What I’ve Been Up To: November ’17 to March‘18 – [1/4]
I hope this letter finds you all well. I’m doing o.k. in spite of (and along with) my various medical adventures. I sort of think that I’m in better shape than a lot of the rest of this country, actually. But let’s not get into that.
Things in my life are progressing . . . slowly. My life is becoming interestingly complicated. For starters, have too much work to do; I simply don’t have time to do it all — unless people are willing to wait longer to get guitars from me. I’m getting more commissions now that I’m old and famous and decrepit; I guess people are thinking to order their guitars before it’s too late. As I have more projects than I can cope with, I’ve hired (for the first time ever) a personal assistant to help me organize my priorities and my use of time.
With my new assistant’s help, I’ve organized my building efforts into building four guitars at a time. Each set of four takes me about five to six months to make.
Why does it take so long? Well, for one thing, it’s not at all the same as putting four sets of woods through the same paces and procedures and more or less cookie-cuttering four guitars to completion. I’m a custom maker, so each guitar will be different in some ways: different woods; individual treatment and thicknessing of woods; different rosettes; different models; different neck and fretboard measurements; different scale lengths; individually made and sized bridges; individual voicing for different target sound (the voicing on each guitar that I make takes me two days) ; different peghead veneers; individual intonation work; different ornamental touches and inlays; sometimes different finishes; different neck measurements; some guitars are cutaways or not; some guitars have fanned frets; some guitars have twelve strings; etc. Also, we make our bindings, head blocks, bracing, necks, etc. rather than to farm them out or subcontract them. Finally, some guitars are “special” projects and take forever. Four such sets of specs is the most that I can juggle around at any time. Anything more than that and I lose my focus.
Besides that, I’ve always worked slowly. I do an awful lot of the work by hand, with hand tools. I don’t cut corners. If I did, I’m sure I’d dilute the quality of my guitars. Worst of all, I’m artistic; that always takes time. I also teach, do repairs, and do administrative work (paperwork, endless emails and correspondence, record-keeping, finances, bookkeeping, and keeping track of the work flow) alongside of my building. I cannot separate or eliminate any of these activities. Plus, you probably know that I’ve written two books; well, I’m writing another two-volume set now. And I still go to guitar shows, which soak up a lot of time and energy.
And I receive visitors. This is increasing, for some interesting reasons, and it eats into my time; I’ll get back to this point later.
Finally, I have varying amounts of help at work, depending on how many apprentices I have at a given time. A year ago I had three; now I have one, and he’s on maternity leave as he just became a dad. I expect another apprentice to begin his studies with me this coming Summer. All in all, I have less help than usual these days.
And here’s what else is going on with me:
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
My last health/mental-health report was of the aftermath of my heart’s having stopped pumping blood, and the installation of a pacemaker to keep a somewhat wonky muscle functioning regularly. (Well, it has worked hard for many years now and never took any time off, so I sort of understand that it might want a break.)
I got sick the month after I got my pacemaker, with a horrible bronchial infection that lasted three months. It’s been flu season (and a very bad one at that) so that may have been implicated. Also, the Santa Rosa fires occurred; they made the air foul as far as 90 miles away. That blaze was a clusterf**k of PG&E equipment breakdown, bad communication, lack of communication, and the state’s Emergency Warning System’s being asleep at the wheel; as a result several thousand homes burned to the ground. In any event, the air in Berkeley and Oakland was hazy and we could smell the soot. That didn’t help at all. For me, I think that was the straw that broke the camel’s back, as they say.
I’m o.k. now. But I did lose a lot of time with all that.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
THE NAMM TRADE SHOW
I got well just in time for the NAMM (National Association of Music Merchandisers) show. It’s the world’s largest trade show for the music business; it’s where manufacturers introduce all their new products and lines to the market. NAMM takes place in Anaheim every January. There’s nothing in Anaheim, really, except for this event and Disneyland – and the NAMM event is as loud and colorful as a Disneyland for musicians and musical merchants could get. If you’re in the music biz at any level (retailing, import-export, sheet music, guitars, kazoos, music magazine publishing, strings and accessories, violins, ukuleles, accordions, drums, recording equipment, wood supplies, specialty supplies, woodwinds, horns, microphones and amps and special effects electronics, tuners, stands and displays, straps, tambourines, music machines, harmonicas, pianos, basses, cellos, musical computer programs, musical gizmos of all kinds, etc. etc. etc. etc.) you will go, or send someone to, the NAMM show. People come from all over the U.S. and Europe, of course . . . and from as far away as Tokyo, Singapore, and Guangzhou . . . to see what’s new and to place wholesale orders for the following year. The convention facility itself is as large as an airport, and it’s for music biz people, retailers, and media only; the public is not allowed.
