Founded in 1894, Gibson Brands Inc. recently filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy over a century after its inception. The company was built upon pioneering vintage guitar models like the Les Paul, SG, Flying V, J-45 and Hummingbird.
Through the years Gibson has endorsed hall-of-fame musicians including Slash, Zak Wylde, Randy Rhodes and others – thereby cementing its position as the leading guitar manufacturer. Its iconic models can be easily identified by anyone who has ever glanced through an independent or high street music store. So this begs the question – How did we get here?
The rise of software-based music in Pop, Hip-Hop and EDM is the most obvious suspect. Listeners are now more accustomed to electronically produced mainstream music. Even bands like Coldplay and Maroon 5 use almost no live instruments on their albums.
Dubai based producer, Rayan shares his thoughts on the digitization of musical instruments:
“The wars between digital and analogue, live versus virtual instruments, has never been more prevalent than it has today. As a producer, guitarist, bassist, and drummer I feel the significance of live instrumentation is slowly being confined to genre rather than being necessary to make music. Years ago, having any form of virtual or digital elements in your music was seen as ‘taboo’ or 'trying to hide' because it represented a lack of both musicianship and authenticity. But with mainstream music slowly incorporating more of these elements over the last 30 years, listeners’ ears are now far more in tune and perceptive to the smallest imperfections that it reduces the demand for live instrumentation. Instead, the average listener now expects and enjoys the audio footprints of digital and virtual software. Its acceptability has leaked into every genre from things such as auto-tune on vocals, sampling, drum triggering live kits, electronic music, etc. There will be always be genres of music that are instrument driven and require live musicianship - rock, punk, metal, country, blues, and jazz are some of those. But for a lot of vocal driven music that uses the music as a sonic bed, creating it using electronic software is already the primary objective.” - Rayan
A derivative argument here is whether we’re now clashing pure electro against purely instrument-based music, whilst overlooking the fusion of electro with guitar music that has brought astounding results, and sounds that have defined entire generations or cultures. Take the likes of Linkin Park or the Nu Metal movement which demonstrate how two opposing output devices can compliment rather than compete with one another.
Bad Business Decisions
In a move unnoticed by many, and unsurprisingly in retrospect – Gibson quietly tried to capitalise on the growth of electronic music and instrumentation by transforming itself into a lifestyle brand.
In 2014, the company acquired the audio and home entertainment business from Philips. This was accompanied by bold strides into consumer electronics – headphones, speakers and DJ products. So this must be great right? Not really - Gibson leveraged these purchases by taking on debt. The company’s annual revenue grew but its profit margins shrunk.
Despite the decline, or eclipsing of guitar heroes, mainstream pop artists like Ed Sheeran have blown life into the six-string instrument, through his worldwide popularity and image - acoustic guitar seems to be getting a reboot.
Market trends also indicate an entirely different scenario, In the UAE an increasing variety of guitar brands are now available in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Online guitar shopping is gaining momentum and guitar classes and institutes are more popular than ever. Is this really a Guitar or a Gibson problem? - Local UAE musician Palayan tells us his point of view:
“Just like many recording studios in the world continue to shut down, I’m not surprised that Gibson is bankrupt. They aren’t the cheapest guitars in the world which is what makes the other hundreds of manufacturers accessible. People who play these days have so many options in guitars. High quality instruments priced at a quarter of a Gibson with the same specs. With so many more people making music ‘in the box’, everything from instruments to recording gear is at budget costs” - Palayan
Headlines may strike a degree of doubt on the instruments future. But perhaps one giant manufacturer like Gibson, a great ambassador over decades, represents a lot less of the instrument than we think. Gibson’s demise is certainly sad news but the guitar still remains the most popular musical instrument in the world.
Observations, opinions and predictions can be as quantitative and varied as there are genres and sub-cultures in today’s ‘music industry’. Despite a technological revolution that permitted new, never-before-heard sounds to redefine and dominate mainstream music, there will always be a gap in the market for new and interesting music that doesn’t exist – yet – to come and blow people away.
The versatility of the guitar, or more specifically in this context, the electric guitar, shows that it serves as an innovator rather than a hindrance to the evolutionary nature of music making. Even if Rock ’n’ Roll dies altogether one day, the guitar is under no obligation to share that grave.
If Gibson suffers, indeed it’s a moral blow to players and fans of this musical revolutionary, but everything takes a hit as music is a business too. Gibson is currently working out a financial plan through the US Bankruptcy Court (State of Delaware) to get itself back to “business as usual”.
Perhaps let us take a step back and remind ourselves to separate instruments from music, and musicians from listeners.
This is not the end.
Sadek Music, The official distributor of Gibson in UAE was unavailable for a comment. At the time of writing Gibson’s official website was unavailable.
About the Writer
Faariss Khalil is a British musician who currently lives in Dubai. As a former turntablist from Bristol his experience of growing up in a thriving music scene has fuelled his passion to uncover new music in the UAE.