If technology is killing the music industry, you wouldn't know it by walking the floor of the Anaheim Convention Center in late January when the NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) Show takes over the entirety of the massive events space. Founded in 1901, the event has grown exponentially in size and scope, showcasing musical instruments, pro audio gear, event tech equipment and so much more for an estimated 115,000 attendees. The excitement, energy and buzz of business dealings and connections being made there is palpable. Moreover, the convention, which is officially a trade and industry event, has become a hot ticket for musicians of all levels and the public (if they can get in) to nerd out at its roster of rock-star signings and its gear brands' epic booth setups showcasing their latest and greatest products.
Manufactured pop's dominance on the charts, the proliferation of streaming services, YouTube culture and social media all have contributed to the struggles of the music business, both in terms of consumption and creation. But NAMM's growth over the years and its continued success seems to suggest that the desire to make music is both resolute and resilient no matter what.
Being around others who feel the same passion for music can be life-affirming, no matter how little viability there may be in it professionally. And while songwriting, performing, producing and simple artistry as a livelihood is more challenging than ever, there is clearly still a lot of money to be made in providing the tools needed for all of it. In many ways the music industry is a microcosm for the economy as a whole, with only a lucky few finding fame or major financial success. But the dream will never die, and gatherings like NAMM are what keep it alive.
Thanks to convention culture, nerdy niches and insider meetups have opened up to the mainstream, transcending their trade-driven roots to become attraction-driven destinations with public appeal. NAMM might be the biggest example of this shift, even more than Comic-Con, which also takes place at the Anaheim Convention Center. Fanfare still drives buyers and elevates brands, after all.
“Everything is under one roof. Everything that you could possibly want. Period,” says music store king Sam “Sammy” Ash, who has been going to NAMM since he was a teen, learning the family business — started in 1924 by his musician grandfather, the original Samuel Ash — and eventually taking the helm at one of the most successful music stores in the country. “Any question you might have, any new product you might want to see, any person you might want to talk to. It's all in one place at one time and it's really pretty spectacular. Manufacturers only bring out their best, and for a retailer like me, it's great. I have a blast.”
Having Ash and his buyers visit your booth, or reps from giants like Guitar Center, is the goal for many who showcase at NAMM, and attention from these biggies can make or break a new company. Ash, whose store celebrates its 95th anniversary this year, already has relationships with all the best-known companies, but he says discovery will always drive his time at NAMM. “So I focus on mainly guitars. That's my passion, and when I go home, I'm still more plugged into that part of the business,” he says. “There's no way I can focus on all that's taking place at the NAMM show, so I have buyers helping. Hopefully we come home with at least one new exclusive line I can add to our catalog.”
Like many conventions, the frenzy, activity and colorful sights that beckon on the convention floor at NAMM can be overwhelming. Add to this the sheer volume of various sounds being made by people trying out the instruments and electronics, and it's downright chaotic. Most seem to get off on the vociferous and visceral atmosphere, though. Meet-and-greets are scheduled throughout the four days with lines snaking around certain booths as people wait to meet a given company's sponsored big name, which can include everyone from the dazzling Bootsy Collins (a recurring presence at NAMM) to Jackson Browne (honored with an award by NAMM last year).
Last year the show was bigger than ever, utilizing a new wing, ACC North, that offered 200,000 square feet of additional space.
Collins, Black Sabbath's Geezer Butler, Iron Maiden's Nicko McBrain, Duane Eddy and Misfits' Doyle Wolfgang von Frankenstein are just a few of the stars who did signings and drew big crowds last year. The latter caused a creepster commotion inside one of NAMM's most popular booths, that of the L.A.-based company Coffin Case, who makes coffin-shaped guitar storage and goth-y music accessories. Owner Jonny Coffin has had a presence at NAMM since 1999, when he first took a chance at showing his then-custom wares.
“Like a lot of small startup companies there, you're hoping to find buyers and find stores that are interested in your product,” Coffin explains. “That's kind of the No. 1 thing because you're trying to launch a product. That is really why you're there. But part of that business is also meeting musicians and getting the word out. It's marketing.”
Another aspect of that marketing is throwing events outside of the convention halls — parties and shows that offer everyone a good time and help build relationships with the people who matter in the industry while showing a company's products in action. For Coffin Case, this entailed thinking outside the box, so to speak.
Coffin is credited with first bringing fashion to NAMM with his after-show events at the Hilton, including annual runway shows with the brand's Coffin Girls modeling their accessories and performances by heavyweights such as Lemmy from Motörhead and Alice Cooper in years past. Coffin's events put his name out there with the music community, and this recognition helped build his profile not only at the event but everywhere, establishing his lifestyle brand as a respected name on par with the guitars his cases were made to protect. He's throwing a fashion show this year that will highlight new products from both Coffin Case and his Vampira line.
Parties that piggyback onto huge events have become a vital promotional component for brands these days, and NAMM is clearly no exception. From Comic-Con to South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, to the Magic accessories show in Las Vegas to Coachella, large-scale events — whether they be for trade or public audiences — provide a multitude of opportunities for exposure and promotions. For people behind the Sunset Strip's popular Ultimate Jam Night, partnering with NAMM was a no-brainer. They hosted their first Ultimate NAMM Night at the Hilton Anaheim last year, and it was one of the weekend's most coveted and crowded off-site events. This year they have an even bigger party planned.
