Henry Juszkiewicz: Gibson, from requiem to mass profits
A day in the life: Henry Juszkiewicz bought Gibson for $5m in 1986. It now sells guitars to the tune of $500m a year. James Moore meets its boss in Cannes
Saturday 03 February 2007
Henry Juszkiewicz wakes up groggy and jet-lagged in Cannes, where he is attending the Midem music trade show. Sleep is hard to come by when you're booked into a room on the first floor of the Martinez, the "rock 'n' roll party hotel" and Mr Juszkiewicz has had to learn to live with the pounding beat of rave music into the small hours. These events are a regular feature for the boss of a global company with a truly iconic brand: Gibson - the maker of the Les Paul guitar (and the flying V, the SG, etc etc).
Since Mr Juszkiewicz and his partner Dave Berryman bought (read rescued) the business for just $5m (£2.54m) in 1986, it has undergone a remarkable transformation and now boasts annual sales approaching $500m. The pair are considering a flotation on the New York Stock Exchange in the next couple of years and have added other big-name brands such as Wurlitzer while building up the company. Mr Juszkiewicz is here, among other things, to promote the company's new venture - Take Anywhere Technology - which secures audio content and can be used to limit the number of copies a consumer makes from downloading music. "Parties are on the ground floor, and the bass is pretty loud so I don't get a lot of sleep," he shrugs. "I order two pots of coffee to get me started."
Mr Juszkiewicz heads straight for the Gibson bus, which is parked outside. He is met by one of the directors of the show where he runs through the schedule. First up are media interviews and this morning's range from music industry trade mags to the prestigious French national La Tribune. "There are so many that I have to check the schedule so I've got it straight about who I'm talking to first," he laughs. These take up most of the morning before the main event of the day - the conference.
Mr Juszkiewicz is here to give a short speech, extolling the virtues of his Take Anywhere Technology. He is evangelistic about the clunkily named kit, which is a spin-off from what the company developed to protect signals from its new digital guitar. While in development, he realised there was a real risk of these being intercepted by hackers and sold without the artist's permission.
"It's important for a digital guitar, it should be called an internet guitar, to have protection. I spent a lot of time on it and figured out how to do it," says Mr Juszkiewicz, who has his own studio at home in Nashville, where the firm is headquartered and where he lives with his wife and family.
The former member of "Tony and the Tycoons" has big ambitions for the invention and he extols these during his speech. "We hope it will save the music biz," he says. "It allows sale of music content, and it allows it to be copied, but in a way that protects the licence holder." Digital rights management then? "I don't like to use that word, because it's come to mean something it shouldn't. It now either means satanic cult or mandatory encryption and that's not what it was supposed to be. What our technology does is allow managed copies, it allows the consumer to make them, but limits them to some managed number.
"I'm also trying to convince the music industry the consumer likes quality audio. MP3s really are worse than CDs, they're close, and quite acceptable for the portable experience, but they are not as good. The industry thinks the consumer isn't interested in quality. They think the disc format is dead and everything will go to downloads. I say bullcrap."
After delivering this message, his moderator invites him to join the, ahem, Digital Rights Management panel.
Mr Juszkiewicz is an unlikely headbanger, he's a New Yorker but, with his blond hair and genial manner, he's more Beach Boy than bad mutha. Still, he's out to ruffle feathers today, but the DRM panel is going to be a challenge. "I've had no preparation and then, as I sit down at the couch, the moderator says: 'What are you doin' here? I start to leave, and my other moderator rushes over and says: 'No, no, no, you've got to stay'." He is on the panel with some leading lights in the DRM debate and his opinion is "fairly contrarian", he says. "You should protect content. There is a question: Should the industry put out unprotected content like MP3 and just charge a licence to the hardware guys (like Apple). In which case, you just become a kinda legal firm and that would be devastating."
Mr Juszkiewicz is, in his own words, "pretty controversial" on the panel. "The other guys are saying, it's all going to be downloads, let go. I say, no. Downloads are important, but the disc is not dead. Then I say all content should be protected, because, if not, how do you break a band then? Why would you care about introducing music, promoting a band, that's costly. You have to find a way to make it pay, to make sure the band gets paid. If you're going to get paid, you're going to have to protect your stuff." Mr Juszkiewicz believes if he can move the industry in his direction, the Gibson subsidiary that deals with Take Anywhere Technology could be as big as the rest of the business "in five to seven years". But he admits: "Moving the industry in that direction is going to take an enormous effort."
Running late, he's off to meet the Gibson vice-chairman with some music lawyers. The rush means he turns up at the wrong hotel. "So he e-mails me, where are you, and fortunately it's only a couple of blocks away. Cannes is full of music guys, lawyers, record company executives, musicians, just a great smattering of all the music industry," says Mr Juszkiewicz. "There are lots of meetings where we can talk about Take Anywhere Technology, and the business. Lots of CEOs are here."
The round of meetings continues, with Larry Kenswil from Universal Music, who Mr Juszkiewicz hopes will be a buyer of his technology. "Offered me some intriguing possibilities which I'm very excited about," enthuses Mr Juszkiewicz, who feels in general he has had a good reception despite his views being out of synch with the thinking of most of those at Midem.
It's back to the bus after this. Mr Juszkiewicz has been invited to a "couple of dinners", but he declines and at about 6pm it's a quick ride back to the hotel room and the chance to "chill out".
Mr Juszkiewicz is out with Gibson staff at a restaurant called "Cosy". He describes the cuisine as "exquisite" and only returns to the hotel at 11pm to find an EMI party in full swing on the ground floor, beneath his room. "There's smoke blowing out of the ballroom, a rave sort of scene." Mr Juszkiewicz ventures in. "It's another early start in the morning, so I don't stay." He falls asleep with the bass pulsing in his ears, thinking of the next stop on the 2007 Gibson European Tour.
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