At the man times, we are a musical folk, so when Standard and Poor (the single worst name for a company in finance ever) slashed the Gibson Guitar Company’s credit rating to CCC (whatever that means) it seemed like the venerable old guitar manufacture was in significant danger of going bankrupt. We at The Man Times are Gibson players, it’s a brand we love, respect and like, so we when we ask ourselves what has gone wrong we offer our critique from a place of love, and there are some harsh truths as to what, at least from the outside as to what has gone wrong with the great name.
As we understand it Gibson has $375m worth of debts that mature on 23rd July, and while it claims that it has met all its obligations and will continue to. It beggars’ belief that with its credit situation in the state it’s in that it will meet its deadline to refinance its debts and if it were to fail to do so then then bankruptcy and the long good night await. Rumours are abounding of significant change demanded at the very top of the company by its shareholders and creditors and the whole thing looks like its going to become a bit of a mess.
We wrote on this blog, a long time ago in fact that music is changing, we mentioned it here, and we mentioned it again when we looked back at be here now. Music production these days is cheap, and can be done without the awful need to involve other people, in fact if your decent enough with a couple of apps on an iPhone or iPad then you can make music without involving anybody else at all, in fact if you can count to 4, it doesn’t really require as much skill as you’d think, you can be damned sure it doesn’t take 10000 hours of practice! That’s not necessarily a bad thing, by the way.
So, we take off our hats as fans, and let’s take a VERY critical look at where Gibson could take a long hard look at itself.
In an era where music is getting cheaper, there’s no point pricing yourself as one of the most expensive manufactures on the market but its position Gibson have strongly held, particularly in the acoustic market. To prove my point, I’m going to compare like with like wherever possible.
There are, two senior brands, single cutaway guitars, and yes, I know what nerds are going to tell me, that they’re not like for like, the telecaster has single coil pickups and the Les Paul has a pair of humbuckers, but the point of the matter isn’t the hardware, inside. These are entry level models of Gibson, and arguably their main rival Fender and the price difference between them could buy me a whole other guitar.
At this point imaginary reader, I can hear you saying, if you know anything about guitars Edgy, you’ll know the Telecaster is made in Mexico and the Les Paul at the Gibson factory in the USA, it’s a better build and will play better. Well imaginary reader, quite possibly, but put yourself in the position of imaginary first-time player or parents of imaginary first time player, buying them their first guitar, they don’t care where it’s made, and when it comes to playability unless you’ve got a Les Paul with the satin neck it likely won’t play as well as the Telecaster anyway which are much easier to play on the whole.
The price point for both is too high though, there’s a half decent chance, that if you’re buying a guitar you want one that looks great and sounds OK. Heck the Amp you’ll plug it into in the store will likely be better than anything you’ll buy to practice on, and the tele and the LP look Boring as Beans on Toast when you can go and get something much more interesting for less money, Christ the Gretsch comes with a Bigsby for less money, and you can normally add anything up to 80 quid to add one to an Epiphone version let alone a fully-fledged Gibson.
The price point argument continues when you carry on into our next subject.
The Junior Brand
Gibson’s main junior brand is Epiphone, another brand I have a fondness for, my first 4 guitars were all Epiphone, they’re a brand that while often maligned in certain quarters is particularly underrated in various other parts, but that therein lies its problem. Epiphone has had some legendary players in its time from The Beatles, Paul Weller, Noel Gallagher and if you read Wikipedia article (I know, I know) for the Epiphone Casino Dave Grohl. They’re quality guitars if you buy the right one, and they come in a variety of price points and levels of spec, and that’s the first point.
The problem is, they’re too expensive, and possibly too good for where they need to be, you can get some Epiphone Les Pauls for more than the Fender Telecaster we showed earlier on.
Now it can be the best Epiphone in the world but few people, even those that know anything about guitars would take the Epiphone over the Fender. If you know nothing about guitars, given a choice between the two you are going to pick the one you’ve heard of.
Epiphone has a much more sensible approach with the SG, the best SG Epiphone will make is a decent mark cheaper than a Gibson one, the problem is that’s about £250 different, and even then that’s still expensive compared to the other options there are floating around, you can get a lot of guitar for £250. The entry point for Gibson is too high, to the point where they put their junior brand toe to toe with another brand’s senior brand and in general, other brands.
This isn’t a reference to the actual sound of the guitars, more a reference to Gibson’s acoustic range. Gibson make some legendary acoustic guitars it’s fair to say, outstanding in fact, but very, very pricey as a result. You’ll struggle to get a Gibson acoustic for under a grand, that’s a very high entry point, particularly when you consider an acoustic guitar is a lot of people’s entry point into playing the guitar. Fender, appear to have been quicker off the mark, they’ve pretty much abandoned the Squier brand for acoustic guitars and you can pick up a fender branded acoustic guitar, and a decent one for around £150, at that price point its significantly better than the competition.
