James “JC” Curleigh is on a mission. The former president at Levi’s, he took the helm at the iconic guitar brand in November 2018.
At SXSW in Austin recently, I had the opportunity to interview JC on stage at Gibson Guitar’s frankly impressive showroom. Guitars of all shapes and sizes adorn the walls, ready for invited guests to try before they buy.
We started our interview with a little history lesson.
“It was 1894 when Orville Gibson was crafting his first fretted instruments, and he was truly a craftsman who loved to create, shape, and find ways to deliver sound through his instruments,” Curleigh said. “Fast forward 125 years later, and here we are, and it’s amazing. When you look back at the history and the legacy of Gibson, it’s always been synonymous owning a share of the sound of every generation, every genre.”
A musician himself (a love we both share), I wondered how the recent changes in schooling — which has tended to defund the arts in favor of measurable subjects — has affected the production of music in the 21st century.
“I think we are going through a stage where, because of access and the convenience of content. the ability to share memorable moments or experiences, in an instant, is absolutely awesome,” Curleigh said. “It can bring people together when they can’t physically be together. And we’re seeing it now that people through better tools can actually be creators”
“I think if we are going to try to rely on funding of education and arts, I think hope is the strategy. Let’s hope it happens. Or we rely on real-life experiences through brands and companies and people who can mentor other people to say this is what your life could look like if you engage,” Curleigh added.
We continue to discuss the state of music now, and some of the more inspiring artists that have appeared in recent times. For JC, it comes down to what you’re going to create music on. So what are some of the most exciting new instruments and directions that bring technology and music together — apt considering SXSW does exactly that?
“I think it’s fair to say we have the most authentic, aspirational, iconic brand in Gibson, but we also have the most accessible brand Epiphone which is much more affordable,” Curleigh said. “In the last six months, we’ve put more into our guitars than we probably have done in the last 10 years in terms of listening to what musicians want.”
And the smartphone has become an important ally in getting people to move from listening to music to creating it for themselves.
“I see a lot of people access guitar tabs,” Curleigh said. “You can just go on there, hit play, auto-scroll, and you can learn it and play it and just ten minutes.”
And as we move into a world where entire albums are being created by AI, keeping budding musicians engaged and helping them to learn their craft quickly is going to be important for all instrument manufacturers.
Certainly, there’s a lot to unpack in this interview, but it is clear that JC is passionate about taking Gibson into the next 125 years, and isn’t shy in both adopting new technology and maintaining the authenticity of the existing Gibson brand.