Human Capital and the Craftsman’s Dillema.

In thread after thread on musical gear forums, I see the inevitable “contrarian”, crying about how gear doesn’t matter, and how brand X or product Y is “snake oil” or “it’s all hype”. Recently, a thread about boutique pickup winders turned fairly vitriolic, with posters commenting that they should have more access to the technical information of the pickups, as if that would help them make better choices. As one winder put it, it’s like saying that knowing the chemical composition of salmon would help you choose a restaurant.

Some things just need to be tried. Life is full of risk. Capitalism is full of caveat emptor. And some industries, what really makes the product special is not just the ingredients, but what lies between the ears of those who make the product. A certain amount of responsibility falls on us, the consumer, to not be such a self entitled whinger that we completely ignore the human capital and artistry that goes into these products.

With something as subjective as musical gear, I’m completely gobsmacked how people who seem to think that all this gear is just wire and wood, the simple sum of the cost of the materials.

Here’s a thought experiment for you – two blacksmiths live in a town, a Master, and an Apprentice. The smithy offers horseshoes, $5 a set if made by the Master, $1 a set if made by the Apprentice. Same metal is used, same forge. Why the difference?

Because the Master has more “human capital” to put into his product. His training and experience command a premium. The subtle nuances of a lifetime of work makes his horseshoes easier to fit, more comfortable to the horse, with more traction, fewer thrown shoes, and they last longer. Now, if you’re buying 6 sets for draft horses, who cares, get the Apprentice shoes. They are, after all, just f***ing horseshoes. But for that prized riding horse, perhaps, you want to make sure you’re getting the best. And you know that the Master will tweak the design to ensure a safe and comfortable fit.

Every time we have a discussion of premium gear, the Luddites and the Scrooges question the value added over production gear. And honestly, every time it pisses me off.

Armchair economists who like to throw around free market principles seem to forget the very idea of human capital. But skill, experience and knowledge are as much a part of product price as labor and materials, especially with handmade items. And in musical gear, part of the assets of a company is the taste and sophistication of their designers and engineers. These are not clocks, that have a defined engineering goal (to tell time accurately), these are totally subjective products. The time that a craftsman has put into defining their own goals and then learning how to achieve those goals is COMPLETELY relevant to the price and value of their product.

And the ONLY WAY to see if they match yours is to get it in your hands. No amount of specs or numbers or sound clips is going to change that. Just like no amount of description will put across the difference between Mario Batali’s pasta and Anne Burrell’s.

This goes to boutique guitars and amps as well. Every thread about this stuff has someone with the thinly veiled subtext of “you guys are stupid for throwing your money away on that stuff, go spend that money on lessons, spend that time on practicing”. It’s insulting to the men and women who work very hard to build the stuff that allows us our expression. To devalue the time and effort they’ve put not only into learning how to build stuff, but the lifetime of loving and living music in order to follow their dream of bringing something new and special to our community is to insult the very fabric of art itself.

Look, I’m no cork sniffer. I don’t think I could name a top guitarist offhand that uses boutique pickups. Tommy Victor makes great records using LP Studios and Marshall Valvestate amps. Gun to my head, I couldn’t tell you live which LP Joe B is using on any given song, his ’59 or signature studio. I get that, I really do.

But whether or not it happens to be worth it TO ME, I understand the difference between having a Velvet Elvis I got at a yard sale in my house, and an El Greco. I find Klimt to be a watered down pastiche of neo-Byzantine iconography and French porn, but I recognize that he was an amazing artist, who put time and passion into everything he did. I wouldn’t pay $1.2 million for what is essentially gold leaf encrusted spank paintings, but I totally understand why the work of a Master commands that much. Can’t say that if the right Picasso or Thomas Cole popped up, I wouldn’t drop the coin.

The fallout from the automation of manufacturing has apparently given us the misguided idea that people don’t matter. We are but cogs in the machine. Musical gear is one of the few industries where so much subjective taste and preference meets objective knowledge and skill, creating that rare alchemy that once drove this nation’s economy. To devalue the people involved in making the products we turn into such personal tools just makes me weep. In the end, it speaks to how we devalue people in general, both economically, and socially. A sad example of how a life or lifetime means nothing to the great machine.

Playing music is my life. I have sacrificed everything at that altar, and honestly, have received very little in return. But what makes it all worth it is playing. And sometimes the only payback I need is to hit that phrase just the right way, bend that note the right way, and to hear exactly what I am feeling scream out of my gear. It doesn’t happen often but when it does, everything disappears, and I am alright with the world. It is not overstating it to say that those rare occasions have saved my life. And that’s my voice, such as it is. So my love and respect for the people that make those moments possible, who put as much into what they do as I do, who have given me the tools to express myself is huge. And to see those people insulted in thread after thread, on forum after forum makes me angry, and sad to see so many people who just don’t get it.

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3 Responses to Human Capital and the Craftsman’s Dillema.

  1. morgan says:

    ‘Gold encrusted spank paintings” heh, pretty funny

  2. Joe says:

    Great, great post. Lots I very much relate too.

  3. Excellent. And the folks who push the envelope, who make the things no one else had the vision or ability to make, are so often princes as human beings too. I get as tired as you do with the fishheads on forums…

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