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The Tree That Rocked The Music Industry

Nov 30, 2017
Originally published on December 5, 2017 8:23 am

Chicago Symphony Orchestra cellist Dan Katz has two cellos. The better one — the one he prefers to play with the orchestra — is 200 years old and has rosewood tuning pegs. When the orchestra went on an 11-concert European tour in January, he purposefully left it home.

"I worry with that instrument about international travel now, because of those pegs," Katz said after rehearsing for a performance of Schubert's Ninth Symphony earlier this month.

"From my perspective, it just doesn't seem worth the risk," he said. He worried that a customs agent somewhere might confiscate his cello.

And he had reason to worry.

New regulations on the international movement of rosewood have hit hard in parts of the music industry, which has long relied on rosewood as a "tonewood" used in many kinds of instruments, including guitars, cellos and clarinets.

The reason for the crackdown, and for Katz's anxiety? China. Specifically, Chinese consumers' growing demand for rosewood or "hongmu" furniture.

China imported nearly 2 million cubic meters of rosewood logs in 2014, worth at least $2.6 billion, according to the conservation group Forest Trends.

With an appetite that big, loggers, traffickers and politicians around the world have been cashing in, depleting rosewood stocks and fighting over the spoils of the timber rush.

Advocates say more than 150 people have been killed in Thailand gunfights over rosewood.

So late last year, members of a worldwide treaty called the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) passed sweeping new international trade regulations.

Among the requirements: musical instruments containing any amount of rosewood were subject to a complex, time-consuming permit system covering businesses and individuals.

Requirements differed by country, and trade and travel became risky.

Joining orchestras in the new rosewood regime: guitar-makers.

The family-owned C.F. Martin & Co. has been making guitars in Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley since the 1830s. Its iconic guitars have been played by the likes of John Lennon and John Mayer.

Workers at the Martin factory shape, sand and polish dull slabs of wood into iconic instruments that have played a role in what many of us think an acoustic guitar should sound like.

One material responsible for that sound is rosewood.

"If you use rosewood on (a guitar's) backs and the sides, the backs and the sides are really a reflective surface," the company's CEO, C.F. Martin IV, said in an interview just off the factory floor. "The back and sides not only help to project it forward, they color it. And that color that rosewood provides is something that is very appealing."

The company, which exports 40 percent of the guitars it makes, says it lost millions in sales when the regulations first went into effect in January.

Nationally, music retailers lost $60 million in sales in the first quarter of this year. U.S. manufacturers saw acoustic guitar exports drop by more than a quarter, to $24 million, according to an analysis by Music Trades magazine.

"It's a challenge that we don't need," Martin said. "I've got a thousand employees. The company has suffered economically through this, and the only reason that everyone kept working is because I made the decision to keep them working. But this has been extremely disruptive to my family's business."

Martin and another top U.S. maker of acoustic guitars, Taylor, say the regulations are misguided. They say they primarily use wood from India, which is strictly controlled and not part of the Chinese furniture problem that led to the crackdown. And compared to the millions of cubic meters of rosewood flowing to China, the Martin company will use less than 50 cubic meters of the wood this year.

But those in support of the regulations point out that various kinds of rosewood tend to look the same.

"Many illegal traffickers have used that opportunity to label them as a sister species, a look alike, and ensure that they can avoid the regulations in the system," said Lisa Handy, director of forest campaigns at the advocacy group Environmental Investigation Agency.

That's why, they say, the rules have to cover all rosewood. If you remember the taxonomies you learned in high school biology class, these regulations cover every species classified under the biological genus called Dalbergia.

"The enforcement and the regime needs to be the same for everybody," Handy said, "because when there starts to be exemptions or exclusions in the system, we've seen time and time again that those that are trying to avoid the regulations and get around them find their way."

Still, even John Scanlon, the secretary-general of the CITES convention, concedes the regulations may have gone too far.

"Basically, this all came out of a political compromise," he said.

Scanlon said some countries were reluctant to regulate raw timber only, and exempt finished consumer goods like musical instruments. That's because traffickers had used that as a loophole in the past by minimally processing raw materials and passing them off as finished products.

"I think in closing that loophole, it might have been closed a little bit too tight, so we might have gone from one side to the other, and we need to get the balance right."

Craig Hoover, who manages the treaty for the United States at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, struck a similar tone.

"I think the question of whether we're regulating more than we need to is really the one that's on the table for us right now," Hoover said. "And we need to examine whether or not there are things that we can let go, in terms of CITES controls, and still achieve the conservation results we want to achieve. So, I don't think we have come to the conclusion that we got it exactly right."

At a CITES committee meeting underway in Geneva this week, representatives are considering new guidelines that could ease permit requirements for traveling orchestras and musicians.

