Friday Rant: Supplier Visibility — Traveling With A Musical Instrument? … Know What It's Made Of

Have you ever read a news article and hoped it was some sort of out-of-season April Fool's joke. Well that's exactly how I felt last weekend when I was waiting for Hurricane Irene and catching up on a pile of newspapers. The subject discussed included musical instrument manufacturers and musicians who travel with vintage instruments having their property seized by regulatory agencies and customs agents because the instruments -- or raw materials -- may contain illegally obtained materials when made.

Last Friday's WSJ reports that "Federal agents swooped in on Gibson Guitar Wednesday, raiding factories and offices in Memphis and Nashville, seizing several pallets of wood, electronic files and guitars." The apparent premise for the raid involved Gibson's possible use of illegally obtained endangered hard woods though Gibson maintains that "The wood the government seized Wednesday is from a Forest Stewardship Council certified supplier...". Who knows what the outcome will be, but one has to wonder why a Law & Order TV style raid and seizure was needed to verify the origin of the materials. But these jack booted thug practices are not limited to new instrument manufacturing.

According to the article, "It's not enough to know that the body of your old guitar is made of spruce and maple: What's the bridge made of? If it's ebony, do you have the paperwork to show when and where that wood was harvested and when and where it was made into a bridge? Is the nut holding the strings at the guitar's headstock bone, or could it be ivory? Even if you have no knowledge--despite Herculean efforts to obtain it--that some piece of your guitar, no matter how small, was obtained illegally, you lose your guitar forever ... [in addition to] being fined ....for that false (or missing) information in your Lacey Act Import Declaration."

I'm reminded of having helped an unlikely middle aged women years ago as we were boarding a 15 passenger shuttle flight at an open air field in the Caribbean. She had too many road worn guitar cases to carry and being an old musician myself, I anxiously lent a hand. I also accompanied her through customs in Miami. I suppose we were fortunate that US Custom's canines failed to sniff out any contraband woods in cases. They belonged to Paul Simon who entrusted them to his mother-in-law to transport back to the States.

Charming anecdotes and environmental protection of endangered species aside, this a bad joke. Not only does the poetic inclusion of very small quantities of rare natural resources in musical instruments appear to constitute artistic license to my mind, how in the world can the present owner of a vintage instrument -- or anyone else for that matter -- be expected to know the precise date and origin of the materials used in the luthier process. Sadly, the Journal reports that "when concert pianist Jeffrey Sharkey moved to England two decades ago, he had Steinway replace the ivories on his piano with plastic" in an apparent attempt to be proactive over potential export/import issues.

I suppose if you're famous or wealthy enough to own a grandfathered instrument made by Antonio Stradavari, you can transport it across borders and only have to be concerned about criminal thievery. For the rest of us who cherish our old instruments, this is a truly awful state of over stepping regulatory behavior and insane expectations around supplier visibility.

- William Busch

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