Cort guitars and being a selfish, affluent Western scumbag

About a year ago, I wanted a travel guitar to take with me on holiday and to music festivals. I had had a brief look the previous summer when I’d been to a music festival. There were several choices available; a Taylor Big Baby, an Ozark travel guitar and a Cort Earth-Mini. I tried them all.

The Ozark travel guitar was certainly very portable but it looked like a piece of equipment from an extinct outdoor sport. I wasn’t sure whether to play it or find an old feathery rubber ball to hit with it. Unfortunately, the sound wasn’t brilliant either. Since the Ozark has no sizeable resonating chamber, the instrument isn’t much different from playing a guitar that’s been sliced in half.

I then moved on to the Taylor. Now, I’ll admit that I was already hoping that the Taylor would sound good. This was a Taylor guitar! It’s an American legend of a brand, lovingly crafted by gruff men with beards in Appalachian cabins while the sun slowly sets over the North American woods on their doorstep, teeming with racoons and squirrels and nomadic hippy encampments (at least in my mind that’s what goes on). I played it and played it some more and a thought began creeping into my mind. This really doesn’t sound so good. It sounded flat, boxy and thin. I examined the instrument and realised that the neck wasn’t glued to the body, it had been bolted on. This wasn’t my ideal travel guitar at all. I put it down and picked up the Cort guitar, my mind filled with disappointment about the Taylor. I played the Cort guitar. It worked. It made a nice sound. It was easy to play. It was made of mahogany and spruce and rosewood. It was £150. Part of my mind took these facts in while I meandered through my post-Taylor guitar melancholy. I put the Cort back on the shelf and wandered back out into the sunshine.

Fortunately, I wasn’t the only one listening to my guitar playing in that tent. The sensible and intelligent female friend with me asked what I thought. ‘Oh,’ I said, ‘the Taylor looks good.’ She tipped her head to one side. ‘I thought the Cort sounded good.’ I nodded. Hum, I thought, she might be right but it’s some no-name brand; it’s not a Taylor or a Martin.
Later that day, I thought about the Cort guitar again. I tried to remember how it had sounded, how it had felt. It was hard because I hadn’t expected it to be good. I hadn’t even really wanted it to be good. Because of this, remembering its sound was like remembering the taste of marmalade when you thought you’d been given jam. You start eating it, expecting the jam taste and you get something else. Your brain is confused and you can’t actually taste it properly. It becomes a weird mishmash of a taste, like it was a cross between jam and cardboard. But my friend had been right, the guitar had felt good. It had sounded good, with a rich, mid ranged tone. It had been easy to play; the fretboard wasn’t fighting against my fingers, it was helping them.

I went back in the music tent a day later and played it some more. This time, with Taylor and Martin thoughts out of my mind, I focussed on it. It was a beautiful guitar. It was glorious to play. It was beautifully made - simple and elegant. It was a travel guitar made from mahogany, spruce and rosewood for £150! The full astonishment of it all came over me. I held in my hand something that should have cost three times its price. If it had the word ‘Taylor’ or ‘Martin’ on its neck, it would have. It sounded as good as what a Taylor or a Martin should sound like. I bought it and walked out of the music tent a happy man.

But every silver lining has got to have a cloud lurking somewhere. I couldn’t shake off a thought; how on Earth can such a guitar be sold for £150? If I asked someone in my local area to make me a guitar just like that Cort Earth Mini, from those materials, to that level of skill, he’d have asked for at least £900, six times the cost of the Cort. That didn’t even include the likely markup on buying it in a shop. If I bought a locally made guitar of that quality in a local shop, it would have probably cost £1200, nine times the cost of the Cort. That Cort travel guitar I’d bought must have been sold to the music distributor for about £60. That’s the equivalent of a mid-priced meal for four in a London restaurant.

I know that many people in the Western World don’t think much about how the items they buy can be so cheap. Even if they did, they can explain it away as the benefits of competition, exchange rates, mass supply or economies of scale. But this wasn’t a low skill item. This guitar needed a skilled person to make it. That person needed to be trained, to develop that ability over a long time. They needed excellent tools and materials sourced from distant lands. Even if they were in a factory that had divided up the different aspects of the guitar making process - a horribly dehumanising anti-craftsman approach championed by Adam Smith (but profitable! That’s why it’s taken pride of place on the English £20 note) - the workers would still need to be a skilled group.
How could that guitar have been made that cheaply?

I found out more about Cort. Cort is very large guitar manufacturing corporation based in South Korea. For many years it has made guitars for established Western brands such as Fender and Ibanez among others. Its factories were based in South Korea but this changed when the South Korean workers, in an attempt to improve their dangerous and low paid working conditions, formed a union. The Cort management reacted swiftly. They sacked the Korean workers, closed down the factories and moved their manufacturing to other countries with less workers’ rights. Since then, the Korean workers have been repeatedly petitioning to get their jobs back and be given the respectable wages and working conditions that they had asked for.

I had got my answer. My excellent Cort guitar was cheap because Cort used the cheapest labour they could get away with. Nuts. I had been saved from being a slavish follower of prestigious brands to become an enlightened buyer of wonderful, low-kudos kit. Now I was simply a selfish, affluent Western scumbag who fed off the exploitation of abused workers. I was the twenty-first century equivalent of a Victorian lady getting her hats from Arsenic soaked millinery (hat making) hovels in the East End.

The big question was; what should I do about it? I could have bought a guitar from a non-Cort brand but that probably wouldn’t have worked. Cort make guitars for lots of brands. The odds of an American guitar brand guitar being made in a sweat-shop factory in Indonesia, China or Vietnam was pretty high. I could have chosen only guitars definitely made by craftsmen in the UK but, I’ll be honest, I wouldn’t have bought a travel guitar at all. It would have been too expensive. After some thought, I realised that there is another way. What if I gave money directly to the Korean workers sacked by Cort? What if I said ‘for every Cort guitar I buy, I will send an extra fifty pounds directly to help the sacked Cort workers? That way, I won’t be refusing to buy Cort guitars, which will simply stop any work and pay for those workers. I will though be helping redress the loss of earnings for those workers.
So that’s what I did.

If you’ve bought a Cort guitar (or one made for another brand by Cort) and you’d also like to donate to the sacked Korean workers’ cause, you can contact the Korean Immigration Workers’ Alliance. Simply donate to KIWA and make a note in the comments box that it’s for the sacked Korean Cort workers fund. I’ve done it now for both my Cort Earth mini guitar and my Cort electric guitar (which is also excellent). Just for a while, and just for these two items, I think I’ve been a little less of a selfish, affluent, Western scumbag. Then again, I still haven’t found out where they got that mahogany...