|Chris Martin is the CEO of Martin Guitar and currently NAMM chairman.
On The COVID-19 Pandemic
Martin Guitar CEO Chris Martin draws lessons from 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.
Guitar sales lag slightly but then often follow economic booms and busts. Innovation is also a key ingredient to our success. The first C.F. Martin moved to New York City from Germany (with a critical stop in Vienna to learn how to build guitars) in 1833. There were so many financial panics in the 1800s that 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. The Civil War lasted from 1861 to 1865, and Americans were 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.
"There were so many
financial panics in the 1800s
that it must have been hard to keep track."
The war ended and prosperity ensued. 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. What was the primary mode of transportation at that time? The horse. While this flu didn’t jump to humans, it had a devastating effect on horses. This was followed by the panic of 1873, which 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 because (you guessed it)... the panic of 1893. Apparently this one was a doozy. Money and politics were involved. The Reading 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. Frank was also curious about the opportunity with the ukulele. The 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco opened up the market for all things Hawaiian, including music, and Frank capitalized on this boom. He opened an addition to 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.
"The U.S. entry into World War I
was part of the reason
the 'Spanish Flu' was so deadly.
Not only was everyone exhausted,
but they didn’t follow social distancing protocol."
World War I was also a thing in Europe. Initially, we in the U.S. were rooting for our allies. It wasn’t until late in the war that 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 protocol. Philadelphia held a war bond parade that helped spread the disease that ultimately killed over 1.0 million Americans.
The Roaring ’20s followed. My grandfather and his brother joined the business. Business was good. I think the Roaring ’20s were supposed to transition to the “Roaring ’30s,” except that they didn’t. The Great Depression brought economic hardship and a great migration west because of the Dust Bowl.
"World War II was the first time
we hired women to help make Martin guitars.
They didn’t miss a beat."
The 1930s were tough. 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 sooth our common anxiety. For us 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. They didn’t miss a beat. Today our workforce is about 50-50 men and women.
The lessons I learn when I look back are pretty much always the same. Stuff happens. It is how you deal with it that matters.