EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been changed from the print version to correct the name of the National Association of Music Merchants.
Kathy Wingert’s passion for guitars started when she was a young musician. The Rancho Palos Verdes guitar maker has tuned up a new passion – political lobbying – in order to keep her business humming.
Kathy Wingert Guitars is threatened by a toughened ban on imported woods that Congress enacted three years ago. Some of the banned woods create particularly rich sounds that guitar enthusiasts love.
“The holy grail for instrument making is Brazilian rosewood,” Wingert said. It has such a rich, chocolaty-smooth sound.”
But under this toughened ban, items made from Brazilian rosewood or any other banned exotic wood are subject to seizure, and owners could face a $100,000 fine and even felony charges.
Wingert makes about 10 instruments per year, primarily for guitar aficionados. Each sells for $12,000 to $20,000. Four customers have canceled their orders in the last two years – about 20 percent of her business. Others, fearful of the fines and possible arrest, are wavering.
Musicians have been concerned for some time, but the guitar world took special notice when Gibson Guitar Corp. in Nashville, Tenn., was raided by federal agents in August.
“Our clients are scared to death, as well they should be with this law,” Wingert said.
In an attempt to save the business that she runs with daughter Jimmi, Wingert, 53, has turned activist, making trips to Washington, D.C., to meet with members of Congress and fellow music industry lobbyists to get the ban eased. She also persuaded her congressman, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Huntington Beach, to co-sponsor legislation introduced last month that would exempt guitars and other instruments made before the toughened ban took effect and reduce or eliminate penalties for performers and guitar makers who get caught. That would put her customers at ease and help her business survive.
The legislation, HR 3210 by Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., is sponsored by the National Association of Music Merchants, which represents about 1,500 instrument makers and 2,000 instrument retailers across the nation.
One of those retailers is Guitar Center Inc., headquartered in Westlake Village. A spokesman for Guitar Center said company executives were not available for comment on the bill or the impact of the ban.
Imports of Brazilian rosewood and several other exotic woods have been banned for nearly 40 years under international treaty. However, wood already in the country was still legal, so Wingert and other instrument makers were able to use Brazilian rosewood salvaged from old pianos, furniture and other products. Many instrument makers had stockpiled some of that recycled wood so they would have enough to make guitars.
But in 2008, Congress passed amendments to another law protecting endangered plant and animal species; those amendments make it illegal to buy or travel with any products containing the wood, making possession of the stockpiled wood illegal.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials have stated that they have no intention of punishing performers who happen to have instruments made with banned wood. But that assurance has met with skepticism from industry representatives, who cite reports of performers with guitars containing foreign rosewood being held up while trying to re-enter the country.
“We have anecdotal information of instruments being stopped at Customs,” said Mary Luehrsen, a lobbyist with the music manufacturers association. “The biggest concern in the industry is the fear related to instruments being transported.”
Concern about possession of the woods mounted after the highly publicized U.S. Justice Department raid of Gibson. Federal agents seized 10,000 fingerboards, 700 guitar necks and 80 guitars containing rosewood from India. That raid led Cooper to introduce his legislation six weeks later.
But a tough fight looms. Environmentalists and domestic logging companies supported the 2008 amendments as a way to crack down on illegal wood imports and have vowed to defeat Cooper’s legislation.
For Wingert, the legislation may be the last hope to preserve the business that she’s devoted her life to. When Wingert realized she wasn’t cut out for a professional career as a guitarist, she decided to make instruments instead. So, some 20 years ago, she got a position as an apprentice at a Long Beach guitar shop and soon launched a custom guitar-making business out of her Rancho Palos Verdes home.
Wingert said that a $100,000 fine levied against her would put her out of business.
“Just having a guitar confiscated would probably be enough to bankrupt me,” she said. “I just don’t have the resources to fight this.”
She said she recognizes the value of preserving trees and doesn’t want to eliminate wood import restrictions.
“Look, I don’t use that much wood,” she said. “If you were to assemble in one load all the wood I’ve ever used for all the guitars I’ve made over the last 20 years, it would easily fit in my minivan. But the little wood I do use is my livelihood.”
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