Conventions have always been about conducting business, but as reflected by Comic-Con, the culture has shifted from niche trade-a-thons to mainstream public spectacles. In some ways, the NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) Show is no exception, but it has managed to remain both a biz and a pleasure endeavor as it has grown. Fanfare still drives buyers, in musicmaking maybe more than anywhere else. The industry is struggling, and without a little rock-star magic, it might die. NAMM is keeping the dream and joy alive, for pros and novices alike, and walking through it, the kid-in-a-candy-store giddiness of everyone there is palpable.
The annual gathering, which ran Jan. 25-28 at the Anaheim Convention Center, is a hodge-podge of creation and commerce, business and bemused aspiration. Some come just to drool over gear, others to gawk at famous musicians. Many are there to admire the craftsmanship of classic instrument design, while others seek to discover the latest innovation in recording and listening to music. Most in attendance work behind the scenes, their jobs driven by marketing, selling and promoting instruments, equipment and accessories for companies big and small. Despite its massive size and international recognition, NAMM is a members-only event, restricted to music company brands, employees and endorsed artists, though many fans and amateur musicians come as guests of the above.
I attended with an artist friend, singer-keyboardist-bassist Beck Black, and ran into several pals in bands, all of whom were there to “ooh” and “ahh” at gear but also to pursue endorsement possibilities, which has always been a huge aspect of the show. Of course, there's a familiar Catch-22: Unknowns rarely get endorsements because those go to the big names, who can afford to buy stuff. Still, there is room for midlevel artists with decent followings to score some freebies.
“Excitement is always in the air for endorsements, the latest instruments and networking opportunities,” Black said on the drive home. “But within that magic is also the sterile strategy of accruing such things. Meandering through that labyrinth of equipment as starry-eyed musicians plucked along, I felt the apathetic nature of the convention, too. I got a few endorsements but was kind of overwhelmed by it all.”
Jerry Montano, bassist, songwriter and producer for The Damage (formerly with bands including Danzig, Hellyeah and Nothingface), has been coming to NAMM since 1995. It has changed a lot, he says, with fewer parties than in years past and greater emphasis on product. He did play the biggest Saturday night shindig, NAMM JAM at the adjacent Hilton Hotel Ballroom, thrown by the promoters of the Ultimate Jam Night in West Hollywood.
“It's been interesting to see how NAMM has evolved from trade show to fan zone over the last decade,” Montano, who holds a couple of endorsements, told me. “This year seemed less focused on autograph signings and parties and more about the gear, which I found refreshing as an artist.”
So what about this year’s gear? Trade publications will tout certain products unveiled at the convention, especially technologically advanced stuff that allows for unique sound innovation, but for casual musicians and a layperson like me, it was about the eye candy — the fancy guitars (the vintage-looking Relics line in the Fender room), the glitter-specked drum kits (Ludwig’s section was particularly impressive), and the giant wall of Marshall amplifiers in the middle of the main floor. The shiny, pretty, edgy allure of certain booths did beckon us, but once inside we learned about new products, too. At Fender the hot new thing is Fender Play, the new guitar instruction app, while Marshall was touting its new Origin guitar amps, which are all about vintage style and sound, taking cues from the company’s roots in the '50s and '60s meshing single-channel, old-school sound with modern features.
Remaking old stuff with new technology is a recurring theme at NAMM. One of the coolest examples of this was at the Sound Techniques booth, where David Bowie’s producer/engineer Ken Scott was live-mixing Ziggy-era tracks. The small U.K. company from the '60s and early '70s built mixing boards for recording studios, and its equipment was used on some epic recordings by The Beatles, Elton John, Nick Drake, The Doors and almost all the early Bowie albums.
Brian Kehew, an L.A.-based producer involved in the company’s relaunch, said he discovered Sound Techniques by researching what The Beatles had used. He then went to London to see the original inventor, Geoff Frost, who was astonished that someone cared about the work he'd done so many years ago. “It took a few years, but we helped gather the company history, and then the hard work of creating new versions based on their original designs was taken on by Danny White here in California,” Kehew explained. “He's taken the helm of the company and really done a great job figuring out what was good about the originals and what is needed for a modern studio's version of these designs.”
