Wednesday, 20 August 2008

China In Your Hand

(Aka: "Nine And A Half Guitars II: The Ethics Strike Back")

Thanks to the incredible avalanche of a whole email (cheers, George) I received in response to my original article extolling the many virtues - especially price - of the Freshman FA1ACD electro-acoustic guitar, I felt it appropriate to revisit the subject - partly to double-check whether my original conclusions were valid (of course they bloody were), but also to include the serious questions raised when trying to add an "ethical dimension" to purchasing musical equipment.

Before I get bogged-down in all that far-too-obviously-trying-to-be-topical, Beijing Olympics tie-in business, however, I must first insult Sandi Thom. I know, cheap target, but it won't take long, and anyway, it was George who brought up the subject of her endorsement of Freshman guitars, so it's entirely his fault.

Personally, I would say that I am to "jazz drumming", what Ms. Thom is to the notion of "playing the guitar". I have heard/seen/'held a bass and tried to follow what was going on while stood next to' a fair few jazz drummers in action, and have a more-than-passing familiarity with the musical genre. I have read articles about the role of various styles of rhythm in jazz, and even perused books such as "Buddy Rich's Modern Interpretation of Snare Drum Rudiments" (I have no life, honestly...) to gain further scraps of enlightenment. So I've got a reasonable appreciation for what's involved...

Never, never, if you have any respect for musicality, should I be allowed to attempt a practical demonstration of any of this theoretical 'knowledge'...and I'm sure you can fill in the rest regarding Sandi Thom's guitar-mangling. There. Right. Done. Onwards to the guitars..

Firstly, was I 'fair and balanced' (or anywhere in the vicinity thereof) in the original post? To test this, I went back to RedDogMusic and Scayles Music in Edinburgh, where both shops' staff were incredibly tolerant in letting me abuse a wide range of acoustics in my quest for the truth...

Well, one thing I discovered was that in order to find something obviously superior in sound quality, you'd have to spend almost twice as much money. Amongst many others, the Takamine EG460sc at £399 was a perfectly good guitar, and the Gitane DG-250M (£560) was very nice to play indeed - although the latter does come with a "you must perform at least 2 pieces of gypsy jazz every half-hour" stipulation that would scupper me. Sticking with Freshman, the FA350D (£399) acoustic was a thing of tonal joy and excellent construction/playability, and for only £499-ish (possibly less if you asked really nicely), you could have it's electrified single-cutaway cousin, the FA350DCE. All of them, though, a good stretch up from the £229 you could have the folk-body, single-cutaway, cedar-topped FA1ACD for, so I stand by my verdict - buy one!

On the other hand, if you have entirely more money than sense, please feel free to chuck it away on a Martin DX1 KeCe (that's what it said on the guitar, but I've struggled to find a link to that exact model online) - a slice of dodgy quality-control, Mexican-built "brand devaluing". A snip at only £639. To be fair, I tried two of these beasts, and one was...perfectly average, but not worth anything like the money. The other was shamefully poor - gaps around the neck joint, and there was a discernible drop in (un-amplified) volume when playing on the top two strings. A limón total, for sure.

Unfortunately, however, for the musician-on-a-budget, many apparent bargains like the Freshman come with an ethically-difficult label attached next to the price tag - "made in China".

Assuming, (and it's asking a lot), that we can ignore human rights issues like Tibet (campaigning for Tibetan freedom, great - but a return to the oppressive Buddhist theocracy that ran the place pre-Chinese occupation, not such a good idea), the way citizens are forcibly 'relocated' to make way for economic developments, the extreme animal cruelty that forms part of their "traditional medicine", the environmental/food supply disaster of creeping desertification caused largely by deforestation...(you can pause for breath now)...

