Monday, 5 May 2014

Feature - Lonely Instruments

Published in the May (2-8) issue of The Big Issue.

Sound Business

You’ll find it in the ‘String’ category, subsection ‘Violin’. Scroll down about halfway and there it sits. Its current owner, based in Bucharest in Romania, claims it’s a Joseph Guarnerius from the year 1713. The asking price? Five and a half million Euro. Quite obviously, even to the uninformed, this is no ordinary instrument.

The same applies to many of the listings on relatively new website Created by Australian-born musician/entrepreneur Jennen Ngiau-Keng and launched in September last year, LI has become a hub for people looking to buy and sell new and used instruments all over the world. It is, essentially, Gumtree for musicians.

“It’s a free global service,” says Ngiau-Keng, “allowing musicians to advertise their instruments and buyers to locate them. Our goals are to help musicians sell their instruments faster, [and] help musicians find their next instrument by allowing them to search specifically and globally.”

He adds, “There are no fees to create an ad, and those interested in purchasing would just contact the seller directly. We don’t make any profit.”

Ngiau-Keng, 31, is a classically trained pianist and violinist. Since the age of five,
he’s won over a hundred awards and prizes in music competitions, performed over fifty concertos with orchestras, and has acted as Guest Concertmaster with orchestras including the West Australian Symphony Orchestra, Christchurch Symphony Orchestra and the Victorian Opera Orchestra.
He’s performed as a guest principal with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, Orchestra Victoria, and has toured Australia and overseas with the Australian Chamber Orchestra – he knows the ins and outs, and as such, the idea for LI came from direct experience.
The idea came about because I felt that there was nothing like this in the classical music world,” concurs Ngiau-Keng, who also runs a string-quartet booking agency and a business selling height-increasing shoes for men. “Having been in the classical music world for much of my life, I was aware of the frustration amongst fellow musicians in finding a fast, cheap and convenient way of selling and buying instruments. I felt a concept like LI makes it much easier for people to sell their instruments.”

Since the site’s launch in September 2013, it’s grown slowly but surely. Now hosting around 200 ads, it is becoming what its founder envisioned, although as is common in this day and age, conducting business via the internet isn’t without its perils; the possibility of fraud is very real (particularly when you’re dealing with instruments as rare and expensive as are featured on LI).

The site avoids this however, by merely acting as a middle man, a method many online businesses now use. Buyers contact sellers direct, and conduct any transactions away from the site, and as such, LI takes no responsibility for anything that goes wrong.

In the meantime, among the 200-odd listings on the site are almost any instrument you care to name. From the commonplace to the extremely rare, it’s a veritable treasure trove, and not just for classical musicians, although this does seem to be the focus. There are, for example, only eight electric guitars listed for sale at time of writing, compared with 66 violins, 24 violas and 16 cellos and accessories, including a Eugene Sartory violin bow listed at $AU28,000.

Other notable listings include an unknown brand violin from around 1750, advertised at $AU10,000; a 2010 Bernard Neumann cello tagged at $AU52,000; a clarinet from the 1940s; an upright piano from the turn of the last century; along with a slew of brass, wind, string, percussion and electric instruments.

“We’re just happy that people are using this service,” says Ngiau-Keng when asked where he sees it going. “It’s already difficult to get most musicians to be proactive about selling their old instruments, so for the moment I am just happy that instruments that would once be put to the back of the closet can be sold and perhaps allow someone to follow a music career like instruments have done for me.”

At this early stage, it seems to be a solid idea – an online hub with no monetary commitment which would appeal to most, if not all, musicians, whether they’ve been playing for years or are just beginning.

“We had a 1/32 violin for sale on [the site], which has now been sold,” says Ngiau-Keng, by way of example. “A 1/32 violin is suitable for children aged 12 months, so this is quite a rare instrument to see for sale. Most professional violinists start around the age of three to six years old, so 12 months is very young.”

And the Joseph Guarnerius? “This would be a copy of a real Guarnerius, but without seeing the instrument, it’s impossible to know. Whether it’s a copy or not, it may still be a very valuable instrument. [And] yes, it is the most expensive instrument on [the] website.” If Jennen Ngiau-Keng has anything to do with it, these instruments won’t be lonely for much longer.

By Samuel J. Fell

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