Music Trades: “Historic perspective on the COVID-19 Pandemic”

Our good friend Brian Majeski, Editor of the US Music Trades magazine, has teamed up with Martin Guitar CEO, Chris Martin, to bring you an interesting article, which offers some historical perspective on the crisis that we currently face. Mr Martin draws lessons from his company’s 187 years, marked by economic panics, epidemics, war, and other catastrophes…

The Martin Guitar Company is essentially in hibernation. All of our facilities are closed. I can’t remember this ever happening, and we have been in business for 187 years. I do know the company has experienced challenging times in the past, so I decided to take a look back at our archives. They tell an interesting story.

The first C.F. Martin moved to New York City from Germany in 1833 (with a critical stop in Vienna to learn how to build guitars). There were so many financial panics in the 1800s, it must have been hard to keep track. The panic of 1837 may have been the reason C.F. Sr. moved his family and the business to Pennsylvania in 1839. Then there was the panic of 1857, which subsided just before the Civil War. Lasting from 1861 to 1865, that war saw Americans killing Americans less than 100 miles from our factory in Nazareth. Interestingly, guitar sales improved during this period. Music apparently has a place anywhere, anytime.

The war ended and prosperity ensued–briefly. C.F. Martin’s son C.F. Martin Jr. became a partner in 1867, and the guitar business thrived. The prosperity was interrupted by the equine flu in 1872. While this flu didn’t jump to humans, it had a devastating effect on horses, which were the primary mode of transportation at that time. The panic of 1873 that followed lasted until 1877 in the U.S. and longer in Europe. Whew!

Fortunately, this was followed by the gilded age of the late 1870s and 1880s. Young Frank Henry Martin took over in 1888. His entrepreneurial skills, much like his grandfather’s, served him well until–you guessed it–another panic, in 1893. Apparently, this one was a doozy. Money and politics were involved. The Reading (Pennsylvania) Railroad went bust, taking a lot of investors down with it.

Frank got into the mandolin business in the late 1890s. The 20th century saw the economic benefits of the industrial revolution. The 1916 Pan Pacific Exposition in San Francisco opened up the market for all things Hawaiian, including music. Seizing on the public’s growing interest in the ukulele, Frank capitalized on the boom, expanding the factory in the 1920s to accommodate the demand. We are still in the uke business. And you know, of course, that the uke is “the gateway drug to the guitar.”

When World War I broke out in Europe, we in the U.S. were rooting for our allies, but it wasn’t until late in the war that the U.S. troops were sent to Europe to help. Fortunately, it was the help that was needed. Unfortunately, it was also part of the reason the “Spanish flu” was so deadly. Not only was everyone exhausted, but they didn’t follow social distancing protocols. Philadelphia held a war bond parade that helped spread the disease that ultimately killed more than one million Americans.

It was during the Roaring Twenties that my grandfather and his brother joined the business, and business was good. Unfortunately, the Roaring Twenties didn’t transition into the “Roaring Thirties.” The Great Depression brought economic hardship and a great migration west because of the Dust Bowl.

The 1930s were tough. But interestingly, it was a time when music was seen as an important way to communicate. It really didn’t seem to matter whether the message was one of despair or salvation; music was there to help soothe our common anxiety. For Martin Guitar, it was a time of significant innovation, brought about in part by a sense of desperation to find a way forward. It was when the new “modern” 14-fret-neck Dreadnought and OOO-OM guitars were born. They received a hearty embrace from country and folk musicians.

Then came World War II. Most of the men who worked for us were conscripted for the war effort. It was the first time we hired women to help make Martin guitars, and they didn’t miss a beat. Today our workforce is about fifty-fifty men and women.

The lessons I learn when I look back through our company’s history are pretty much always the same: Guitar sales lag slightly but then often follow economic booms and busts. And innovation has always been a key ingredient to our success. In times of crisis, it boils down to this: Stuff happens. It’s how you deal with it that matters.

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