While behind-the-scenes figures of music like Scott had moments to shine at NAMM, it was, as always, the big names and stage stars that garnered the most excitement. On Friday, Black Sabbath’s Geezer Butler, Bootsy Collins, Duane Eddy and The Misfits’ Doyle Wolfgang Frankenstein did signings, the latter inside the L.A.-based Coffin Case company’s booth, designers of coffin-shaped guitar storage and goth music accessories. Bootsy was back on Saturday, as were Iron Maiden’s Nicko McBrain and Jackson Browne (who was honored with an award). On Sunday, it seemed everyone was just trying not to pass out.
It wasn’t all about rock music, either. At one end of the spectrum were classical instruments including gleaming horns of all kinds and beauteous stringed instruments (seeing them en masse was awe-inspiring); at the other, new music technology including mixers, home recording devices and DJ equipment. The big talk in the DJ and turntablist section was the brand-new Phase Project DJ needle-less DVS setup, which reads vinyl via laser, allowing for more frenzied spinning and scratching. The booth attracted some big mixmasters doing demos, among them Q-Bert and DJ Babu of Dilated Peoples.
The Phase project has been all the buzz in the DJ world since it was announced, and the company’s social media has helped spread it wide. Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat have, in fact, played a role in spreading all things NAMM the past few years.
The Anaheim Convention Center “used to be a lot smaller — they tore out a parking lot and built the North Hall — and it's already filled to capacity with booths and exhibitors,” said Kehew, a longtime attendee. “I notice a lot fewer 'deals' going down between dealers and retailers of musical equipment and the manufacturers … but now video shares the message worldwide nearly immediately.”
With new ways to get the word out about music products, it’s easy to see why many in the industry opt out of the event these days (this year one of the biggest guitar companies in the biz, Gibson, had zero presence). Many in the music world even seem to have animosity toward NAMM, charging that it’s nothing more than a Guitar Center visit on steroids. It’s not an easy event to attend, that’s for sure. The surrounding Disneyland traffic makes getting to and parking for it a challenge; once inside, it can be difficult to navigate (NAMM’s foldout map and micro-type list of exhibitors is terrible). Basically, jaded types do not go to NAMM unless they have to in a professional capacity. The sight of so many wanna-be rockstars noodling, shredding and showing off their skills (or lack thereof) can be a little hokey to some, not to mention the ubiquitous metal-horned selfie takers everywhere you look. And let's face it, lusting after all the beautiful stuff you can’t have can be frustrating for some, though it is kind of the point.
My main critique is less about NAMM itself and more about the attendees. It was hard not to notice that Black and I were an obvious minority there as women, and though we expected it, it was disheartening. I’d venture to guess that female attendance was somewhere around 10 percent, and that might be generous. So it was super-inspiring to attend the She Rocks Awards thrown by the Women's International Music Network, at the House of Blues on Friday night after the convention. The awards ceremony honored women from all factions of the music industry, including performers Exene Cervenka, The B-52’s Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson, Melissa Etheridge and Pat Benatar (all were in attendance except Benatar, who was fighting the flu). Talented young new acts tackled these stars’ material and the show climaxed with everyone onstage together singing Aretha Franklin’s “Respect.”
A lot of inspiring things were said at She Rocks, but the words of award winner Fabi Reyna, creator of She Shreds magazine, had particular significance at a NAMM event. “Fifty percent of all new guitar sales in the past five years have been to women,” she said, citing Fender Guitars' chief marketing officer as the source of that stat, and suggesting that the market’s salvation will, in fact, come with the help of women. I also think kids of both genders are a big market to tap into, and there were several at NAMM this year.
Despite dramatic declarations by publications such as The Washington Post that the electric guitar is dying, NAMM's growing popularity seems to suggest otherwise. Interest is simply shifting, with marketing putting less emphasis on rock-god posturing and more on having fun, viewing music as a hobby for everyone. I definitely saw that on the NAMM floor this year, even if I didn’t see as many females in pursuit of the fun. But there’s always next year!