Guitar Lessons by Chip McDonald - July 2017

Monday, July 31, 2017

Guitar Isn't Dead, the Music Manufacturers Goofed

 I had an epiphany on the now tired fake-news Washington Post "Electric Guitar is Dead" a moment ago.  An angle I don't think anyone has thought of or noticed. 

 Music manufacturers have goofed up.

 "Music retail", like most things in 'Murica, is a bit of a capitalistic lie.  Entrepreneurs don't get to actually compete on a level playing field; the "field" has always been mini-monopolies.

 Even before the Guitar Center holocaust music retail was based on protected dealer regions.  In order for a store to carry a line of instruments, they had to "get" the dealership by buying an enormous quantity, or agreeing to do so, provided no other store "in the area" had not already captured it.

 This favored the manufacturers of course, they wanted it this way.  The funny thing is that while it probably seemed safe to them, they had guaranteed orders every year, it also meant dealers were not incentivized to sell mass quantities.  There were pluses and minuses to this scheme. 

 During music retail's idealized peak, you had a number of healthy music stores in most 3rd tier cities.   The larger stores could discount more in general, the smaller stores could dare to cut prices more.  This provided the illusion that "capitalism" was going on, while big manufacturers were selling micro-monopolies. 

 Which was fine, at least there was an industry, people were employed, products made and sold.

 Then the retail holocaust happened.

 I was amazed the FTC didn't step in and stop it.  By the time I had convinced the owner of the music store I worked at that internet retail was the future, it was probably already too late.  Big manufacturers had already made their agreements with Guitar Center/Musician's Friend; you couldn't advertise prices online, you couldn't sell outside your region.

 But GC/MF could.

 I instantly knew what the end game of this was going to be, and surely I wasn't the only one.  Here we are, decades later, and local music stores try to hang on in the face of the Empire. 


 As I mentioned above, you had healthy music retail in 3rd tier cities.  Not struggling to survive 2nd tier retail, but established, employing a good amount, 'Murican dream independent stores. 

 Now, while I'm sure most people in the music manufacturing industry would say "well, of course all of that is gone now because of Guitar Center sucking out their business - the gross sales are the same", I think they're missing a very big element.

 I would liken 2nd tier music retail now to the way 3rd tier stores operated in the 80's, 90's.  They can sort of afford to carry a few lines, a bargain-one brand for everything (Peavey or Behringer).  For the healthier stores, they can maybe carry a "boutique" line, partially; Mesa Boogie or maybe DW, the minimum order. Which they'll now sit on for more than one sales cycle.

 Here's the relevance: back then, in a 3rd tier city, a person could travel 30 minutes to the 2nd tier city, and probably have access to being able to try out effectively "everything".

  Music manufacturers didn't have the Mart of Wal GC/MF outlet to sell the bulk of their production.  They had to spread it around to all of the different stores. 

  So there is a new problem.  This just occurred to me, because a student of mine asked me about a new amp that has come out recently that has an extreme amount of hype.  I told him I haven't tried it so I don't really know first hand what it sounded like.

I had attempted to try it at a Guitar Center in D.C..  They not only didn't have it, the floor model of another amp I tried out along similar lines was missing the power cable.  The employees didn't know or care where it was; in turn the GC appears to be going out of business.

 In my own town upon putting my local zip code in the "Find a Dealer" field on a number of music manufacturer's web sites, my suspicions are confirmed that in order to try said amp out one will probably have to take a day to drive to a 1st tier city.  Same goes for the other 2 or 3 competitor's products. 

 In the case of my student, he's even less motivated than I am to research first hand said product.  Effectively it's invisible.  Yes, there are dozens of YouTube review videos, and he can of course order said product from Guitar Center.

 But he's not, he's hanging onto his money.  Any chance of a sales pitch, in person excitement, hands-on sales experience is gone.  Because, the Faustian bargain has made it so.  The music manufacturing industry has decided to throw away 2nd and 3rd tier brick and mortar markets. 

 Sure, it still sort of exists.  But not likely it used to.  They've injected an entropy into the whole business of "music" with this scheme - which isn't helped by the "music is free!" MP3 phenomenon. 

 I get that manufacturers are not going to rebel against the Evil Empire.  It's really the government's fault for not stepping in when it was happening as a regulatory agency.  It's done. My point is that the dilution of the sales environment doesn't not automatically get taken up by online sales; and the resulting loss of in person sales in these 2nd and 3rd tier regions means you risk de-enervating the whole thing.  It could be that in the long run, just as music production has shown it doesn't need large studios anymore, it may not need large manufacturers anymore.

 It's a lot easier to sell something to someone when they're holding it in their hands. 


Saturday, July 29, 2017

A Comment to a Tim Pierce/Pete Thorn Video

 I found myself ranting a bit in a comment to a Tim Pierce / Pete Thorn YouTube video ("Tim and Pete's Guitar Show, highly recommended) on the now old subject of the highly successful Washington Post's fake news click bait campaign against guitar.  It went something like this....:

 I've been teaching guitar for... decades now, and last year was my best year by far.

