Charlotte piano store owner aims to strike the right key with consumers

Chris Fulk, co-owner of Piedmont Music Center, has been in the been in the business for 43 years beginning with his first store in Winston-Salem.
Chris Fulk, co-owner of Piedmont Music Center, has been in the been in the business for 43 years beginning with his first store in Winston-Salem.

Chris Fulk caught the music bug early.

At 7 years old, Fulk started playing the piano, and from then on, he would enjoy the art of what he calls “making music.”

“It just sort of got in my blood,” said Fulk, now 70. “I love piano.”

Today, he sits in his own piano store off Tyvola Road, surrounded by polished black pianos and elegant baby grands, waiting for children and adults to come in and experience the same joy he does playing the instruments’ finely tuned keys.

But these days, fewer and fewer people express any interest in playing the piano, said Fulk, who originally founded Piedmont Music Center with his wife in 1972 in Winston-Salem.

For Fulk, these shifting attitudes toward pianos are a shame.

It just sort of got in my blood. I love piano.

Chris Fulk, co-owner of Piedmont Music Center

Keeping music alive

He and his wife opened a Charlotte location in 1997 and transferred the center’s quarters to Park Road Shopping Center 12 years ago. In late 2013, the store’s lease ran out and Fulk said he couldn’t come to terms with the shopping center’s owners for a new lease. He reopened Piedmont Music Center at 726 Tyvola Road in June 2014.

Stores dedicated to selling pianos are dwindling across the country as the centuries-old instrument loses popularity among consumers. Fulk has adjusted to the fact that more teachers are suggesting digital pianos for beginners by devoting some of his inventory to these more modernized versions.

Perhaps it’s just a trend in consumer tastes, with more and more kids interested in sports and video games. Perhaps it’s the high price. What’s clear is that a long-term decline in piano sales accelerated after the financial crisis.

Overcoming an industry slump

Piedmont Music Center’s dollar sales volume is about half of what it was in 2008, Fulk said.

So how, exactly, does he work to combat this slump?

He said his primary business strategy is to transmit the message that learning piano is a primary part of everyone’s education. He does this by supporting piano teachers and music festivals. For instance, since 2000, he has provided all the pianos for the Eastern Music Festival, an annual classical festival that combines a six-week professional concert series with an intensive training program for advanced music students.

In the end, the hope is that those who attend these festivals and coordinate with Fulk will refer others to Piedmont Music Center.

“I’m not as good of a businessman as I am a promoter of the piano,” he said, laughing.

And promote the piano he does. Fulk cites numerous examples of how the piano can produce beneficial results: The instrument forges connections in the brain, he said, and those who play have a far lower incidence of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, he said, referencing a recent Emory University study.

“We do everything we can to get the word out, but it’s difficult,” Fulk said.

On the upside, the industry grew 4.3 percent and sold more than 37,200 new acoustic pianos last year in the U.S., a result of increased disposable income levels, according to the April 2015 Music Trades report.

However, sales are well below pre-recession norms.

We do everything we can to get the word out, but it’s difficult.

Chris Fulk, co-owner of Piedmont Music Center

Pianos follow rooftops

The housing market and the consumer confidence index serve as indicators for the strength of the piano market. Often times, pianos are purchased in conjunction with a home, which is why the number of houses built or purchased and the price trajectory of housing are likely to impact piano sales.

Pianos come at all different prices, ranging from $4,000 for a vertical piano to $50,000 for a great piano. Fulk emphasizes parents don’t have to spend ridiculous sums of money to get their children started playing.

$3,500 to $4,000 Vertical piano

$7,000 to $8,000 Baby grand piano

$50,000 to $60,000 Really great piano

Most all pianos can last a long time, Fulk said.

“Quality pianos are really multigenerational,” Fulk said. “In a typical home, they might last 80 or 100 years.”

“How many refrigerators would you have during that time?” he said with a laugh.

Chaney: 704-358-5197; Twitter: @sechaney

More about Piedmont Music Center

Founded: 1972 in Winston-Salem.

Charlotte location: 726 Tyvola Road

Chris Fulk’s favorite piano pieces: “Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3” by Sergei Rachmaninoff, and “Scenes From Childhood” by Robert Schumann

His reasons people should play the piano:

▪ It can help ward off Alzheimer’s disease, according to recent research.

▪ “It makes you smarter and creates activity in the brain that is almost like an explosion.”

▪ “It’s one of the greatest pursuits you can have from a professional standpoint or a non-professional standpoint.”