The Tree That Rocked The Music Industry This year, new international regulations on rosewood have reverberated through the music industry, costing tens of millions in lost sales and extra administrative costs.
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The Tree That Rocked The Music Industry

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The Tree That Rocked The Music Industry

The Tree That Rocked The Music Industry

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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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.


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.


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.


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