Ideology aside, if there’s anything the last few months have shown us, it’s how things can go when we hunker down in our bubble and believe only what we want to believe. Unless you troll for a hobby, you’re probably tired of strident statements of belief-colored pseudo-facts from both sides of the divide. Perhaps you yearn for a simpler time, when Facebook timelines mostly held food pics, cool guitar selfies and musician jokes.
But, in these times, we must be aware of the many ways that the current climate can affect our industry—for good and ill—and we must position ourselves to be insulated from the shifting winds of uncertain times, or to capitalize on them.
First, a caution and an observation: Just as we’ve often said the music industry is somehow “different” when it comes to certain economic pressures and trends, the broad claims and supposed benefits of change might not affect us in the way pundits would predict for the rest of the country. When you consider music making and music products as a whole, we are a global industry. We’ve been global almost from the point where everyone agreed that the Earth is a globe. Pre-Industrial Revolution, our products crossed borders and depended on a worldwide cadre of craftspeople and inventors to advance the quality and technology of music making. Masters, journeymen and apprentices traveled far and wide to learn, collaborate and promote their craft.
That continues today, with fine woodwinds coming from Paris, treasured violins originating from luthier enclaves scattered around Europe and the choicest guitars still “Made in America.” Our entry-level and intermediate products come from all around the Pacific Rim and Mexico, and from re-emerging Eastern European makers. It’s not unusual to see a company’s line of instruments, from beginner to pro, originating from four or five countries. That doesn’t even count the multinational sourcing for components and woods that are assembled into final products in the U.S, the accessories market and ultra-exclusive niche products that come from only one place in the world.
That’s why I get uncomfortable when I hear the “Buy American” rhetoric applied unilaterally. For us, it’s not a simple, stroke-of-the-pen dictate. There is no “American” rosewood, ebony or other tropical wood, and the ideal tonewoods for our purposes (like spruce and cedar) grow in narrow climate regions, of which very few are within our borders. And even when those woods can be grown in America, sustainable yield per acre can make them economically impractical, at least for the moment.
So, domestic sources for some materials are non-existent, and the process of migrating music consumers to alternate materials is neither fast nor easy. Brazilian rosewood is still a “holy grail” material, despite the decades-old CITES ban on importing (and, now, even the sale of undocumented older instruments that contain it). Even when an effective substitute is found, it takes a generation—or longer—for it to gain acceptance, as we’ve already seen with Mylar drumheads, nylon strings and solid state amps. (Still, we all know there are plenty of people who continue to prefer calfskin, gut and especially vacuum tubes. Try to make a 12AX7 locally. It’s toxic waste in a bottle.)
Labor is another issue. Highly skilled craftspeople are still people, with homes, families and preferences. Although skilled workers tend to collect around centers of production, they won’t automatically uproot and move when a new center is established. Gibson experienced that fact when it left Kalamazoo MI years ago. And every company that depends on skilled workers knows the difficulty of acquiring and training a workforce in a location that is removed from a craft center.
Of course, there can be a real benefit to moving manufacturing back to the U.S. Many companies, including members of our industry, have shifted significant production back to the homeland. This is usually a plus for quality and logistical efficiency, as well as an ecological benefit due to reduced waste and a smaller carbon footprint for transport. It’s not for the uncommitted, though. Ask a company like D’Addario about the associated infrastructure costs and you’ll realize that the capital investment is a strain, no matter how tax-incentivized the government might make it.
So, we will not easily weather a tax on imports that would drive up the costs of our products. And, even with automation (which, of course, results in fewer jobs), it’s a large investment to convert and maintain quality. It’s particularly tricky to achieve and keep the products profitable for manufacturers and dealers, while still being affordable for consumers.
That leads me to my biggest concern for our industry. Our best chance to thrive together is to get as many people as possible playing music. It becomes a dramatically more difficult task when the costs of entry are higher. A boost in import taxes might remove the nasty $69 guitars and violins from the Internet and mass merchants, as well as wipe out a lot of the counterfeit products I’ve railed against. But, it would also push our decent, entry-level, $129 import guitar to a higher price (unless dealers and manufacturers take the profit hit).
American manufacturing, through automation and simplification, might manage to provide instruments at the same price as tariff-burdened imports (again, depending on the cost of wood and other components). But, if tariffs are enacted, it’s unlikely in the short term that we’ll see the historically low entry-level prices that have diminished the barriers to people making music.
That means we’ll have to work extra diligently to attract and retain music consumers. The job will likely be harder than just countering a rise in the cost of instruments, because we don’t sell in a vacuum. Consumer spending will be influenced by many factors, including food costs. (Even if you lay off the Coronas and the tequila, a large amount of our food comes from Mexico and other exporters.) And we’ll still have to compete for leisure dollars after food, clothing and shelter have been covered. Of course, we could also see changes based on defunding the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), and we will still wrestle with school curricula and budgets. If B&O dealers see a shift in their area to for-profit charter schools…well…good luck with that.
So, I continue to maintain that growing our market is the most important work we can do to ensure our success. The broader our base, the better will be our ability to withstand change. And I don’t think anyone believes that, in the near term, we won’t see a lot of change.