Even Martin who make legendarily expensive guitars have moved the entry point of their range to £400 and you can get the Ed Sheeran Divide guitar, which is cleverly targeted at people who want to play like Ed Sheeran for about £650. All of this is lower than any Gibson acoustic. Epiphone at that price range, aren’t competitive in terms of quality, I own two Epiphone guitars, but I selected them because I knew what sort of basic sound I wanted from my acoustic, not because of their quality, they make a sound closer to that of people I like who play full Gibson versions. New players simply don’t know or necessarily care what they want to sound like, and depending on how old they are, it isn’t necessarily their choice.
Gibson certainly has the social media following, it has over 8.1 million Facebook likes, that’s a huge amount. Its more than 31/32 NFL teams, 22 NBA teams, Every NHL team and every baseball team accept the Yankees. So, there is clearly a fan base and a demand for their products, or an significant interest to hear about what’s going on then the answer to, and I hate this word, monetizing them, then I suspect several answers will lie in the analysis of who those people are and analyse their target market better because whatever they’re doing now isn’t working but data can often provide answers in these situations.
Their Facebook content highlights something of a problem, and something I’ve started to notice about a lot of guitar companies, there’s loads of photos of guitars but hardly any videos of guitars, or interesting people playing guitars. In fact, the Gibson Facebook page has only 40 videos. That’s it, in its entire life, 40 videos. If your Facebook page is the best platform to advertise your content to new and existing players, then having virtually NO content about the instruments themselves might come across as a bit of a bugger. Guitars lend themselves to a medium with you know… sound.
The YouTube channel is just as bad, and with all due respect to the artists they do use in their videos, they’re almost exclusively over 45 and people who haven’t had any significant global hits in over a decade. This problem isn’t exclusive to Gibson, but with guitar music falling behind rap music in global sales its becoming sort of obvious why.
Guitars aren’t Phones
The Guitar industry is guilty of this in general really, bringing a new range of Les Paul’s out every year, each minutely different but functionally identical to the previous year is a nice idea, but its also a dumb one. Les Paul’s aren’t iPhones I’m not going to trade in my 2017 Les Paul for a 2018 model, so why bother paying to develop a new model each year, why limit the affects you can get from ordering parts and products in bulk by limiting your order run to a years’ worth, and while they may have a load of parts commonality, there are often changes in the manufacturing process and electronics which mean R&D spend and adjustments to tooling, training and for what? Hardly anything of value. If you have do develop new models, do them in rotation over a multi-year cycle rather than a new batch every year.
Innovation is great, innovation for innovation’s sake is not innovation, its mindless tweaking. Gibson would make far money taking as standard Les Paul body, with no weight reduction, an older pickup set, or maybe even some top of the line Epiphone pickups, 5 basic colours and charging £500 for it, that’s an actual innovation, because it solves a need that people may have. How do I get a genuine Gibson without spending a fortune?
The Guitar industry seems hell bent on being inaccessible to new players, stuck in its 20th century approach to music development. The Guitar industry has access to a world of musicians and talent that it simply doesn’t maximise for itself. The Gibson YouTube and Facebook channels should be filled with hot young acts playing their Gibson’s showing off new talent or working with established talent to attract interest, live sets, intimate gigs, which Gibson can in turn charge a fortune for tickets to go to. They should be putting on music show cases, festivals, working with young bands and helping them to put out music.
Gibson, and the guitar industry in general is being passive in its own destruction. Waiting and flailing around doing nothing substantive hoping that releasing another new but functionally identical to the old version guitar every year.
Gibson needs to take ownership of its fate, and quickly. There is traffic and market for this, guitar tuition videos, reviews and all sorts have millions and millions of views and yet the guitar companies themselves, who have access to the acts who play their instruments are simply not benefitting from it. No doubt the tweaks for the 2019 Les Paul are underway, for no apparent reason whatsoever while other people will be making the money from the YouTube hits, reviewing them, playing them all round the world and Gibson will sit idly by wondering if lowering the action by 0.0001 mm will improve the 2020 model!
Gibson needs to grow into the 21st Century very quickly, it needs to analyse its player base, what they want and then not only that they need to find out what people who aspire to play Gibson guitars want and what’s stopping them, actually do some proper marketing for once and understand where they’re at.
They’re terrible at advertising their own stuff, Christ alive I’ve even seen Fender adverts on YouTube now, they’re rubbish but at least they’re starting to learn but Gibson appear content to wheel out a 50 second video of Slash every 6 months and think people will go head over heels for it.
Music has changed so, so much but Guitar companies are competing not just with each other, but tech companies like Apple for music creation. Gibson need to start creating content for themselves not just assist other people with their own. If guitar manufacturers like Chapman Guitars can grow from a YouTube and social media following, then a giant like Gibson should definitely be able to use it to help steady their ship.