Cooper’s Column – Is it time to cash-in the Strat?

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Gary Cooper wonders how much longer ‘vintage’ guitars will still command a premium – and what this could tell us about the MI industry.

 The news that David Gilmore (Pink Floyd’s guitarist for those too old or too young to care) is selling the majority of his 100 plus guitar collection seems, on the face of it, a worthy, if odd, decision. Gilmore has some of the most sought after electric guitars in the business (including a Strat with the alleged serial number 001) and he is, of course, giving the money to charidee. Also up for grabs is going to be the renowned ‘Black Strat’ which some regard as the Holy Grail of electric guitars. Why now? When interviewed by Rolling Stone, Gilmore didn’t have any better answer than that it feels to him like the right time. I have no reason to doubt this but discussing the announcement with a guitar shop owning friend (who sells a fair amount of vintage gear) another thought occurred to us: is it because if he doesn’t sell them now, Gilmore has realised that their value is soon to start going down?

Said friend tells me that his commission sales tend to follow a pattern. They begin when a seventy-something year old either walks into his shop or calls him saying he has ‘some old guitars’ he’d like to sell. The sellers, in common with their instruments, are relics of the Beat Boom that saw a generation (or maybe two) swept into an obsession with popular music and all that went with it. It began with Lonnie Donegan in the 1950s and fizzled out, to my mind, sometime in the 1990s. And in case you think that’s just an old man dismissing music of the past twenty or so years, ask yourself how many guitar heroes you can think of who have risen to prominence since the millennium.

The fact that old men start selling off the toys of their youth as they get older and find can no longer afford the electricity bills or the care home fees, is nothing new, nor is it very surprising. I imagine the same is true in the motorcycle business and it would certainly be true in the camera world, had not digital cameras arrived and wiped out the value of all but a few film cameras (a fate which we in the MI business should count ourselves lucky to have avoided – at least a 1960 Les Paul is still usable and desirable!). But what is different in our business is that, unlike motorcycle buyers, our buying market could soon be about to shrink dramatically. Young men still love motorbikes. Guitars? Not so much.

This year sees the 50th anniversary of Woodstock and anyone who remembers it as an important event in their lives is either going to be seventy or soon knocking on that grim door. Why that matters is because they are the not only the potential sellers of those old Gretsch, Fender, Gibson or Marshall relics, they are the potential buyers too. After all, why would you want Peter Green’s Les Paul unless ‘The Supernatural’ meant something to you other than an old movie on Netflix?

At this point I wouldn’t be at all surprised if vintage experts were throwing up their hands in horror as they read this. Nor would I be surprised if they protested that their trade is thriving and that the buyers aren’t as I’ve characterised them but are younger players who still revere old instruments and the mystique they exude. Well, maybe. I’m not denying that such folk exist but I doubt that there are many of them and I am pretty certain that their numbers aren’t on the increase. Why would they be? What possible relevance is Woodstock, Altamont, the Isle of Wight or John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers to someone who was born not ‘ten years after’ but fifty?

At risk of labouring the point, think back when you were a child and your father (or even your grandfather) proudly brandished his autograph book which had the names of Tom Finney and Stanley Mathews scrawled inside. Unless you were the one in a million who became a football historian, it probably meant little to you. George Best, or Kevin Keegan or someone you grew up idolising (you can tell I’m not a football fan) might have moved you as they were of ‘your’ era, but it’s hard to get excited by figures whose cultural relevance was a matter of history unless you happen to be a historian.

But what of those guitar magazines that endless rehash their Jimmy Page or Jimi Hendrix ‘specials’ (as if there is anything new that could be said about either of them)? Surely they only do it because they sell magazines? Yes, they do – but in far smaller numbers than they did when Messrs Hendrix and Page were still musically active – and that’s the point: the numbers, inevitably, are dropping.

The upshot of all this speculation was that my retailer friend’s advice to me was to unlock my shed, if I had one, get out any old instruments, if I had any, and sell them now. In his view, the prices can only drop as the memory of the ‘golden era’ fades further into the past.

And there’s the rub. In my characteristically cheerful way, I responded that he might as well say the same about his own shop and indeed much of the industry as we know it. After a moment’s contemplation, we agreed – that was probably true, as well. As the MIA’s Paul McManus has often warned us, and as I’ve amplified (ho! ho!) in columns past, even accepting the fact that heads of companies do tend to be older just by the nature of things, if you look around at the company bosses in the MI industry, retailers, manufacturers and distributors alike, and consider how many key figures have either recently retired or must fairly soon be considering the same, it’s plain that it’s not just the instruments that are getting older – so is the industry that produced them. And where are their replacements? Like the potential buyers of vintage guitars, they are there but there are far fewer of them.

Meanwhile, guitar and amp makers remain obsessed with their past glories, so busy looking backwards that they are in danger of ignoring the demographic cliff edge to which they are shuffling ever closer. Even at the bleeding edge, software companies are competing to offer copies of the sounds made by valve compressors and microphones from the 1950s. You might think the music industry is so in love with the past that it risks denying itself a future.

Some believe the industry’s salvation lies in encouraging women to start playing Rock and Roll. For reasons I will probably return to someday, I believe that is nonsense – the problem lies in the music itself, not who plays it – rock music as we have known it has run out of steam. Yes, more women will come into the industry but not in enough numbers to be its salvation. What I think this means is that, unless something pretty extraordinary happens soon, we are going to have to get used to a much smaller industry.

So, my fellow dinosaurs, back to the subject of vintage gear and I invite you to consider that now may finally be the time to cash in whatever chips you have saved for a rainy day. Of course, I might  be wrong and I make no claims to being a financial wizard. But in case I am, what am I bid for that Grant 335 copy I bought from Coppocks of Leeds in 1976? Rats! I thought as much…