Over the Labor Day weekend, Guitar Centers nationwide had a sale.
Naturally, DD went to the store in Pasadena.
What was being sold, tried out and handled — I was there on Saturday and Monday — were guitars, all made in China.
They were the only ones the customers, middle class youngsters, could afford.
Second Great Depression Great Recession destroyed the buying power at the heart of the company’s customer base. The result has been a struggle to squeeze even lower prices from American-branded Chinese manufacturing.
On Saturday and Monday the store featured 99 dollar (99!) Epiphone SG Juniors, the lowest price possible Gibson-brand guitar made in
China Indonesia. (Same difference. — ed)
I played one. It was solid, looked very nice, and it was so light it almost wasn’t there. Compared to my old ‘79 made-in-Michigan Gibson SG, it seemed to weigh about as much as a paper plate holding a big cheeseburger. (I went back a week later. The tone knob was broken on it. The pseudo-slave labor instruments get played a lot by the daily store riffraff, but still …)
About five yards away was a $79 (!) Fender Squier (made in China) Stratocaster.
The depression in prices to match smashed and amputated incomes was eye-opening. Most used made in China guitars sold two years ago, now in pawn shops in Pasadena, actually cost more.
While business seemed to be fair — squeezing ever more out of the charge card and hoping things will turn better in a few months — the sale and the instrumentation were a good metaphor for the ruins of the US economy. The profit margins must now be terrible.
Gibson and Fender employ more people in China than they do in the US. And this surely seemed like a great idea during the last decade.
Now it looks like a growing pile of ashes. Unless, of course, you work in the Gibson and Fender custom shops making guitars for the wealthy end.
“The economy cannot possibly get out of its current doldrums without a strategy to revive the purchasing power of America’s vast middle class,” wrote former Labor Sec’y Robert Reich in the NY Times on Sunday.
The Reich column described what looked to me like an insoluble problem for the US. It de-industrialized and destroyed the idea that American workers deserve reasonable wages and that such things are good And it did it relentlessly over the course of decades.
Coming back from Guitar Center on the Saturday trip afforded an opportunity to chat even more about the vast amount of Chinese made merchandise.
My colleague, another musician, blurted out something I occasionally read and hear from those who run small businesses that have failed, or those who believe crap they’ve read from Tom Friedman, or those idiot libertarians stuffed full of Ayn Rand.
America, he said, should “only make the best things in the world!”
That was how we might fix things.
I immediately replied that this was Gibson and Fender’s philosophy — that they would only make premium goods for the wealthy. And that it had resulted in a relentless net loss of jobs, as it has throughout the economy with every other company that has practiced it.
I said that it was delusional to think a country of over 312 million people could get away with being the Swiss chocolatiers to the world.
For example, the Chinese multitudes do not have to make things better than everyone else. Far from it. They don’t need special education, or pricey degrees, or even know how to figure out enzyme kinetics or do linear algebra. They just do it cheaper because the rent’s so low.
And looking at the vast sea of US countrymen, it’s uncool, mean and exceedingly stupid to believe that they should only be allowed to succeed if they make “the very best things in the world.”
Americans used to make lots of things. And they weren’t always the best made. The Sherman tank, for example, was far from the best armored fighting vehicle in the world in WW II.
The Germans made the best armored fighting vehicles. That went well.
Making things is a living. It ought to be a good living for many and not tied to only those who can be artisans.
Coincidentally, last week news broke that the federal government had raided Gibson’s manufacturing facilities in Nashville and Memphis.
The company has been in trouble with the Feds since 2009 when it imported ebony from a corrupt regime in Madagascar.
Andrea Johnson, director of forest programs for the Environmental Investigation Agency in Washington, says the Lacey Act requires end users of endangered wood to certify the legality of their supply chain all the way to the trees. EIA’s independent investigations have concluded that Gibson knowingly imported tainted wood.
“Gibson clearly understood the risks involved,” says Johnson. “Was on the ground in Madagascar getting a tour to understand whether they could possibly source [legally] from that country. And made a decision in the end that they were going to source despite knowing that there was a ban on exports of ebony and rosewood.”
