The news that Gibson, manufacturers of top quality guitars, is facing bankruptcy saddens your man at Just Backdated and comes as a bit of a shock, but after reading reports of the company’s problems I can understand the reasons, if not exactly sympathise with them.
Regardless of what they make, manufacturing companies, especially American ones, stick to the principle that unless the company's profits increase each year they are dead in the water. In order to achieve this after saturation point for the product it manufactures has been reached, they diversify, usually into areas loosely connected with whatever it makes, in Gibson’s case premium headphones and hi-fi equipment. It turned out to be a disastrous move and according to a report in today’s Guardian the guitar maker is now £276m in debt.
It seems that the guitar market is static these days, probably a reflection on the way music is going, and that there is a glut of used guitars out there for sale. This isn’t surprising when you consider that many first-time buyers of guitars lose interest when faced with the reality that – like any musical instrument – learning to play with any degree of fluency takes time, patience and endless practice. There’s no warning on the box about this, so after a year their guitar is on sale second-hand. Also, in my experience, decent quality used Gibsons – or Fenders or any other good make – are as good as new ones anyway, sometimes even better. In view of this it seems a tad ironic that Fender now produce new ‘old’ guitars, ie replicas of vintage models, artificially scuffed and worn, at eye-watering prices, but either way there’s insufficient customers for new Gibsons, which are, of course, also a bit on the pricey side.
About ten years ago, on behalf of Omnibus Press, I was involved in discussions with the MD of Gibson’s London branch, then located in Rathbone Street, to publish a photo book of rock stars playing their guitars. It never happened, largely because we couldn’t reach an agreement on who would pay the photographers, pay the production costs and how many free books Gibson would be entitled to once it was printed. All they offered to contribute was the right to use their logo on the cover. It seemed to me that Gibson was looking for a hi-end promotional tool for its products in the form of a coffee table book and wanted Omnibus to pay for it, a sort of have your cake and eat it situation. I demurred but there was something else that made me feel uneasy. I found myself out of kilter with this MD fellow who was a bit of a whizz-kid and not really a music man, just a chancer who looked on Gibson guitars as some sort of ‘product’, like washing machines or lawnmowers. He seemed oblivious of the company’s history, knew sod all about rock’n’roll and when I showed him the little book about Gibson guitars that illustrates the top of this post, he showed about as much interest in it as if I’d shown him a picture of my dog.
I was given the booklet by Gibson’s in-house PR man in 1974 when I visited the original Gibson factory in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Unlike the man in London 25 or so years later, he was genuinely proud to be associated with the company, and I wrote about my tour of the factory for Melody Maker and also in this post: http://justbackdated.blogspot.co.uk/2013/12/the-gibson-factory.html
It was a fascinating experience but since then, in their relentless pursuit of growth – or corporate greed, depending on your point of view – the factory moved to Nashville, and the company opened two more plants, one in Memphis (now closed) and another in Montana. I can’t help but think that if they’d stayed in Kalamazoo, where Orville Gibson founded the company in 1902, they wouldn’t be in this mess.