1) Population continues to increase.

2) Availability of potential exposure to great music is better than ever.

3) "Rock music" has crested the "dad music" wave and is now in a *new* realm; NOT CYCLICAL, but a new era that perhaps could be compared to the progression of indo-European classical music from the beginnings of polyphony - a span of over 10 centuries.

4) Sorry retailers, electric guitars don't evaporate but get re-sold, inherited and given away.

5) Purveyors of academic institutionalized rubric called "marketing execs" and "business professionals" wrecked the romanticism and mystery of music and music retail in the 90's by their Dunning-Kruger afflicted influence. Music retail was a crazy, beautiful thing until then, laid waste by GC/MF/internet. This may change, hopefully, back to a more grungy, mysterious and hidden, rambunctious and bohemian expanse.

6) Millenials tend towards being very accepting of their fate. The cliche of rebellious youth no longer exists. The impetus to do music has changed. We are just now exiting a period of creative flailing based on the baseness of people thinking extremes - who can be faster, slower, more detuned, more evil, more fey, most retro, most post modern, etc.. This was a Gen-X reflex to existential anxiety coupled to requiring everything to be "a career decision". Jimi Hendrix wasn't thinking about "career decisions".

7) The 60's were the American Artistic Renaissance. Appreciation for detail, subtlety in art was never higher. That has been lost post-Cold War. In turn learning to appreciate art/music is a new thing for people in the 21st century. Some people in their 30's-40's may be experiencing a realization of music akin to what "most" kids in their pre-teens felt in the 70's. Which could potentially put us 10-15 years away from things "re-normalizing".

8) Commercialization of music is also cresting a wave. Where there was a time when that meant trying to advertise what was good as well as possible, it moved towards the notion that advertising alone was all that was needed, to now where in my opinion what is left of the "industry" is going through autonomic motions. Some see reality through the false perspective of Apple Music sales. Others through Spotify plays, still others through aggregated plays, Youtube hits, a diffuse numerical representation of what they think consumers are thinking. Instead of looking around, talking to people, investigating first hand and MAKING A DECISION WITHOUT STATISTICS.

(I stopped at this point and posted here - it was about to become my previous blog post on said subject!)

Saturday, July 15, 2017


Fake News: Reports of Electric Guitar's Death 

Greatly Exaggerated! 

My "vintage" 1982 Japanese Strat

 A "story" that is making the rounds in industry podcasts, blogs, videocasts is that "guitar is dying" or some variation therein.


 This can be traced to a story found in the Washington Post, that purports "The death of the electric guitar" (and guitar in general it would seem), based on a couple of anecdotes.

 From the outset I'd like the reader to know that for me, a person who has been teaching guitar 5 days a week for more than 30 years, last year and this year have been the best years I've had - ever.  From my viewpoint, playing guitar has transitioned into the activity that has supplanted the tradition of learning piano as a way of expanding a person's intellectual horizons.  We are now in the era where a considerable portion of parents may play guitar themselves, and see the benefit of their child learning, where previously the process revolved around piano.

 This is very relevant.  The WaPo article uses the position of guitar sales as a harbinger for the "death of electric guitar", which is completely misleading: the "story" is maybe - maybe - a bubble bursting in the sales of guitars.  Which is a wholly different thing.

1) Guitars don't evaporate!

 Ironically, the author had written another story previously wherein he described the process of discovering and liking an old guitar that an uncle had. 

 The WaPo article cites George Gruhn (of Gruhn Guitar's fame, vintage guitar dealer in Nashville) lamenting sales figures being down (while production being up).  The problem with this is ignoring a basic premise:

 Guitars are not a consumable.

 They don't go away.  The sales figures across a year doesn't tell you anything at all about how many guitar there are in circulation with the general public.

 The figure I want to see is, "what is the total amount of electric guitars that has been sold since 1957, versus the population?".   Because in reality, a lot of people today (and in the recent past) start out not on a new guitar, but a hand-me-down. Of which there is an ever increasing supply.

 2) Entry level guitars can now be "intermediate" guitars.

 In the past 5 years, the basic, beginner $150 guitar has risen in quality to a level that in all honesty, I could easily get by with at a gig.  Tuners work good, action/playability is good, craftsmanship is pretty good, sound is ok. 75% pro acceptable.

 That wasn't the case previously.  It probably wasn't until the late 80's that a $150 became "passable" as even being playable.  Bad frets, wood, machining, construction, tuners that didn't work.

 Japan got their act together, and basically blitzed the under $500 guitar market.  Fender and Gibson dropped the ball.  Their fault.

 Now we have "Fender" guitars made outside the country, hyper cheaply, and with good quality.

