piano industry was too accommodating to what customers said they wanted. Piano owners had complained for decades about the size and weight of pianos. We, customers, complained about the cost of the piano compared to other "entertainment systems". Manufacturers stopped thinking of the piano as a musical instrument, and saw themselves competing with "home entertainment systems". So the customer got what they said they wanted, a smaller, less expensive piano. These compromises led to the ultimate downfall of the whole enterprise.

The furniture industry is the latest casualty of this dysfunctional relationship. The craftspeople who upholster our Soul Seats for us give us the latest chapter in this saga each time we visit. Every upholsterer has story upon story of people bringing their "contemporary" pieces in to be recovered after only a couple of years of use. They got it at such a bargain from Nebraska Furniture Mart, Crate & Barrel, Pier One, etc. And it looked so nice, . . . until it didn't only a few months later. They're shocked to find out that the piece was no more substantial than a stage prop. They not only have to pay for new leather or fabric and quality foam, but the upholsterer has to rebuild the inner structure as well, basically creating the piece of genuine furniture it should have been in the first place. Here's a great video explaining this dilemma.

We as customers and manufacturers continue to play this game to the detriment of both our pocketbooks and our economy. Pianos and furniture aren't the only industries who have collapsed under this co-dependent dance. With the advent of "Sitting is the new smoking", we see our very bodies collapsing under the misguided notion that what we want is also what we need. We say we want ease and comfort when what we really need is challenge and adventure, diversity and complexity. In our food, we need complex nutrition. We need less refining done for us and more of the refining done with our mandibles and our minions of intestinal flora. The challenge of mastering a language or a musical instrument provides infinite levels of challenge with no upgrade costs or significant changes in the user interface.

Relax the Back is a retailer flirting with this danger. Last time I was in the Kansas City store they had several lift chair recliners lined up with their tilt-out feature demonstrated, reminiscent of the way truck dealers will have all the hoods open on their lot. Here's the thing, these recliners designed and manufactured with the "spit you out" feature are the bitter end of years of accommodating our demand for comfort and relief. The recliner is so comfortable people sleep in them. The TV + recliner + remote is such an engrossing and unchallenging "entertainment system" that we can no longer produce the physical strength to exit it without assistance from the very thing that so damaged us. As with the spinet piano, robbed of size and substance can no longer produce music or be re-rehabilitated, the same fate is being visited on our very bodies. Too much sitting and too little physical challenge is shortening our lives.

Zero gravity is not what we need. We need more exposure to gravity. I understand the desire, though. Before I moved my computer work to the floor, stayed out of conventional chairs, and returned to sleeping on my stomach, the chronic back pain I suffered seemed to call for the relief of a recliner. I can remember these recliners calling to me from inside my pain. The spinet piano looked like just the thing in its day as well. Can we summon the collective will to say no to the siren song of "easy", "convenient", "quick", "instant" everything? Let's have less foam - more challenge, less false security/safety - more adventure. We, customers, aren't always right and there's plenty of prosperity for the makers of the world on the other side of "No".