Jam creator Chuck Wright of Quiet Riot says he's been attending the con for years and describes it as a reunion of sorts for rockers such as himself, as well as a networking thing for newer artists, not unlike the night he put together three years ago (Ultimate Jam celebrates its anniversary this month). “People make friendships and build relationships at NAMM,” he says. “Ultimate Jam Night is the same thing. People get gigs playing our event, and musicians who've never played together get to do so. Being at NAMM is a great fit. ”
Though it's held in Orange County, NAMM has a huge international following, Wright points out, with over 100,000 music people in town and taking the opportunity to check out L.A.'s thriving music scene. His night on the Strip is just one of the club nights that benefits, even weeks before the convention. Unfortunately, the Monday night following NAMM they'll be dark to recover from what is sure to be a wild night in O.C., but the week after should still be riding high. Expect music shows and clubs all over L.A. to be a little more amped and maybe cramped this weekend and next.
“Our members, which are mostly small business owners, travel from around the world, spending the week enjoying the warm hospitality of the area,” says Joe Lamond, NAMM president-CEO, adding that the economic benefit to Southern California during the weekend exceeds $100 million each year.
Over the years, Coffin (who found love at NAMM when he met his wife, singer Lynda Kay Parker, at a NAMM party several years ago) has had the likes of Slayer and Rob Zombie make appearances at this booth. He's remained a unique presence at the event even as he's seen it grow and change. “There's music trends you'll see every few years,” he says. “Guitars will be hot, then it's DJs. Then guitars circle back and they're the big seller. The market was flooded a few years back, so there's a lot of used gear out there right now. I think that would affect things, and the economy, of course.”
Coffin says having products manufactured in China to meet big buyer price points led to a boom for the industry that has now become a challenge due to tariffs and changing regulations. It remains to be seen if these changes will have a lasting impact on the music-gear market, but so far it doesn't appear to have had any substantial effect. Ash says his stores are doing well and he's just opened a new one in Florida.
“The industry is in a constant state of evolution,” NAMM's Lamond says. “If we were to rewind to 1960, you would find two-thirds of the show floor featuring console television sets, record players and radios — how crazy is that to imagine?! The fact is, that as the industry has evolved, NAMM has evolved in tandem to reflect the demands of the market and to anticipate the needs of the industry's future.”
Lamond credits the “exceptional experiences” created by NAMM members for making the convention come to life, capturing the fun of making music, which retailers relay to the public. “The credit goes to them,” he says. “When you look across the NAMM show floor and see their entrepreneurial spirit on display in new products and technologies, it's hard not to be captured in the enthusiasm of knowing that more people are going to make more music in a variety of new ways.”
Big companies are already getting buzz online for the releases they will showcase this year, especially in the guitar world. Gibson will unveil a limited-edition Chris Cornell tribute ES-335 (based on the late singer's guitar). Vintage Guitars has a tribute guitar to Mick Ronson. Supros offers a David Bowie 1961 Dual Tone modeled after the Starman's first-ever DT, Schecter has a slew of new Reaper models, and Fender's American Performer touts its new series' affordability and style. Fender also has a reissue of Jimmy Page's “Dragon” Telecaster.
The excitement that fills each giant room and floor is definitely part of what makes NAMM special. Just as fans plan all year for their favorite music festival, the people behind the music festivals plan all year for this, and not just to demo or drool over sound systems, amps, engineering boards, guitars, drums, bass or even the vast selection of classical stringed and woodwind instruments. There is a huge area for DJs and dance music that includes everything from mixers to lighting. There are accessories, books, stage design props — really anything to do with music, music performance or production that one can think of.
On top of the 7,000-plus brands on display, there are more than 500 educational sessions and networking events tied to it all. A day at NAMM is entertaining but draining, whether you are a seller, buyer or one of the many musicians who come in hopes of scoring an endorsement (hooking up free or discounted gear via the brands there).
It's a wonder people even attend afterparties like those thrown by Coffin and Ultimate Jam after all the walking and talking about rocking. But they do, and there are even two big awards shows (with tickets available to the public): the TEC Awards, celebrating accomplishments in professional audio sound production, and the She Rocks Awards, honoring women in music.
In regard to women at NAMM, we've noted in years past that the event is always male-dominated attendance-wise, but this is changing. Companies like Daisy Rock guitars are making sure of it, in fact. Daisy Rock's Tish Ciravolo says she not only had trouble finding guitars that worked size-wise for her but she dealt with a lot of discrimination as a female musician. “It was just very clear to me that women weren't really accepted into the whole guitar-playing community of guys,” she shares. “And I wanted to change that.”
With her lighter, daisy-shaped guitars, Ciravolo established herself at NAMM, first in conjunction with Schecter and later in association with Alfred Music Publishing, with whom she also created a Girls Guitar Method book. “I recognized right away that if we could change the attitude of the store owners and have product in the music stores that girls would be attracted to, then maybe we could get more girls to learn how to play guitar,” Ciravolo recalls. “My very first NAMM show in 2010, I did consignment and asked stores to put one guitar in their window. I said, 'If you don't sell it, I'll take it back.'?” She never had to.
Recent surveys indicate that almost 50 percent of guitar buyers are women these days, and their presence at NAMM is sure to reflect yet another shift in the music industry. Though female instrumentalists aren't necessarily the biggest music stars these days, it doesn't really matter. A point that is echoed by nearly everyone involved with the event cannot be overstated: The bulk of music-gear buyers in retail outlets, both online and in brick-and-mortar stores, are not professional musicians but rather hobbyists, people who make music for the simple pleasure of it sans career aspirations.
Whatever happens to the record business side moving forward, this is not likely to change. The joy of music making and discovery probably never will because it transcends age, gender, background or even skill. And the people behind NAMM are working to keep it that way.
“NAMM isn't just a tradeshow that happens once a year — it's an organization that is working year-round to create access to music education and, in turn, a more musical world,” says Lamond, who touts the NAMM Foundation's investments of more than $100,000 into local schools for music education and instrument donations. “More music, more harmony and more opportunity for all is why we gather as an industry to celebrate this week.”
The NAMM Show, Jan. 24-27, Anaheim Convention Center. More info at namm.org.