Musicians Groups Earn Exemption on Federal Ivory Ban

Months after a new set of federal regulations on the sale and trade of ivory went into effect, a number of musicians groups won a compromise on the rule last week. The problem? The ban threatened to complicate traveling with a vintage musical instrument.

The push against the export of ivory—a material that’s been banned from trade for 25 years—caught one industry in the middle of all that noise: the music industry.

But thanks to a push by a number of associations, musicians and vendors gained a little wiggle room with federal regulators last week. More details:

There was nothing illegal about selling the guitar, or reselling the guitar. And now the government wants to retroactively make it illegal.

What’s the problem? For hundreds of years prior to the rise of synthetic materials, musical instruments were often made with animal parts, including ivory. While those instruments often have very little ivory, the presence of ivory nonetheless runs up against a set of regulations announced this year to limit the trade of the banned material. George Gruhn, a Nashville-based antique instrument seller, noted to The Tennessean this year that this is causing issues for his business: The export limits affect valuable C.F. Martin-produced guitars made decades before the ivory trade was regulated. “There was nothing illegal about selling the guitar, or reselling the guitar. And now the government wants to retroactively make it illegal,” Gruhn said of a 1902 Martin guitar he ran into issues trying to transport to a foreign buyer. Even working musicians could face issues due to the new regulations: Such instruments already require permits for international travel, and the additional regulations could make transporting the devices even harder.

The music industry pushes back: Since the proposal was announced, a number of music-related groups—including The Recording Academy, the League of American Orchestras, and the National Association of Music Merchants—have lobbied on the issue, noting the potential threat to musicians’ livelihoods and the possibility that vintage instruments could be taken out of the hands of artists altogether. “While the administration’s efforts to safeguard endangered animals are necessary, the policy overreaches,” The Recording Academy’s Director of Government Relations Todd Dupler wrote in a blog post. “Neither overseas travel with pre-existing instruments for the purpose of performance, nor the sale of pre-existing instruments between musicians, has any adverse impact on the conservation of African elephant populations.”

Making a compromise: Last week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service revealed that it was creating exceptions to the rules to keep in mind musicians’ concerns, allowing for the export and import of such instruments—as long as they were produced before February 26, 1976 (the day African elephants were first listed as an endangered species internationally), and purchased before February 25, 2014 (the day the prior regulations went into effect). USFWS Director Dan Ashe emphasized that the rule is meant to target poachers, not musicians. “By implementing a near complete ban on trade in elephant ivory, we are effectively closing loopholes and eliminating the cover provided by legal commercial trade that traffickers have exploited for years,” Ashe said in a statement. “That said, we have listened to the very real concerns expressed by the regulated community and have made common-sense adjustments.”

While the groups protesting the rule change applauded the new exemptions, they raised questions about the fact that the new policy still forbids the sale or trade of such instruments.

“We strongly believe it is possible to protect the future use and sale of musical instruments while also meeting conservation goals,” League of American Orchestras President and CEO Jesse Rosen told The New York Times.


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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