The Difference Between Making Guitars and Selling Guitars

I was asked to clarify something I said regarding the difference between guitar firms that made guitars vs. those that sold guitars. Aren't they all making and selling guitars and only in it for the money? Sure, they're all out to make money, no doubt. They all make and sell guitars. However, a lot of companies reach a tipping point where they shift from an industrial firm out to make value-bearing objects for sale on a market to things like lifestyle firms that start to traffic in low-value goods and designs too meet marketing and merchant demands more than the demands of practicing musicians, the end users. Let's take a simple, tiny example to get the ball rolling: NiteFly headstocks.

Ken Parker started his company with an eye toward making what he thought was the perfect evolution of the guitar. Now, Parker expanded his line over time but, in my opinion, he never strayed far from the guiding principles and always had an eye toward what contributed to better sound and performance. Sure, he had to make some compromises but he had his limits. So he stuck to his guns when it came to his iconic headstock design: minimal was preferable to any unnecessary mass, at least according to his philosophy.

Long after Parker sold his company and started making archtops he continued to design and build his guitars with this very design principle.

Guess who hated these kinds of headstocks? The players? No. Were they prone to breaking? No. The only problem with the Parker headstock were retailer and merchant problems so when MegaCorp bought out Parker they set out to make a better guitar....for retailers. They hitched the marketing to the needs of retail, and then subordinated design and manufacturing around the new marketing and retail imperative.

Take an iconic and superior design and flush it down the drain. Why? So that the guitar could be hung from standard guitar hangers in shops. This has nothing to do with sound or performance at all. In fact, it increases the mass of the head which reduces the resonance of the guitar. How did SuperMegaMusicCorp spin this redesign? The new design "increases stability." See what they did right there? They claim a performance enhancement when in fact it is nothing but a performance (and aesthetic) regression for the sake of retailer wishes. The retailer wants a new headstock so design, production, and marketing all have to get behind a retail/middleman concern.

Back in the day Parker tried to solve the problem not by redesign but by making a special hanger for the guitar. Not good enough. No, the guitar must change. His Holy Majesty McRetail has spoken.

This is the difference between companies that appear, on the surface, to be doing the same thing but, under the surface, are really doing two different things. One is selling guitars that they make (or have made for them by one of the massive guitar mills in Asia) to dealers and the other is making guitars that they sell through dealers. One is market oriented and manipulates the user/consumer to fill the market vacuum while the other is user/consumer oriented and attempts to build a market via meeting needs and rational innovations.

The difference between Apple and Google was recently conjured up to make a similar point: Apple wants to make cool stuff for consumers, create consumer excitement, and grow its consumer base to make obscene amounts of money; Apple is currently setting on a pile of cash that exceeds the federal government's cash reserves. Google's 'target audience' on the other hand is not the 'consumer' at all but, rather, advertisers. Google makes products (e.g., G+) so that they can deliver their users to marketers and advertisers.

This Parker headstock thing is just a tiny fragment of a more universal phenomena that goes on all around us. One of my favorite examples is the Mercedes Benz headlight wiper blades. Oh, geez, what was that all about? Well, in marketing the idea is to fabricate a "distinction" (Pierre Bourdieu wrote a great book on this stuff) that is then used as the 'hook' from which you drive your ad campaign. Who needs wipers on their headlights? The point was that no car had that "feature" so slap it on as a mark of distinction and spin it to create consumer desire. But the idea behind it is insidious and helps to comprehend supply side nonsense: continuous dissatisfaction with what works and what you possess. Oh, you're lights don't have wipers? Your car just took a (prestige) hit. Not too many folks, however, were that rich and gullible.

In the case of the Benz, as with so many other things, design and production actually serves the marketing and hype industry rather than marketing a product that works. But what's the big deal anyway? Whereas the headlight wiper may have failed other companies succeed in setting their customers abuzz with options, possibilities, and anxiety.

When I look at Fender today and even Gibson, etc., you see them basically wallowing about with dozens of models, variations, spinoffs, revisions, divisions, tiers, price points, etc. Who could (or would want to) make sense of all their product categories? They're not meeting real needs but attempting to stimulate desire by creating dissatisfaction in whatever you have or convincing you that you suddenly have a new need you never knew you had; that's last year, that's ten minutes ago, it's not good enough. Time to upgrade to the same old shit, or less.

Companies are proliferating market segments and flooding these markets with random and arbitrary objects whereby function is driven by form rather than form following from function. This is symptomatic of a social system in which, generally speaking, ends have been eclipsed by means -- where the means to the end have ascended to the point of the ultimate goal. Here, real, rational praxis breaks down into a bizarre mystification of tools disconnected from actual praxis and creativity and where production has been divorced from rational needs and real, concrete wants. Once an economic and commercial system (or a single firm making guitars) sets off down this road then it is incapable of turning the ship around -- it will come to a halt only when it runs aground. Overproduction (we're drowning in $129 guitars) is met with underconsumption, the hype machines run 24 hours per day to get you to soak up the surplus, sales flag and production is shifted to exploit lower wages, wages stagnate, prices fall, productivity grows, underconsumption remains endemic, consumer credit is injected to close the gap, debt soars, underemployment swells, unemployment rates rise, wages fall, debt increases......and the unavoidable consequence will be large scale collapse where one market (or bubble) brings down another and one 'departmental' failure (excess productive capacity) blows back into another (capitalization and speculation). The end of the world.

Oh, the headaches I get just from looking at a Sweetwater catalog!

And this is most definitely NOT an anti-retail rant. The best situation is where the productive firm forms one point in a triad where the customer, the dealer, and the manufacturer have a balanced relation. The dealer mediates the relationship between the end user and the point of production. G&L is a good example of this. The couple of times I've had a problem with one of my G&L guitars I contacted a dealer and they put the firm into contact with me, directly. It works. Hell, I was on the phone with the shop foreman at G&L back in 1993.

The customer is being taken care of by two entities and the firm wants to be in contact and take care of their customer. Other firms actually design and build products in an attempt to break all relations with users. Take the example of Taylor guitars: ever wonder why their guitars all sound like shit? Every Taylor is harsh, screechy, brittle sounding and that's because they over-build them (like tanks) with bolt-on necks, etc. They never want to see these guitars again. Sold to the dealer and done, forever. Got a problem, take it to the dealer and they can handle everything -- not even the dealer will bother us. Go away. Firms like this have a different relationship with customers: customers are just blips in the market and the problem is not how to make a better sounding guitar but how to manipulate the market to boost sales. Here there is not really a player, dealer, production triad but two sets of disjointed dyads.

In short, there are many ways to look at the problem hidden behind tiny little details all around us. I look at a 'redesigned' headstock and what I see is not just some marketing gimmick but, more importantly, a fundamental shift (unfolding over the last 35 years at least) whereby an entire nation has been relieved of its role as value creators and reduced to placid (and sometimes super enthusiastic) consumers of inflated junk.

Fuck that new headstock.