From the September/October 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar | By Emile Menasché
James “JC” Curleigh was no stranger to famous labels when he found himself at the helm of one of the music industry’s most iconic—and troubled—brands in the fall of 2018. But he was new to the musical instrument industry, on a professional level at least.
Yet, after helping to make the iconic American brand Levi Strauss & Company “cool again” (in the words of Harvard Business Review), Curleigh thought he understood why one of the world’s biggest stringed instrument makers had lost its way—and how to get it on the right path. “I was sitting there at Levi’s,” says Curleigh, now Gibson’s president and CEO, “and I thought: ‘I’ve got a playbook of how to restore originality back to an iconic brand, but at the same time, move it forward to the next generation.’ At Levi’s, we had what I would call the ‘blueprint’ we put into play over six or seven years. And it really worked—for all the right reasons.”
Though Levi’s was formed decades earlier than Gibson (1853 vs. 1894), both companies became iconic in the middle of the 20th century. Both would become cultural symbols beyond their core industries—and both would suffer decline as fashions changed, production methods evolved, competition went global, and corporate practices transformed.
Gibson spent decades as an industry leader—especially during the Lloyd Loar and Ted McCarty eras. It bought and subsumed one of its chief rivals, Epiphone, in 1957 (eventually making it an import brand) and introduced some of its most innovative instruments in the 1960s. But then, like other giants of the American musical instrument industry, Gibson was swallowed up by a conglomerate. It took a little more than a decade for the Norlin Corporation to send Gibson to the brink of extinction.
Beginning in 1986, a rescue effort led by Henry E. Juszkiewicz kept Gibson in business and brought a range of new and revived instruments. But not all was sunbursts and unicorns. Critics argued that under Juszkiewicz, Gibson had overreached by buying up tech brands (and mismanaging them). Meanwhile, the sheer number of models and configurations confused some buyers. And by 2010, federal officials were accusing the company of illegally importing endangered woods (eventually settled with a $300,000 fine).
The ship was drifting toward disaster; it hit the proverbial iceberg in 2018, as the Gibson Guitar Corporation filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. That’s when Curleigh reached out to the administrators to share some strategies from his Levi’s blueprint. But as he explained during a long phone interview this spring, he had no idea it would lead to him writing a new playbook for Gibson—or weathering the COVID crisis while trying to restore the credibility of a wounded giant.
How does a guy go from brand president at Levi’s to leading Gibson?
It took an unfortunate circumstance to create a fortunate circumstance for me. I reached out to the team that was taking Gibson through the obstacle course of bankruptcy and said, “How can I help?”
I thought I could just meet with and advise them. Fast forward a few months after the first conversation, and they asked me to be the CEO. I had one of those moments of like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, I didn’t see that coming!” But then I thought, “I can really lead an iconic brand back, hopefully restore its status, and at the same time meet a massive passion in my life.” The two came together. It wasn’t a question of if Gibson was going to come back, but of when and how. And that’s what we’re working on now.
What attracted you to the job?
I think it’s a balance of passion and professionalism. I was really fortunate to grow up in a musical family. My dad was a Navy helicopter pilot; my mom, a free spirit from Nova Scotia, Canada. And their common denominator was music and bluegrass festivals. My dad played banjo and my mom played guitar.
We grew up in that sort of world where we were always having access to music. And then I chose a professional course of President and CEO of [sporting goods company] Solomon, North America, and then CEO of [outdoor apparel company] Keene, before becoming brand president at Levi’s. I had always pursued jobs reflecting my own passions. I was a big skier and I love the outdoors and I grew up wearing Levi’s. But I never really contemplated the intersection of my career and my true passion, which is music, until Gibson.
Compared to blue jeans, musical instruments is a niche industry—with more expensive products that are purchased less frequently. How do you transfer successful practices from one to the other?
What I often say to the team—and I really believe this—is: As leaders, none of us can guarantee success in the future. But what we can guarantee is we can set better conditions for success. And I recognized very early on that those conditions for success were not set at Gibson. I literally read thousands and thousands of pieces of insight and information, social media posts, etc., before I even started. And I recognized that the answer was literally right in front of us.
