Curleigh : Great question ; I mean , the starting point is , ultimately , a brand never starts off being iconic , right ? It earns its iconic status over time through a whole series of engagements and actions . Levi ’ s invented the blue jeans , so just start there , and then over time they were always in the centre of culture , whether it was gold miners or the soldiers who , when they weren ’ t wearing a uniform , they put on a pair of Levi ’ s , a white t-shirt , and a leather jacket . All of a sudden , that ’ s seen in Hollywood with James Dean and Marlon Brando , and then rock and roll , and then the Berlin Wall coming down and blue jeans are synonymous with democracy and freedom . It sounds weird , but that really was the Levi ’ s journey .
But coming into this century , Levi ’ s had sort of lost its edge and took its leadership [ in the market ] for granted . When I joined , it was like “ death to denim ” and “ yoga pants are taking over .” It ’ s similar to “ the guitar is dead .” Then you ’ re like , wait a minute , it ’ s not dead , it just has to reimagine itself by looking back to its iconic past and say , “ What were the conditions of success when either Levi ’ s or Gibson was at its best ? Now , how do we set those conditions for success going forward ?”
The centre point is authenticity . If you have that , you have a very real condition for success going forward . The other one is to really understand where the cultural dynamics are going , and how can music and guitar – or blue jeans and fashion – play into that ? Really trying to find the centre of that culture and be relevant again . That ’ s what it is …
So , I show a showed up with a piece of cardboard – what I call “ Canadian Power- Point ” [ laughs ] – and that said “ SOS .” I just held it up in front of 500 people on day one . I said , “ Look , the SOS sign went up and I ’ m here . But SOS doesn ’ t stand for what you think it stands for . For me , it stands for ‘ save our sound .’” Like , let ’ s say the sound of Gibson because it ’ s worth saving … Then we say , “ How can we be the most relevant , the most played , and the most loved guitar brand again ?”
You know , I ’ ve worked in the start-up culture and I ’ ve worked for Levi ’ s – a $ 5-billion-plus company – and Gibson is really in the sweet spot where we could be like this 127-year-old start-up . You know , how do you take the energy of a start-up , where everything is future-focused and one big decision can accelerate you , or it can hurt you if you make the wrong decision ? But at the same time , a start-up wants to create a story and it wants brand recognition , awareness at scale , and it wants access to capital . So , this situation at Gibson has all of those ingredients . It ’ s iconic , it ’ s historic , and with the new ownership group that we ’ re a part of , we can invest in quality — and not just say it , but do it . We ’ ve now invested more in our facilities in the last two years than in Gibson ’ s previous 20 years . So , we ’ re really focusing on that , and at the same time , we can think like a start-up . Like , where could we innovate ? What could we bring that we didn ’ t ? Why don ’ t we have a Gibson app ? Why don ’ t we have a Gibson experience ?
CM : When you joined Gibson , there was a lot of talk about the health of the guitar market as a whole . I recall two newspaper articles specifically that got shared a lot a few years apart . One was from the Washington Post in 2017 declaring that the guitar was dead . Then in September 2020 , a New York Times article you were quoted in had the headline , “ Guitars Are Back , Baby !” So , as you understand it , what led to that decline and current rise of the guitar ? Or was that a false narrative that was more about perception than reality ?
Curleigh : I wasn ’ t in the industry , but as a participant of the industry on the outside looking in , I saw that [ Washington Post article ] and I was like , “ I wonder who drums that up ?” There ’ s a certain narrative and if you connect enough dots on anything , it ’ ll lead you to a certain conclusion . But – and this will confuse some people when I say this – sometimes I have this point of view that I don ’ t let the facts get in the way of the truth . And the truth is that guitar has always been synonymous with music , and it ’ s been the central instrument of music . Without the guitar , music wouldn ’ t be where it is . At the same time , what I ’ ve recognized is that , at the high level of choice , there might be fewer people playing guitar in that moment because , let ’ s face it , there ’ s so much choice out there competing for your time , money , and passion … The era when that article was written was exactly the height of the instant gratification era . It ’ s so much easier to just download and stream someone else than it is to learn yourself .
That was in the real moment where content was owned by few but consumed by many . Today , three or four years later , we know that the majority of people who are consuming content , they ’ re like , “ I can also be a creator .” And through this COVID pandemic … people go back to Maslow ’ s hierarchy of needs . It ’ s about health , shelter , happiness , friendship , and then all of a sudden there ’ s this self-actualization part . People start going , “ Wait a minute , I got time on my hands and I ’ ve always wanted to learn to play guitar , or learn to surf or cook . I ’ m going take some time to do it .” I have a really good friend in Canada who never played guitar and he picked it up last summer . I saw him two months ago ; he ’ s a guitarist now !
So , I think that narrative [ of “ the guitar is dead ”], if nothing else , it served as a warning signal to the guitar industry , whether it was true or not . So , don ’ t let the facts get in the way the truth . Like the number of units sold and this or that metric over time , or kids are going to rap music , which they were . But go check out who the top touring acts were that year ; it was The Eagles , Taylor Swift , Ed Sheeran — keep going and they ’ re all guitar players . I mean , Post Malone plays a J-200 . So , it ’ s interesting that there was this narrative that got created , but what I like is that it gave a wakeup call to the industry to say , “ Let ’ s do something about it ,” and now the guitar world can ’ t make enough guitars . Through a very unfortunate situation in COVID , it ’ s been a beneficiary of a creative dynamic that got sparked and now it ’ s up to us to keep this new generation of guitarists going .
CM : Do you think this sales increase for guitars and other instruments during the pandemic will turn into a larger and sustained market long-term , or is it pleasant-but-short-lived spike ?
Curleigh : It ’ s a great question and I wish I had the exact answers … We all read the research a few years ago that said eight out of 10 guitar players stopped playing after one year because they didn ’ t think they were good enough , their fingers hurt , their friends made fun of them , and all that . Well , now people have time to actually learn it ! So , at what point does an individual consider themselves a guitarist ? It ’ s probably when you learn five chords and maybe five to eight go-to songs . That ’ s when it ’ s like , “ Hey , this is my friend , JC , and he ’ s a guitarist ,” whereas a year ago they never would have introduced him like that .
So , I think the answer to that is , you don ’ t turn down the surge or the spike , you lean into it . With my team , I ’ m leaning more into the future of how to inspire the next generation . I mean , we saw the Grammys and , as awkward as it could be with virtual , they did
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