One Year Out: Has Gibson Really Turned Over A New Leaf?
When I first started writing this article, I thought I was going to be rehashing some old material about Gibson (under owner Henry Juszkiewicz) and one particular completely crappy business practice: "The Bumblebee Capacitors".
But while doing research for that article (the bumblebee capacitors debacle is still a pretty interesting and an instructive case study), I was lead to a whole lot of other things: namely the information that is now this article. Most notably that there was a whole chain of events, playing out across several years, under Juszkiewicz's leadership that caused the failure of Gibson, and the forced sale that threw "Henry J" out, and that brought in new investors and new company leadership. Early last month, it had been a year since Gibson went through that ownership and leadership change.
Henry Juszkiewicz acquired Gibson in 1986 for $5m. 5 Million Dollars. That's it. Now, 1986 is quite a bit different from 2019 in terms of how much inflation has devalued the dollar, but $5 million still seems a pittance given the storied Gibson name...
At some point, probably after the 1990s with the implosion of record labels, and explosion of MP3 and online music sharing, we assume that Henry Juszkiewicz started thinking about a Gibson, that, while still making guitars, was no longer in the "music business". We don't know when this thought process happened, but at some point in the late 2000s, Gibson stopped being a "guitar company" instead declared itself to be in the "lifestyle business".
06-Aug-2019 was the one-year anniversary of the change of control of the Gibson Guitar Company from owner Henry Juszkiewicz to an investor group, with the company now to be lead by CEO James "JC" Curleigh.
At first glance, it seems like it's really good news. Gibson, at the 2019 Summer NAMM booth seemed to be offering a reasonable narrative about them having found their way and about how they're making great musical instruments again:
Why would Gibson need to push this narrative? They had to because Gibson had not only been mismanaged for so long, but because Gibson had lost control of their narrative.
Truthfully, not every problem is/was of Gibson's making. You're probably well aware of the whole "Chibson" problem with counterfeit Gibson guitars coming from China. This continues to be a problem and not only contributed to Gibson's problems, but remains a problem to this day. It's probably pretty easy to scapegoat Henry Juszkiewicz. Unless one works there, it's almost impossible to know the ins and outs of the day-to-day operations of the company, but it seems pretty clear that it wasn't just Chinese Gibson copy guitars ("Chibsons"), and what appears to be a lack of understanding of the instrument and music businesses. Personally, I think he did a horrible job leading the Gibson Guitar company in terms of destroying a healthy company culture. The company culture became far more paranoid as employees started to become far more worried about their jobs. That said, it's also true that Henry did keep Gibson Guitars going for more than 30 years. The real problem is that the market that Gibson sells guitars to today is a good degree SMALLER that it was 15 years ago.
Back as early as 2015, there were rumors that Gibson was not a healthy company. It wasn't hard to piece this together. Gibson had spent several years trying to do things to pivot from an electric musical instrument company to a "lifestyle brand" company. There are companies that exist as "lifestyle brand" companies, but they still have to do something and do it well. Harley-Davidson, for example. People who have never owned a Harley-Davidson motorcycle will still go out and buy the stupid tchotchkes: the stickers, the mugs, the blankets, etc... The difference between Gibson and Harley-Davidson is that Harley-Davidson has, for many decades, been consistently investing in building new/better/different motorcycles. The only people looking to buy a 1952 Harley-Davidson "panhead" are people who know that they need to go antique picking for it. They're not demanding Harley Davidson build another one.
So we've got an owner trying to turn a company that has an iconic brand, but without a track record of slow, steady, incremental updates to its product line trying to pivot into a "lifestyle brand" without a clear vision of what that lifestyle is, or will be. Under Juszkiewics, besides guitars, one wonders what widgets are important to that lifestyle? It's a recipe for disaster. And a disaster it became...
Beginning in 2016, dumpster-divers who braved the depths of Guitar Center's dumpsters provided some pretty interesting images - specifically Gibson electric guitars that had had hammers taken to them that were then thrown in the dumpster. Here's a video from 2017.
In 2017, the music news started reporting about Gibson's problems. Gibson responded by closing down their Memphis factory. Come 2018, it was no longer surprising to see news about Gibson circling the toilet: Variety Magazine - Iconic Gibson Guitar Company Said to be Nearing Bankruptcy
The problem with the "New Gibson" is that there continue to be stories and videos about Gibson destroying finished and unfinished guitars.Watch a Caterpillar running over a bunch of "Henry-J era" Firebird Xs:
In the spirit of fairness, we have to understand the story, not just the images. Just the images themselves are emotionally gutwrenching. After watching many videos and reading articles about Gibson's transistion to the present, here's what I understand about the situation. Apparently, the Firebird Xs you see getting flattened by the excavator tractor linked above were inventory on hand that dates back 2011. These were guitars that NEVER sold. No one wanted them at the price point that Gibson (under Henry Juszkiewicz) wanted for them.
Here's where I'm bothered: Video of a bunch of ES-335s being destroyed.... These were new (as of 2019) 335s that might have had tiny blemishes in the finish, or the fretboard, or whereever:
Both videos are recent.
Now, I've also been informed that it's also the case that Gibson is looking to re-assert a level of quality in their production. Paul Reed Smith does this too. But to think that they simply destroy guitars with tiny blemishes, that would otherwise be fantastic playing instruments, without trying to make them available to underserved communities, or to rework them into now popular "reliced-models" really has me disappointed.
This stuff has me really pissed off because despite appreciating Gibson's new desire to build quality instruments (in order for them to regain a quality reputation), it goes without saying that we live in a world of finite resources, and to see Gibson doing this (and knowing that Paul Reed Smith does this) strikes us as deeply irresponsible.
Hand-in-hand with Gibson, Guitar Center has, for years, been plagued by rumors of "about to go belly-up". I can speak for this first-hand as I worked with someone who had just left a position at Guitar Center to work where I had been recently hired on... He worked at the Guitar Center HQ and was head of all their networking and IT infrastructure. What he told me was a horror-story of nepotism and incompetence... But that's a story for another day - including Guitar Center's junk-bond debt rating!
Final thoughts: It's always disappointing when a company loses its way. It's even more disappointing when a company as iconic and respected as Gibson loses its way. Under Juszkiewicz, Gibson really lost it's way. For a long time, the wolf was at the door. Bad ideas about new guitars. Bad ideas about "lifestyle" products. Bad ideas about "guitars that tune themselves, but that we will not make replacement parts available for...". That said, while we are enthusiastic about Gibson under new ownership, and with a keener eye on making and selling great products, we have better hopes for the company than we did before.
Unfortunately, there's still a black cloud with respect to Gibson trashing otherwise playable guitars and wasting those precious resources. We hope Gibson works on being far less wasteful, and until we see something change at Gibson with respect to being far less wasteful, we're not going to be purchasing any new Gibson products.