Chris Martin IV, CEO of Nazareth, Pa.-based C.F. Martin & Co., established in 1833, certainly needs no introduction, both regarding his company and his role as vice chairman of NAMM and chairman of the NAMM Foundation. So, let’s dig right in to our interview that coincides with this month’s guitar issue.
The Music & Sound Retailer: C.F. Martin has an impressive history. When you think about it, what memories/special moments come to mind? How do you see yourself in that history?
Chris Martin IV: The story I tell, particularly when I am in the [C.F. Martin] Museum, is I get to a certain point in the museum when I am very involved in the business. My father and grandfather had a really great run starting with the folk boom in the ‘50s and all the way through the folk-rock boom in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Music changed and instruments changed, and that [era] went away. In fact, in our museum, we have a Yamaha DX7. I use it to point out that by the late 1970s and early ‘80s, folk rock was getting a little stale. People were looking at disco as possibly the next great thing. The DX7 and other digital sampling keyboards came along and gave some people the impression a guitar player wasn’t needed anymore. All we need is someone who can play a keyboard. We don’t need a guitar anymore. They pushed the guitar button, or bass button or drum button. That’s what I came into from the outside. My parents were divorced. So, at the time, the company was struggling. But then, “MTV Unplugged” came out.
I talk to people in business, and there are two different camps in terms of luck. There’s this whole group of businesspeople who say, “Look. Forget it, it’s not about luck.” I’m not here to say you can create luck. But if luck walks your way, pay attention. That was a lucky thing for the Martin Guitar Co. MTV decided to create “Unplugged,” and coincidentally asked us if they could borrow guitars to help make those shows. That reignited the spark. It really showed how cool the acoustic guitar is.
The Retailer: Of course, it’s a family-run business. But did you ever consider doing anything else? If you were not at C.F. Martin, what profession do you think you would be in?
Martin: The divorce with my mom and dad was bad. My mom went out of her way to keep me from my father. So, I grew up with my mom’s side of the family. Her father was a physician. She never mentioned to me someday joining the family business. But I knew I had to do something for a living and thought about what I liked. I planned to attend the University of Miami to study marine biology. That would be my career.
But as I got a little older, I would come out for a couple of weeks to Nazareth, stay with my grandfather and mess around at the plant. One time, Fred Walecki came to visit. Fred had a music store in Westwood, Los Angeles. He was a friend of my dad, and they played golf together. Somehow, I got to hang out with Fred and he asked me what I was going to do after high school. I said I would apply to the University of Miami and study marine biology. He said, “OK, you want to get out of town.” I said I had lived at home way too long and wanted to go somewhere. He said, “Did you ever think about the family business?” I said, “I am curious. When I do come to visit, it looks interesting.” He asked if I would consider getting a little exposure to it. I asked how. He said, “If you come to Los Angeles, you can probably go to UCLA. And I will give you a job in my music store.” I said that sounded like fun. My grandfather, Mr. Martin, said, “A good foundation, if you are going to join the family business, is to study economics.”
So, I went to UCLA as a freshman to study economics. I was overwhelmed. I was a schleppy kid from back east thrown into the melting pot of southern California, where people were better looking than me and seemed to have more money than me. While working in the music store, Fred and I quickly realized I didn’t have a clue. I think Fred thought I would come into the music store knowing what I was talking about. It then dawned on me that if I were to join the family business, maybe I should find out what the business is. UCLA was on a quarter-year system. In the middle of the second quarter, I called my mom and said I just couldn’t [attend school] any more. “I’m lonely. I’m not happy. I’m quitting college.” There was deafening silence on the phone. “I’m coming back to Nazareth, and I am going to work in the factory.”
She said, “You are going to do what?”
I said, “I need to find out what this business is. So, I came back and started to work in the factory. I was allowed to work in one department for a couple of weeks, then move to another department for a couple of weeks. And then my grandfather and mother said I needed to go back to college. So, I went to the local community college at night. I then ultimately went on to Boston University and got a degree in business. But I would say for the first 14 or 15 years of my life, there was no thought whatsoever of joining my family’s business.
The Retailer: Were you into music growing up then?
Martin: But for two or three years, I could have been a hippie. I remember, in junior high school, coming home one day and saying, “Hey mom, all the seniors are going to Washington, D.C. to protest the war.”
She looked at me and said, “You’re in eighth grade, you are not going.” I grew up on psychedelic rock and still, at night, I put it on and say, “I still love this stuff.”
The Retailer: It was an active NAMM Show for you. Please tell us about some of your product launches there and what makes them cool.
Martin: The most significant Nazareth product is the Modern Deluxe guitar, where we took the traditional, standard D-28 platform and asked what new technology that we’ve already made available through limited editions or the custom shop could we use in terms of a production guitar — something you can just buy without it being a custom or a limited edition.