...their reliance on massive coal-fired power stations to run the factories in which they make our shiny electrical toys (if they ever felt the need to reduce their carbon emissions/pollution/reliance on oil, maybe they could take advantage of their enormous - and still largely peasant -population, and organise them into vast, thousands-of-exercise-bikes-pedalling-at-once human generators? Just a thought...), their financial/military support for other oppressive regimes, the use of torture on prison inmates...etc,etc

Then, if we're talking specifically about acoustic guitars, there's (yet) another issue to be addressed. One which doesn't quite grab the media headlines as often or as prominently as those listed above. According to information from sources such as Illegal,,and, China is the biggest single consumer of illegally cut timber in the world - on a scale which I, for one, find hard to comprehend:

"In 2004, more than 1 million cubic meters of timber, about 95% of Burma's total timber exports to China were illegally exported from northern Burma to Yunnan Province. This trade, amounting to a $250 million loss for the Burmese people, every year, takes place with the full knowledge of the Burmese regime, the government in Beijing and the rest of the international community. Chinese companies, local Chinese authorities, regional Tatmadaw and ethnic ceasefire groups are all directly involved.

"On average, one log truck, carrying about 15 tonnes of timber, logged illegally in Burma, crosses an official Chinese checkpoint every seven minutes, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year; yet they do nothing." Said Jon Buckrell of Global Witness." (from the Mongabay link above)

Now, Freshman are very keen to emphasise that their timber sourcing is done from their UK base, and thus governed by EU legislation - but what about other Chinese-built brands which are not? (e.g. Blueridge)

Are we most likely to improve their business practices through trade & engagement (but if they get our money, why should they bother changing? And while the majority of their people seem happy as long as they're getting "bread and [5-ring Olympic] circuses", what should their government care?), or by boycotting the products - if we can afford to? (and if our individual actions will have any significance in a global marketplace?)

I don't have an answer to that one, I'm afraid, and I make no sanctimonious claims to ethical 'purity', either. I have never owned a Chinese-built guitar or bass (and don't intend to), but a cursory glance at the back panel of most of my hi-tech gear reveals that a lot of it was made there - especially the small, cheap, stuff - things I've recommended on this blog, like the Hartke Bass Attack, or Behringer D.I. box. The (Ebay bargain) Legacy digital piano in the corner of the sitting-room is 100% Chinese. Even my Ashdown bass amp, for all it was "Manufactured in England", relies on circuit boards of Chinese origin. Oh, and I've completely failed to boycott the Beijing Olympics, because, well, I love sport (I used to waste vast chunks of my life doing it), and the spectacle of so many incredible athletes inflicting so much pain on themselves in a multiplicity of bizarre ways is one I find irresistible. Plus the display of physical achievements is a great encouragement for my boys, of course - except the BBC's coverage of the weightlifting was nothing short of abysmal...

Being serious again, at present it seems that avoiding any of this 'ethical contamination' would take an inordinate amount of time and effort in locating products that were entirely free from taint, and a considerably higher budget than that of your average, often-struggling, musician. Naturally, if you are lucky enough to have both the time and the money to keep all your musical equipment ethically 'clean', then I wish you well, and can only hope to emulate you at some time in the future. I promise I won't mention the carbon footprint involved in importing American-made instruments, etc...

Still, at the very least, if anyone who's made it this far is considering buying any merbau flooring for their house - please, take the time to read this pdf report on China's activities in Papua, Indonesia - and then choose to buy something else instead.

It's not much, but it might help. Maybe.


Martin Lennon said...

Well, it WILL help. It can only begin after awareness, after all. I can't honestly say I've always (or ever?) been nearly as ethically aware as yourself and, despite your cheerful self-deprecating wit, you are VERY ethically aware.

Personally I learned a great deal from that with no external browsing required.

Who'd have thought it would be so difficult to be a genuinely human being.

Andy Gilmour said...

Aaahhh...flattery will, as I've said before, get you an extra muffin!


Mind you, after I put in all that bloody effort inserting the links, if you then don't bother following them and just take my word for it...??

I might as well use bleedin' Wikimpedimentia! :-)