[The turnaround was possible] if Gibson could shed itself of all the distractions, refocus on quality, and leverage and understand its iconic past. But at the same time, we had to think about what’s next [and find] that balance of how to be original [traditional] in our essence but also modern in our approach.
What was the biggest stumbling block?
Attention to quality was number one. I said, “Let’s make fewer guitars—but improve quality.” Every guitar that’s gone out under the new leadership has our fingerprints on it. We’ve also put a lot of attention on the Custom Shop both for electrics here in Nashville and an acoustic custom shop in Bozeman, Montana. We’re making sure we have the right balance of craftsmanship and automation to deliver the quality people expect.
In the past, some reviewers, myself included, found Gibsons to be inconsistent coming out of the case. You’d have a very handsome and very expensive guitar with a lousy setup or jagged fret edges.
We took several actions. And this might sound like a relatively boring list, but the first thing we did was declare a war on dust. Our number-one issue with quality was what we call trash on the guitar—dust particles that get embedded in the nitrocellulose [lacquer finish]. Second, we looked at the number of times we were touching our guitars before they left the factory. Every time you touch a guitar, it’s prone to some type of “quality incident.” We reduced the number of touches by half.
And we also set up a much more linear approach to guitar building so that each individual along the [production] line is responsible for handing off the high-quality guitar to the next person. We didn’t wait until the end to see what was wrong with it. By the time we do final a multi-point inspection and it’s set up to play, the chances of delivering a high-quality guitar with a perfect setup goes up significantly.
We’ve seen our quality issues decline. And quite frankly, our loyalty factor has increased as a result of better guitars out of the box. Because that’s really what people buy into with Gibson. It’s the quality of the sound, of the craftsmanship, of the wood—the attention to detail.
I’ve heard you refer to “original” instruments. What do you mean?
I think over time the company got really confused about what was original [to a particular model]. And then they’d try this innovation that wouldn’t work. And they would then put everything into that innovation. And it was like it had to be an either/or choice: Should we be original? Or modern?
I believe we can and should be both. Gibson was always known for innovation. But if you don’t go back to your original, historic, authentic past to look into the origins of those ideas and why they were successful in the first place, you can’t just go forward.
If Gibson is the premium brand, Epiphone is the entry level for a lot of players. Are you changing the way the two will function together?
We’ve paid a lot of attention to the connection between Gibson and Epiphone. I think Epiphone was sort of the distant stepchild. By the way, there’s a history lesson in all this:
Epiphone is not the little brother, it’s the older brother. Epiphone started in 1873; Gibson in 1894. In its heyday, Epiphone was absolutely a premium brand. Somewhere along the journey, [Gibson leadership] sort of put it into a different position.
And so now we look at Epiphone as an aspirational, authentic brand as well. You can get into an amazing Epiphone Inspired by Gibson for $400—then you can go all the way up to a custom shop Epiphone. And we’re going to do the same on the acoustic guitars: with Epiphone Inspired by Gibson [import] models and, at the same time, made-in-the-USA Epiphones.
When you took over, Gibson had a number of non-guitar brands on its books, like Cerwin Vega and Oberheim. When you returned the Oberheim brand name and IP to Tom Oberheim in 2019, you called it a “gesture of good will.” How did that help beyond good karma?
I’m really proud of how we handled that. We made sure we put those back in the right homes. That opened the way for us to really focus our attention, investment, and priorities on Gibson, Epiphone, and Kramer, which is also making an amazing comeback. Then the next step—really in parallel—that was to reengage with the artists.
Why do you say reengage?
By and large, artists have always loved Gibson as a brand and as a guitar—but they haven’t necessarily liked the company. And now, I think it’s very safe to say that our relationship with artists has never been stronger. We’re engaging the artist community, not only for signature models but also for new ideas and for our new platform with Gibson TV. They were instrumental—pun intended—in helping us create the Gibson app.
