As the COVID-19 pandemic began to affect businesses throughout the U.S. in March 2020, many companies found themselves unable to predict where they may end up when — or if — their doors reopened.
For James “JC” Curleigh, president/CEO of iconic instrument maker Gibson Brands, the pause was a moment for reinvention for the 127-year-old brand and a way to connect with guitar players in a new way.
“Our factories were shut down, our retailers were shut down, but I felt that we needed to prepare for a significant opportunity,” Curleigh tells Billboard of last March. “Something interesting happened two or three months later, because the factories and retailers reopened, and it felt like there was a pivot from ‘COVID crisis’ to ‘COVID creativity.’ People had time [for projects], whether it was taking up cooking or organizing 100,000 photos on their phones, or creating music.”
Some of that time went into people picking up the guitar after a long hiatus or for the first time. “I think the last 12 months have created more guitar energy than the previous 12 years combined, so the question becomes: How do we keep that going? … And keep it going for the next generation?” Curleigh says.
The leadership believes it found the answer in the Gibson Garage. Located in the heart of downtown Nashville, the Gibson Garage — set to officially open on Wednesday — was developed as a multimillion-dollar investment with an eye toward becoming a new destination for music lovers to both experience the history and contribute to the music community that they’ve been a part of for over a century.
The new space — located only a few doors down from the company’s headquarters, within Nashville’s Cummins Station building — will allow visitors the opportunity to shop for or design their own guitar, explore generations of music history through interactive exhibits, and catch tapings of the award-winning Gibson TV series (Gibson’s portfolio also includes Epiphone, Kramer, KRK and the newly acquired MESA/Boogie brand). There is also a stage within the 300-capacity showroom for live performances by those on Gibson’s artist roster. All Garage entertainment and programming is free to the public, unless otherwise noted.
“To me, it’s a hope. It’s a space to inspire me, to come and pick up new instruments, but also perform and collaborate with other new musicians,” says Jared James Nichols, one of the artists hand-chosen to perform for an industry preview at the Garage on May 26. “It feels like a more appreciative spot [than a Broadway bar], with actual music lovers who may come here to watch a performance for the right reasons. I would think that playing for a crowd that actually came to listen to a performer standing onstage in a house of guitars, it would make a musician want to step up their game.”
Curleigh had the vision for such a space before he joined Gibson in late 2018 after a six-year stint as Levi Strauss’ president of global brands. “At almost day zero of joining Gibson, I began work on crafting the ultimate Gibson experience, where people could explore both the history of the company and actually hold the guitars,” he says. “There’s absolutely an awesome demand for our fanbase to have a direct relationship with us, and we see that on our website and app. … We’re here to bring Gibson to life for our fans. Those fans can be those that have been with us forever, or those that I call ‘lapsed fans’ that may have taken a break from us and gotten their guitar needs filled by other companies during our dark days, and now they are coming back to see what we can deliver.”
Those “dark days” include in 2018, when Gibson filed for bankruptcy protection after years of struggling with debt. The company continued operations after receiving $135 million from lenders. Curleigh has brought the brand back to its core music mission after it went astray by trying to become a music lifestyle brand, including borrowing $300 million to purchase consumer electronics company Royal Philips in 2014.
Gibson brand president Cesar Gueikian states that embracing the company’s past as primarily a guitar producer will continue the financial well-being of the company for generations to come.
“I think we’re back; we’re a guitar company again,” Gueikian says. “We have 127 years of history, shaping sound as a guitar company. The company had gotten a little distracted. … Working to bring this company back to where it deserved to be in the world of music, it’s something that we’ve spent a lot of time concentrating on, but after nearly three years on this journey, there is a sense of accomplishment.”
Gueikian also sees the Gibson Garage as a small-scale test market for other concepts the business may explore. “If we’re working on new prototypes, or working on something new with an artist, we’ll be able to say, ‘Let’s take it to the Garage and see the level of interest.’ If we want to experiment with the feeling or flow of the [sales] floor, and take those findings to open [a Garage] in London or L.A., we can use this space as a launch platform.”
Gueikian says Gibson also plans to launch a weekly Emerging Artists Evening to showcase new talent, as well as possibly add a weekly beginners night for all those who have picked up the guitar during the pandemic.
“There’s definitely a set of new guitar players around the world now, and that’s exciting,” Gueikian says. “The obligation we have toward them now is to keep it fun, keep it engaging, and to keep them continuing to learn. We have to keep it where they don’t just put their guitars back under the bed.”