Gibson uses ebony fingerboards on their premium Les Pauls, among other guitars.
Other guitar manufacturers stayed away from Madagascar.
One, the Martin Guitar Company of Nazareth, PA, in the Lehigh Valley, had its chairman put it this way:
“There was a coup … What we heard was the international community has come to the conclusion that the coup created an illegitimate government. That’s when we said, ‘Okay, we can not buy any more of this wood.’”
The company supports the ban on Malagasy ebony.
The most recent raid on Gibson concerned rosewood from India. And it now seems certain the US government will eventually file criminal charges against Gibson.
“We believe the arrogance of federal power is impacting me personally, our company personally and the employees here in Tennessee, and it’s just plain wrong.”
It was said Gibson was using social media to tap into “right wing anger with the federal government.”
Which is a fairly idiotic statement. Guitarists don’t have a lobby, let alone a right-wing Tea Party-like one ready to take the issue and run with it as another example of why we ought to hate that socialist from Kenya, Barack Obama.
Yeah, complain on Twitter the government is abusing your business after getting on the radar for importing banned precious wood from a Madagascar black market. Tweeting Twitterers to the rescue.
Keep in mind your host plays Gibson guitars.
Through the previous week a couple news stories tried to play up fear that the Feds might come for your old instruments if you didn’t have the paperwork in order, paperwork showing time of purchase prior to when things got sticky with bans on protected special woods.
DD wasn’t feeling the fear. And as far as I could tell, none were in GC on Saturday and Monday.
However, there is one small demographic that stands to lose money in the matter when and if the federal government occasionally seizes instruments with protected wood when they come through customs.
It’s those who trade in vintage instruments, selling very high priced pieces to the mega-rich around the globe.
Nashville’s George Gruhn is one of the world’s top dealers of old guitars, banjos and other rare stringed instruments. “It’s a nightmare,” he says. “I can’t help it if they used Brazilian rosewood on almost every guitar made prior to 1970. I’m not contributing to cutting down Brazilian rosewood today.”
Gruhn acknowledges that the government has tried to create exemptions to cover vintage instruments. But he says they are rife with delays and to play it safe he’s nearly eliminated the 40% of his business that used to deal with overseas buyers.
Today’s example … men who hoard late-Fifties/early Sixties Gibson Les Paul Standard guitars painted in sunburst finishes.
An example of the ridiculous prices the instrument fetches is here at Gruhn Guitars, run by reseller/guitar collector/speculator, George Gruhn. If you read guitar magazines regularly you know Gruhn owns 98 or maybe even 110 percent of all the guitars worth having in the world. No one is allowed to say anything about the worth of electric guitars without first checking if it’s all right to do so with Gruhn …
In case you didn’t click through the link, the guitar on display at George Gruhn’s costs a good deal more than your house.
For you to accept the idea of used guitars which sell for a quarter-of-a-million dollars, you have to buy into all the conceits trotted out about them for the last thirty years. As conceits handed down for decades and pounded into the bedrock of electric guitar lore, they’ve created a warped reality.
In other words, “We said nonsense, but it was important nonsense.”
Now, if you’re a foreign buyer of a quarter million dollar Les Paul, you might be concerned if there was even a remote chance of it being seized by customs. Particularly since no insurer will cover the loss if the trafficking is a potential criminal matter.
Just off the cuff I’d imagine there’s little sympathy or much of a political lobby for the dealers in vintage guitars industry.
So they may be stuck by this attention to proscribed woods. But it’s no big loss to the middle class economy.
But it’s another example why the idea of rewarding only those businesses which can be the American chocolatiers to the world basically blows.
What will happen to Gibson? I don’t know. But I doubt it will put them out of business.
A criminal prosecution might cause the firm to purge some top management. Which probably wouldn’t hurt because it’s not that innovative or spectacularly run (traits it shares with the other American guitar manufacturers.)
Mine. Contraband? I doubt it.