 The point to this is that starting with the Japanese era in the late 80's, a Large Proverbial Tonnage of Pretty Good Guitars was sold at a low cost.  As a point of fact, one of my personal favorite guitars is a "Fender Strat" made in the Fujigen Gakki factory in Japan in 1982. It was a $150 guitar back then, and I bought it from a student in the 90's for about the same.  It was made of the same, or equal quality as what Fender was making with their "American" guitars at the time, a great value.

 Quite Decent Cheap Guitars are now supplanting what was previously a period in the first year or so of a novice guitar player's life where there was a necessity to step up to a better instrument.   That is no longer the case in general in my experience.

3) Value added past a certain point is subjective.

 As mentioned previously, American manufacturers were slow to respond to Japanese imports.  By the time they tried to respond, they had also decided to try to create the illusion that their branding held a certain cachet beyond what they had traditionally made: the basic Fender Stratocaster, or the Gibson Les Paul.

 Both instruments were considered the "fine, professional choices" one made as a mature musician.

 The problem is that as Japan became more competitive, both Fender and Gibson reacted by raising their prices, relying on their traditional perception of the only "nice" or "valuable" instruments. The question should be raised that, do the parts on the $1,000 Stratocaster cost $850 more than the $150 Squier (budget line) Strat?  Is Gibson unable to make a Les Paul model for no less than $2,000 more than their budget line Epiphone $450 Les Paul guitar?  Both examples are effectively, mechanically and electrically, the same guitar.  Much more than just a doubling of price, meanwhile Japan/Ibanez makes guitars in the $500 price range every bit as well made as the premium Fender or Gibson instrument.  Where is the added price coming from?
 In some cases artisan crafting, in their Custom Shop models.  You can put a value on that as you wish, but it's a subjective thing.  You can wish everyone that grows tired of their $150 guitar is going to spend well past the $1,000 mark for their next guitar, but that's not reality.

 In effect, sales are down for the "traditional" models by the "traditional" brands.  As far as I know fine guitar builders like John Suhr and Tom Anderson still have waiting lists?  Maybe the world doesn't need a $5,000 Jeff Gordon model Les Paul, or an Uber Vintage Reliced Strat that looks like it was left in the woods for a few years, after being dragged behind an F-150, the proverbial pre-worn/torn/ jeans of guitar?  How many different Les Paul and Stratocaster models do we really need?

4) Guitar heroes are plentiful today.

 Gruhn laments that "nobody is playing guitar because of John Mayer".  As a guitar teacher I can say quite plaintively, "you're wrong, George". Furthermore there are plenty of "guitar heroes" that motivate people to play now, it's just that Gruhn may not know who they are, or as is the case I suspect - guys like Tosin Abasi don't play or care about vintage guitars and in turn are not on his radar.

 While at the same time, I'd also have Mr. Gruhn know that he's also missing the boat on the reality that for all intents and purposes, Classic Rock is still very popular and potent for even the youngest new guitar player.  Kids today are as likely to be into Queen as they are Justin Bieber.  The landscape has changed, it's flatter and the road goes both ways; the "old music" that was great still is great, and is recognized as such.

  That a person can't buy a real-deal Strat like Jimi had, or a Les Paul like the other Jimmy used without a spending a car down payment, runs counter to Fender/Gibson's own retail environment.  They're helping stagnate interest in their business in the middle of the process.   $1,000 for a Fender Champ amplifier, a model that home-brew DIY people make as one offs for less than $500?  So much for the Clapton fan getting that Layla sound.

 5) Brands have no clue how to market to women.

 Yes, Taylor Swift has sold a bazillion guitars, in spite of the industry ignoring the demographic buying them.  Lucky for the industry she is so popular, because they had ample chances before to take advantage of the popularity of acts like Jewel, Tracy Chapman, and even Joni Mitchell.

 My business is about 1/3rd female now, yet I don't see that reflected in magazine advertising or sales presentation.  I know somewhere there are Genuine Marketing Execs with Pieces of Expensive Paper in a Frame to prove they know what they're doing. who would say otherwise, but .... nope, you're doing it wrong.

In conclusion...

 We may have reached Peak Guitar output.  The convenience of buying a new, quality instrument cheaply isn't going to go away, but it's the manufacturer's own fault to have pushed vintage guitars as being such a viable thing. A guitar from the 70's and 80's, even the 90's is now an "old" guitar, but most likely just as playable as any "vintage" instrument. Unlike classic cars, they're easy to maintain and store, and cheap.

 The guitar retail bubble may be bursting, but not because of electric guitar popularity. If I'm not mistaken _Guitar Hero_ (the bain of my existence for a while...) was a very big seller not too long ago.  It didn't rely on "new music", despite drones of stats showing the "death of rock music".  It didn't rely on a turntable interface, either.  By most accounts, it shouldn't have been popular at all.

 Or how about the popularity of the Beatles, does anyone doubt their present iconic status?  They don't sound like EDM or whatever is touted as the Biggest Selling Music according to download stats or some other arbitrary notion.  Yet somehow, they're still there, and I'm still asked to show people how to play their music 50 years later.

 Fake news comes in many forms.