Also, the Gibson Gives Foundation is supporting a lot of artists through [the GRAMMY Foundation’s] MusiCares. We’re setting up emerging artist programs. We also really reengaged with the industry and with dealers. Similar to artists, I think we were not easy to work with as a company. And now, I don’t think any company is perfect, but we’ve certainly made progress in our partnerships with dealers. Those [steps] sound simple, but they’re not easy ones to accomplish.
How has the COVID crisis affected your progress?
A year ago [spring of 2020], we were only a year and a half out of bankruptcy. We had all this momentum coming out of NAMM and the NAB—and then the emergency brake got pulled. COVID hit and our factories were shut, dealers were shut, and we were like, “Now what?”
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We said, “Let’s plan for some impact here—but let’s also keep preparing for opportunity.” That allowed us to really think about the future through a strategic long-term lens. We started thinking about the Gibson app. We planned the Gibson Garage, which is an 8,000-square-foot facility here in Nashville, and we’re investing in all of our factories.
We’re doubling the size of our acoustic factory in Bozeman; construction is currently underway. We’re getting our qualified craftsmen and craftswomen all lined up. And it’s really going to be the balance between modern automation and the work of talented people.
We talked about the challenges of COVID—have there been any positives?
Let’s assume there’s a post-COVID world where there was a real surge in guitar playing because people had more time—from beginners to intermediates all the way up to advanced players. In a way, the COVID crisis also turned into the sort of COVID creative opportunity for individuals and for the music industry. How do we as an industry take advantage of this surge in music and guitar playing. How do we keep that going?
We hear these statistics like, “eight out of ten people try it, but give up after one year.” Well, once you learn three or five chords in ten songs, you’re a guitar player—you keep playing. So I think our single biggest challenge as a guitar community is how to foster the energy and the excitement and the lifelong journey of playing guitar.
You mentioned rebuilding artist relations. Are you still doing signature models?
We recently launched the Sheryl Crow Country Western, the Orianthi J-200, and the Tom Petty Wildflower J-200, which is unbelievable. Also, when we started working with Slash, we realized that there’s an acoustic opportunity. So we launched the Slash acoustic collection about a year ago as well.
In the past, guitarmakers seemed to focus most of their marketing on male players. Are you making more of an effort to reach women?
Yes. Whether it’s in sports, in fashion, or in music—if you go to a live event, the crowd is really balanced between men and women. So why isn’t that reflected in our efforts to connect with those musicians who either already play or who want to play?
Gibson was always one of the few brands with a presence across all genres of popular music—jazz, rock, country & western. And we have a pretty strong track record with the women of music: Emmylou Harris, Lizzy Hale of Halestorm, Sheryl Crow as I mentioned. Taylor Swift showed up at the Grammys playing a Gibson; Brandi Carlile played a Gibson at the John Prine tribute concert.
What about attracting younger players?
I think that’s our next challenge: What do we do for the next generation? There are three things that we’re putting in motion: One is a platform called 3G: The Gibson Generation Group. We invite musicians from around the world between the ages of ten and 18 to apply. If we select them, they’re in our program for two years and we support them with instruments, mentoring, and connections to the music community. It’s well underway and has a really good balance of boys and girls from Europe, Asia, and the Americas.
Second is our modern instrument collection. We’re taking ideas from what younger players want—maybe lighter weight or an easier way to learn to play. And third is specifically in the acoustic market, trying to make sure that our next generation of instruments includes models in a price range that’s more accessible to younger players.
Do you have a favorite Gibson?
I’m an acoustic guy, and my favorite is the J-45. But I grew up playing an Epiphone acoustic. That’s my mom’s influence. My mom wore Levi’s jeans and played an Epiphone all her life. Her dream was one day to own a Gibson. And so now today, you know, [my mother] Nancy has her trusty Epiphone that she’s had for 50 years and she’s got a Gibson with her initials on the truss rod cover from me. That was a proud moment for me—to make my mom’s Gibson dream come true, 50 years later.