10/17/2011 12:18 pm ET | Updated Oct 17, 2011

The Music Industry's Long Way Home

The recent raid on Gibson Guitar continues to upset; Gibson feels victimized, politicians beat their drums, the broader wood industry and NGOs worry about efforts to undermine Lacey. While most commentators play the blame game, gnashing vicious and righteous teeth, few lift their heads to look at the bigger issue threatening the music industry.

Guitar makers use the best woods and have done so for generations. Yet the supply of so-called "tonewoods" is fast approaching natural limits. Sustaining music industry jobs and ensuring that future generations can enjoy beautiful instruments and the music they create requires urgent measures to safeguard the tonewood supply. No one seems to have noticed.
The best tonewoods -- ebony, rosewood, mahogany -- come from rare, precious trees. Forests are the factories producing tonewoods; rich, natural, tropical forests, full of biodiversity, indigenous people, life itself; you can't grow tonewoods in plantations.

Tonewoods grow in countries where forests are rapidly disappearing, as in "before your eyes." Take ebony: traders pay pittance to poor villagers to harvest trees anywhere they can find them; in advance of bulldozers readying to clear land for agriculture or from national parks and other forests off limits to harvest. Today, there's nothing "sustainable" about an ebony fingerboard, it's a once-off and almost all of the ebony used in the music industry is harvested this way.

Now, villagers pushing in from one direction are meeting those coming in from another. "If you've harvested all the precious trees behind you" and "you've harvested all the precious trees behind you" does that mean there's none left?" Turning back, they harvest the smaller, lower quality trees previously deemed unsuitable.

This is why guitar makers have seen a progressive drop in tonewood quality in recent years. The canary in the coalmine, guitar makers see it, yet few take action to address what it means for their business. Many feel helpless. They don't own forests and feel they have no influence over how forests are managed. Yet, the logical conclusion of that thinking is that guitar makers are ships cast adrift, washed according to currents and storms they don't control. When finally forced, as the last tree hits the ground, they'll innovate to other raw materials but then instruments made using precious tonewoods will be no more; they’ll become rare like Stradivarius violins.

This is nonsense. Like other wood product makers before them, the music industry is having a long overdue -- hopefully not too late -- wake-up call. Guitar makers are not victims, there is much that they can do. Yet, at least when it comes to ebony, they back away when they realize the cost. They worry -- correctly -- that their competitors, who do not operate the same way, will undercut them. Guitar players don't reward guitar makers for supplying sustainable tonewoods; it's all about beauty, sound quality and price, so we have a serious recipe for inaction and that's exactly what's happening.

What to do? Accept the impending demise of tonewoods, of beautiful music itself, deluded in our belief that there's nothing we can do about it? Alternatively, do we shake ourselves down and innovate our way to a better future? Right now, signs are that the music industry has opted for the former. A recent music industry forum discussed this issue and amongst much hand wringing, participants suggested planting ebony trees in London to secure future raw materials; disturbing. The industry seems to accept its fate; hardly an inspiring narrative.
The industry needs a solution. Regulation is a first critical step. Since the industry can't voluntarily move to sustain itself, to protect its raw material supplies and the thousands of jobs it supports, Governments are beholden to regulate to force it to do so. The U.S. Lacey Act and the EC Illegal Timber Regulation aren't solely about upholding foreign laws or protecting forests in foreign lands. These regulations have their soft side -- biodiversity protection, supporting communities elsewhere -- but they are just as much about protecting companies unable to protect themselves and protecting jobs at home. It's a bonus that saving jobs saves forests but jobs come first.

Regulations are the stick; where's the carrot? Hard to spot too many in the short-term but long-term, they're there. Firstly, you stay in business. Securing your long-term raw material base is fundamental to survival. Can you imagine an airline that doesn't "forward buy" fuel?
Beyond the direct advantage of a long-term supply base, there are benefits around brand risk/enhancement. The power of social media raises risks for any company linked to deforestation or poor social practices. Positioning your brand as a leader on sustainability differentiates you but only if you take real action and deliver; fine words about supporting regulations and loving forests and communities sound hollow when you don't then do something. The industry must invest in sustainable forest management and secure traceable supply chains.

This type of innovation is not at all new. The garden furniture industry suffered a similar shock at the end of the 90s and quickly moved to sustainable sources. It was easier for them, their wood requirements are not as constrained as the music industry's but we've put men on the moon, surely we can secure tonewood supplies?

Transforming the music industry to safeguard manufacturing jobs is eminently possible. Doing so will take resilience, vision and above all investment. There should even be scope for music industry companies to collaborate -- a tough concept for some -- to pool their investments, their energies and their buying power to turn things around.

Ebony trees in London, standing as symbols to the beautiful but long gone tropical forests that once supplied the world with tonewoods, doesn't sound like the innovation we need. The music industry has a very long way to go; a long journey home. Yet, the ruckus created by the Gibson raid may be stick in the industry ant's nest that kicks this can down the road, on the journey home to that better future.

Please then forget the blame games and teeth gnashing. Focus on the main game, guys. Lovers of fine music, the people who craft the instruments that make it, and lovers of the forests that underpin them expect a better response. Let's do something.