I’m a big Porsche fan. There are two different camps when it comes to owning a Porsche. One is if you could just own a Porsche 911 from the ‘60s. Another camp asks, what Porsche should I buy? The newest one you can afford. That’s where we are. If you want a D-28, we’ve got it. You want a museum replica? We’ve got it. You want a modern 21st-century Martin guitar? We have that too.
The Retailer: Were you pleased with booth traffic at The NAMM Show this year?
Martin: Yes. Some of the larger companies have separate rooms [at NAMM]. But I’ve always loved being out on the floor in the middle of it. When people walked by the booth, they said, “Holy mackerel, you guys are busy.” That’s a really good endorsement. I’m wearing two hats because of my involvement with NAMM. So as much as I love being in the booth, I also get asked to go to NAMM functions to help represent the brand of NAMM.
The Retailer: This interview is running in our guitar issue. Without giving specific numbers, can you tell us how 2018 was for the company in terms of sales? Were you pleased?
Martin: Back during the election year (2016), the consumer was nervous. They didn’t know who was going to be elected and weren’t quite sure what would happen. That was a tough year, and we’ve been digging ourselves out of that. But last year, we definitely recovered. I will say though that I read a couple of newspapers a day, and I am a little anxious about the global economy. We have a commitment to be an international company. We focus as much on international distribution as domestic. There, I see some storm clouds. For example, Italy, a nice market for us, is in a recession. If your country is in a recession, are you going to feel like going out and buying a $5,000 guitar?
The Retailer: How has 2019 looked thus far for the company?
Martin: Like a lot of bigger companies today, we have a contractual agreement with our dealers and distributors. We are in a “re-up” period where everyone commits to being a partner. That gives us orders in the first and second quarter as everyone’s chance to reaffirm our partnership. Summer is a time for a lot of bluegrass festivals; people have already bought their guitar to take to the festival. So, summer can be a little slow. And in Europe, they go on vacation for a month. Sometimes, we don’t even ship to Europe in August because the warehouse is closed. But so far, 2019 looks good. I do [acknowledge] though that I look at the guitars we make and our competitors make, as well as ukuleles, and wonder Where are they all going?
The Retailer: Please tell us about your work with the Collings Foundation.
Martin: Because NAMM is a non-profit, it has been able to keep some money in its back pocket. We have a reserve fund. The NAMM Show is the fuel behind it all. That’s what funds NAMM and all the good work it does. If for some reason the show was interrupted, such as a massive earthquake in southern California, and the show doesn’t go on, NAMM needs a reserve fund to carry it through to the next year. But more money is generated from the trade show than we need for the reserve fund. That was going into what was called the NAMM Foundation. But NAMM’s attorneys said the Foundation was getting significant enough that it needs to be split off from NAMM. So, we went through an arduous process of making the Foundation independent. The bylaws for that new entity state the vice chairman of NAMM, which is my current position, will simultaneously be the chairman of the NAMM Foundation. That’s a two-year gig. Next year, I become chairman of NAMM. Joel Menchey, treasurer of NAMM, will next year become vice chairman of NAMM and chairman of the NAMM Foundation. [NAMM President and CEO] Joe Lamond is on the board of the NAMM Foundation, as well as three selected independent outsiders, who are [former Yankees superstar and star musician] Bernie Williams, [Sweetwater founder] Chuck Surack and [Two Old Hippies’] Tom Bedell.
The Foundation does a lot of wonderful things, some of which I can really relate to and some of which I cannot relate to. When Bill [Collings] passed away, I thought about a way to inspire people to give money to the NAMM Foundation to promote the guitar, the guitar in schools, the guitar with veterans — anything specifically regarding the guitar. That was what I said I can do as chairman of the NAMM Foundation. I could carve out this niche opportunity, and those funds would be dedicated to creating new guitar players.
The Retailer: As you mentioned, you will become NAMM chairman next year. Please tell us what you hope to accomplish in that role. Are you excited to take on the role?
Martin: When I was asked to join the NAMM executive board some six years ago, I didn’t know what I was getting into. It’s an eight-year commitment. This will be a chance for me and Joe [Lamond] to be out there reminding people that this is a really cool industry. It is special, and we need to support it. Our ultimate goal is to get more people to play and to keep people playing. Fender conducted a study that found out a lot of people try to play the guitar, but a lot of people give up. That’s not good. The trying part is great. But the sticking with it part makes the difference. Don’t just give it a shot. Stick with it. This is something you can do the rest of your life.
The analogy I use is that, when I was young, I wanted a camera. My mom bought me a used 35mm camera. Holy mackerel, was that thing complicated. I ran off a couple of rolls of film before I knew even half of what I needed to know to take a decent picture. A musical instrument is very much like that. But today, if you have a cell phone, you have a really good camera. All you need to do is point and click. People think everything is like that today and everything is that easy. No, it’s not. Musical instruments are not that easy, but if you dedicate yourself to them, it is something you will appreciate forever.