Elkhart Economics - A View from the Sax Section

February 10, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

President Obama spoke in Elkhart, Indiana yesterday trying to rally support for his stimulus package. He chose Elkhart because unemployment there has risen rapidly of late. Especially hard hit is the town’s main industry – RVs.

I don’t keep up to date on Indiana economics. When I heard the name Elkhart, I thought of my saxophone.

When I was a in fifth or sixth grade, I started on sax. I used a school-owned instrument. The school system also employed a man who went from school to school giving lessons (Hi, Mr. Prestia, wherever you are). He advised my parents to buy me a good horn, and they did – a Selmer Balanced Action, one of the last ones made. (Selmer was about to come out with an improved model, the Mark VI). Every so often I would look at the fancy engraving on the bell of the horn – the flowery patterns, the name Selmer, and Elkhart, Indiana.

In junior high, I played in the band, and somewhere along the line I noticed that a lot of the other horns – trumpets and saxophones, flutes, baritone horns, clarinets – were also made in Elkhart, even those that were other brands – Buescher, Armstrong, Conn,* and others. It seemed strange to me at the time that all these companies would choose to set up shop in the same small Indiana town that nobody ever heard of.

Economists have a word for this – agglomeration. Usually, it refers to the clustering of industries in a city. I know that in New York if you want to shop for musical instruments, you go to 48th Street. That’s where all the music stores are. Jewelers are on W. 47th and on Canal St. Even wholesalers cluster together too – clothing and accessories in the garment district, cardboard boxes in the west twenties, and so on. But it holds for cities too – Akron was tires, Detroit is (was?) cars. And Elkhart was band instruments.

What happened to Selmer and Conn and the rest in the decades since I got my alto parallels the curve of other industries. Some of the horn makers were bought up and absorbed into larger companies. These companies eventually sent the manufacturing out of the US to countries where labor was cheaper (the Elkhart workers were highly skilled, and they were unionized) – Mexico and Asia. At the same time, the Japanese developed their own high quality horns. Some pros have put down their Selmers and are playing horns made by Yamaha, which along with Yanagisawa also makes solid mid-range instruments. And now even the Japanese saxes may be manufactured in China.

*In the 1950s, Conn ads featured a picture of Robert Preston, who played Prof. Harold Hill in The Music Man (on Broadway and in the movie) in his bandmaster’s uniform with the caption, “The Music Man is a Conn man.” Nice pun. But I always wondered why that shows song Gary, Indiana” wasn't Elkhart, Indiana.”

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