The question of whether guitar-makers and owners will be able to trade their instruments more freely will have to wait until the next full CITES conference in 2019.

Meg Anderson contributed to this report.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

OK. I want to see if you can pick out the common ingredient here. What is used to make designer guitars, furniture in China and the instruments used by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra? The answer here is rosewood. And the worldwide supply of rosewood is dwindling. There is an international effort to save rosewood trees, but as NPR's Robert Benincasa reports, it's having some unintended consequences.

ROBERT BENINCASA, BYLINE: At the Martin guitar factory, workers shape dull slabs of wood into iconic instruments. Martin guitars have been played by the likes of John Lennon and John Mayer. One material responsible for the guitar's coveted sound? Rosewood.

Hi.

JOSH PARKER: How are you?

BENINCASA: Robert Benincasa.

PARKER: Nice to meet you.

BENINCASA: In a sound room just off the factory floor, Martin engineer Josh Parker has two guitars. One is a D-18, whose back and sides are mahogany. The other is a rosewood D-28. He's going to play both of them to help me hear the difference.

PARKER: Mahogany is a little drier sounding. It has a strong fundamental tone with an emphasis on bright, clear trebles. It sounds like this. (Playing guitar).

BENINCASA: Got that?

PARKER: And rosewood is very resonant, has a deep warm base to it, has tons of overtones and a lot of harmonic complexity. (Playing guitar).

BENINCASA: Now, a relatively small amount of the world's rosewood finds its way to Pennsylvania to make music. Martin says it will use less than 50 cubic meters of it this year. Much more of it goes to China to make furniture. China imported nearly 2 million cubic meters of rosewood logs just in 2014, with an appetite that big loggers, traffickers and politicians around the world have been depleting and fighting over rosewood stocks.

So late last year, members of a worldwide endangered species treaty, known as CITES, passed sweeping regulations on the international trade of rosewood. Musical instruments containing any amount of rosewood suddenly became subject to a complex time-consuming permit system. Martin, which exports 40 percent of the guitars it makes, says it lost millions in sales. C.F. Martin IV is the company's CEO.

C.F. MARTIN IV: I've got a thousand employees, and the only reason that everyone kept working is because I made the decision to keep them working. But this has been extremely disruptive to my family's business.

BENINCASA: Martin and another top U.S. maker of acoustic guitars, Taylor, say the regulations are misguided. They say they primarily use wood from India, which is strictly controlled and not part of the Chinese furniture problem that led to the crackdown. But those in support of the regulations point out that various kinds of rosewood tend to look the same. Lisa Handy is director of forest campaigns for the advocacy group Environmental Investigation Agency.

LISA HANDY: Many illegal traffickers have used that opportunity to label them as a sister species, a look-alike.

BENINCASA: Handy says the look-alike problem is why the rules have to cover all rosewood. In this case, everything classified under the biological genus called dalbergia.

(SOUNDBITE OF TUNING INSTRUMENTS)

BENINCASA: Backstage at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Concert Hall is about as far from illegal timber traffickers as you can get. But when the orchestra left for a European tour just days after the regulations took effect in January, Administrators say they had to painstakingly document each instrument to secure the proper permits for crossing borders with rosewood. Cellist Dan Katz worried about the small rosewood tuning pegs on his 200-year-old cello, the better of two instruments he plays.

DAN KATZ: I don't know a lot about the treaty, but I know that it can be implemented differently in different countries. And it just doesn't seem worth the risk.

BENINCASA: So he left the cello home, fearing that a customs agent somewhere would confiscate it. I asked Handy, the environmentalist, about this.

HANDY: The tracking of a 115-year-old instrument probably in and of itself is not the target of obviously enforcement or compliance here.

BENINCASA: But she says...

HANDY: The enforcement needs to be the same for everybody because when there starts to be exemptions or exclusions in the system, we've seen time and time again that those that are trying to avoid the regulations find their way.

BENINCASA: Still, even John Scanlon, the secretary general of the CITES convention, concedes the regulations may have gone too far.

JOHN SCANLON: Basically, this all came out of a political compromise.

BENINCASA: Scanlon says some countries were reluctant to regulate only raw timber and exempt finished consumer goods like musical instruments. In the past, traffickers had minimally processed raw materials and passed them off as finished products.

SCANLON: In closing that loophole, it might have been closed a little bit too tight. So we might have gone from one side to the other. We need to get the balance right.

BENINCASA: CITES treaty members are meeting this week in Geneva, and they're considering new guidelines that could ease permit requirements on traveling orchestras and musicians. The question of whether guitar makers will be able to trade their instruments more freely will have to wait until the next full conference in 2019.

Robert Benincasa, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF KAKI KING'S "HAPPY AS A DEAD PIG IN THE SUNSHINE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.