A Legacy’s Fall From Grace.
As much as we love standing behind the legacy of Gibson — with its rich history of innovation, quality, perseverance, and a players list that would make any competing manufacturer jealous — the last decade of discussions, historical research, and gear reviews have all but unraveled the legacy of this guitar manufacturing giant.
Some of us will remember Gibson’s advertisements, with shots of someone hand-shaping a neck, over-dubbed talk of ‘nitrocellulose lacquer’ and craftsmanship, clever use of warm colors, and a hand-picking sound track, it would be hard for any guitar lover not to swoon over this depiction of guitar building — and rekindle an old flame for the iconic brand, “Only a Gibson Is Good Enough.” It was an in-store video advertisement, put out by the manufacturing giant in 2010, that put the words “nitrocellulose lacquer” on the tip of every guitar buyer’s tongue. This advertisement got a lot of people talking about quality, about materials used in guitar building, and about Gibson’s definition of ‘craftsmanship’…
Pandora never had a box this big.
All you have to do is Google “Gibson”, and numerous articles and books pop up praising Gibson as the All-American icon they’ve built their brand to be. Typically, these publications are focused on nostalgia, the hope for a rebranded/reissued vintage design, fond memories of first guitars, stories from the outside looking in - full of desire, rockstars, and an always added ‘proudly made in the USA’. But, behind the advertisements, long before our personal memories had a chance to develop, lay a trail of dead bodies that no one seems to want to talk about.
Before continuing, let’s make a very clear distinction — a distinction that successful advertising tries to muddy — between Gibson as a brand and Gibson as a business. The Gibson brand, is made up of the guitars and the labor force - passionate people who have produced some great guitars. While, Gibson as a business is lucky to still be alive.
As a business, Gibson is far from that All American Sweetheart. Any company that has been bought and sold multiple times to avoid bankruptcy, that produces thousands of similar products a month and claims to be ‘hand-crafted’, who proudly sells half-cocked inventions but doesn’t invest in their research and development team, who’s ‘craftspeople’ make less than a Starbucks barista, who’s been listed as one of the worst companies to work for (refer to Business Insider and Glassdoor.com), who has bought up and ceased production of multiple companies for the equity (Garrison Guitars and Kramer Guitars, to name a few) — a multimillion dollar company who uses loopholes to avoid paying taxes for their importing/exporting, and who has had multiple incidents throughout their history of abusing at-will employment by letting hundreds of workers go in a single day without warning, can’t be the all-American sweetheart the brand is advertised to be.
With all the recent buzz about Chapter 11, it’s easy to get caught up in thoughts of CEOs pissing away millions of dollars, blaming bad investments, shit-talking the price of guitars, thinking you know more than the dozen or so ‘experts’ running the business along side the owners — but, while you’re doing that, you're forgetting about the real people that are paying for all of this — the craftspeople.
In interviews regarding finances and production quality, new and old CEOs have all but danced around what goes on behind factory doors. Like many of their competitors, Gibson rarely shines a light on, let alone rewards, the craftspeople who have kept the company alive. And yet, those people are the ones that feel all the pain from poor decisions; they have all the knowledge necessary to avoid mistakes, but no rights to be a part of decision making. People’s livelihoods are pitted against each other, they walk on eggshells just to avoid any burnout that trickles down from the top. When the CEOs and upper management have made a bad investment, or haven’t paid taxes on purchased materials, labor positions get cut while production numbers must stay the same. When a worker meets or exceeds their monthly goal, there are hushed threats of firing the person who has the lowest numbers or raising the numbers for everyone — both in order to maintain an efficient bottomline.
In the early 2000s, some workers got together to try and gain some momentum. They did research about the market and requested a raise. They got it (slight chuckle), but it hasn’t happened since. They think they’ll get fired if they organize because Tennessee is a right-to-work state. People need the insurance, they love guitars, so they keep their heads down and work with what they get.
It’s been over a decade since the labor force at Gibson got a real raise.
Of course, fewer under-paid people working towards high production numbers leads to quality control issues. Instead of rewarding hardworking individuals, production requirements get raised or a person gets fired. All the while, the consumer is being fed bullshit about craftsmanship, passion, and legacy — with a price tag to go with it. That’s the ugly side of capitalism we’ve all become accustomed to in the guitar manufacturing industry - cheaper, faster, newer, better. But this mind set has shattered the growth of our industry by ripping the passion from each and every deserving craftsperson.
The truth is, this isn’t just Gibson — though they seem to be a good target right now. The majority of big manufacturers have capitalized on the same marketing for decades so that they could save money. They have figured out that, by using the terms “hand-crafted” and “traditional”, as if their businesses where structured to honor the backs on which the company succeeds, they can save money on research and development, and they will always have a line of craftspeople who believe in the advertised culture — and they don’t have to change a thing. The horrible truth is that these companies treat craftspeople like fast-food workers - paying them low wages with non-existant raises or bonuses, providing no retirement plans, and offering limited mobility within the company. Most of the mainstream guitar manufacturers take full advantage of the passion that craftspeople bring to their work, and leave them bitter with a life of physical issues caused by repetitive work.
The amount of heartache Gibson has left in it’s wake can’t be described in one editorial — and, quite frankly, some situations are too complicated to make sense of in less than a novel. This editorial is a critique of exploitation and opportunist tendencies that have helped build one of the biggest guitar brands in the 20th century - this article was written to remind us of the perspective of craftspeople behind the headlines. The people that live their life with passion, the people that are forced to balance “good enough” with self-pride, the people that look like numbers to the decision makers but who are the individuals that hand build iconic guitars. These are the people who we should celebrate every day. We should know their names, and we should know that they make a healthy living. We should be able to trust that an All-American company is treating their craftspeople with respect and humility.
With the rise of boutique guitar builders, the big guitar manufacturers will learn quickly that this shit won’t fly anymore. If you’re a multimillion dollar company whose price tag says “hand crafted”, you better be paying into a 401K, you better be paying for your craftsperson’s health insurance, you better be helping them invest in a retirement plan that allows them to sit on their ass when they are 70 because they’ve been standing at your bench for years.
It’s unbelievable that companies get away with this shit. That every single interview reflects how awesome the guitars and gear is, and how much better next year will be for the CEOs and consumers — and no one would have anything if it weren’t for the laborers and craftspeople.
This editorial was written by one or multiple people that have chosen to stay anonymous due to how this topic may affect their current livelihood.