And why am I telling you this? Well, it has to do with the sheer size of the event, combined with the state of the music biz market . . . and my position in it. I’m visible and interviewable.
So, every January and into February, visitors visit me before and after NAMM.
This year I had visitors from Germany, China, Japan, Korea, Alaska, and mainland U.S. They come to visit, refresh the relationship, talk business . . . and to interview me. I gotta tellya, you’d be surprised at how many music magazines there are out there, and they’re all looking for things to feature and write about. There are even – for the first time – music magazines in China. Their music biz is opening up to non-Chinese rhythms, instruments, and merchandise at a rapid speed.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
KOREA AND CHINA
I am beginning to be courted by guitar dealers and stores in Korea and China. I remember that thirty or so years ago my work was being discovered in Japan; it was an important period of interest, excitement, growth, expansion, recognition, etc. Of course, the Japanese market has grown, developed, and changed remarkably in that time, and contemporary guitar makers are now known and their work is accepted easily in the marketplace. Stores carry inventories of known luthiers’ work at prices that are commonly accepted. There are talented young Japanese luthiers now, whereas there were hardly any when this all started. There are also guitar shows and exhibitions and supporting media (books, music, magazines, YouTube and the internet, recorded music, etc.) which didn’t exist previously. There are also loads of guitar performers and music; and so on. An entire industry has grown around this.
In this time period the Japanese economy has shrunk, though. It had its huge spurt of postwar growth, but the bubble burst in the 1990s and it’s been struggling to maintain itself since.
Growth is just beginning in China and Korea, however. Their markets are like a giant that is beginning to wake up. There is excitement, confusion, ferment, activity, and opportunism. They have a class of recently-become-very-rich entrepreneurs who have benefited from their population growth and the migration of rural people to the cities where industry and tech will give them jobs . . . and the people who have been in the real estate biz have become very, very wealthy. The new middle class has disposable income and is looking to buy expensive and exotic American goods, starting with cars. American guitars, too, are so exotic that they sell for huge prices.
Some Chinese believe that these imported instruments are very, very, very, very special and good. Well, some of them really are. But in China there is no prior experience against which to form reliable opinions; I heard that a Santa Cruz guitar was recently sold there for $43,000. That’s ridiculous by our standards, because they normally sell for a fraction of that amount. With all due respect to Santa Cruz guitars.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
In this regard, it is a bit like the Dutch tulip-mania of the 17the century. Tulips were introduced to Europe in the 1550s from Turkey and blossomed into popularity in the 1590s as botanists noticed how well that flower thrived in those climates.
Interestingly, somehow, tulips got sucked into the world’s first recorded speculative bubble. In late 1636, at the height of tulipmania, prices rose to extraordinarily high levels and a single bulb could sell for more than ten times the annual income of a skilled craftsworker! [Rich] people were going crazy for these things. The bubble burst in February of 1637, investors were ruined, and tulips became affordable to the common man. [For more information, see Wikipedia.]
Historically, this mania and the money that was spent in it were made possible by two things.
The first was that the Dutch developed many of the techniques of modern finance. They created a market for tulip bulbs by making them into durable goods; one element of this was that the practice developed of buyers (in this case florists) signing contracts before a notary to buy goods (in this case tulips) at the end of the season, at a known and agreed-upon price. They thus were effectively creating and making futures contracts . . . as well as the phenomenon of short selling. Then, as tulips became popular in France and other countries, and there began to be real money to be made in this flower, speculators began to enter the market.
The second thing was the context for the first: the Dutch economy. Holland was a colonialist power (as well as a trading and exploring one), and its Dutch East India Company was at that time the most powerful economic entity in the world. It was creating a powerful national economy, as well as an economic aristocracy, by (among other things) draining the Indies of its resources. It did so in well-documented Robber Baron style. The Dutch East India Company actually became the de facto government of some of the countries and provinces it did business with. No, I’m not making that up.‘
O.K.; that’s it for this segment. Part 2 of this narrative is coming right up.