By Gustavo Arellano
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By Charles Lam
Photo by James BunoanAvast, mateys! Thar be rough waters ahead and low-carb beer on tap!
This was last weekend's NAMM show, where you probably weren't unless you're one of the apparent tens of thousands of somebodies who knew somebody. What you missed was a sprawling Neverland of musical dreams, where every spare acre of the closed-to-the-public Anaheim Convention Center was filled with musical instruments and everything even distantly related to making music, including hi-tech earplugs to shut the damn stuff out.
The NAMM show (NAMM is the lingering acronym for what's now called the International Music Products Association) is where everyone who makes the gear tries to sell it to music store dealers, so you hear the wonderful friction of art and commerce that combines to make the hum of American life. You hear the new sounds and technologies that will influence our musical future. You listen in on musical America's thoughts about the year ahead, thoughts filled with fears, hopes and Jägermeister Girls.
That's right, we inside the NAMM show get to rub shoulders with esteemed virtuosi like the Jägermeister Girls.
Some respect was proffered the world's ever-growing number of female musicians, and one booth featuring "girlish" pink instruments had a banner proclaiming, "Females control 80 percent of household spending!" But bimbos loom big time at the NAMM show, where many sales assistants wore plaid school uniforms highlighted by what a friend's dad used to call "ducky mini-skirts" ("so short you can see the quack"). There are thousands of companies vying for the same dollars at NAMM, and they'll do anything to seem different or unusual, short of actually beingdifferent or unusual.
It used to be that lots of vendors had whacked-out booths—made to resemble flying saucers, Mayan temples or women's prisons. For years now, though, the Ernie Ball company's booth has been without serious competition, which didn't prevent them from going apeshit over pirates this year. We're talking a Disneyland-sized pirate ship's prow and rigging, treasure strewn about, the entire sales crew in piratical garb, and such attention to detail that whenever company CEO Sterling Ball shouted "Fire away!" not only did the ship's cannons boom, flash and belch smoke, but the cannonball's impact was heard a split second later in a remote speaker. Ball is an Atkins Diet pirate, hence the low-carb beer being dispensed on deck.
This was the tenth year running that Ball's booth was named the show's best by an industry trade mag. Now, he's told, they'll be retiring him from competition so other vendors might have a chance to win.
Ball doesn't like this. Where most pirates have a hook coming out their sleeve, he had an electric bass headstock, and waved it about while vociferating, "Why retire us? All we're doing is the best we can, and people should be trying to beat that. We come here to win, to kick some pirate ass. I wish more people would. So many booths this year are really sterile. Everyone's got to have more fun."
He's a gung-ho business guy, advancing a company his dad Ernie started in 1958 in Tarzana (since moved to Newport Beach and then to San Luis Obispo and Indio). Ernie had listened to fellow guitarists gripe about the difficulty of finding skinny strings that let them bend notes like bluesy guitar gods. He introduced Slinky strings and the world's guitarists beat a wobbly path to his door. The company now makes quality guitars, basses and piles of other neat products.
It's not all fun for Captain Ball, though, and one of his biggest concerns is piracy. Like most American companies, he has to contend with Chinese and Korean knockoffs of his products that sell for a fraction of what it costs him to make instruments in California. He says he's paying $75,000 a month for his employees' insurance, and three times the amount of workman's comp he'd be paying in Arizona.
In China, meanwhile, they're maybe paying workers with soot, because their factories produce instruments—often pretty good ones—for a pittance. One Malaysian company at the show, Woodman Guitars, was offering a Chinese-made Strat-style guitar and 20-watt amp for $58 wholesale, as well as a well-made, solid-topped Gibson-inspired acoustic that wholesaled for $72, less than a tenth of an American equivalent. That is making for some scary times in the industry. Scarier yet, Ball says, WalMart has been moving more into musical instrument sales, which could turn the cost-cutting into a blood-letting.
While reason remains, let's take a quick stroll through NAMM's other wonders. But first a word about confetti: Folks, don't use pyrotechnic devices that char your fans beyond recognition; don't use unsafe imported confetti; use flame-retardant, non-toxic, color-fast confetti from AclassActFX. Here's another word: unless you want to hear more about confetti, talking drums or PC cards than any sentient being can abide, DO NOT EVER MAKE EYE CONTACT with someone in a booth. They paid a boodle for that booth, and are desperate for customers. They have air pumps hooked to their lungs so that once you let them start talking, they don't ever stop long enough for you to leave.
So what else was up at NAMM? The 171-year-old Martin company unveiled it's one-millionth guitar, a commemorative model so ornately resplendent with mother of pearl and jewels that it could double as a lighthouse reflector. One million, by the way, is a lot of guitars: Dave Matthews plays the same brand Mark Twain and Hank Williams did; Martins were played during the Civil War and soldiers today have taken them to Iraq; Dylan and others protested the Vietnam War with a Martin, and Willie Nelson is opposing the current one with his.
Like snack food brands vying for shelf-space, some manufacturers are diluting their product line to the point of bafflement. Fender, for example offers more than 90 variants on its Stratocaster guitar alone. One of those this year is a 100-total limited edition Stevie Ray Vaughan Strat, in which they subjected his gouged, battered #1 Strat to the sort of scrutiny usually reserved for the Shroud of Turin, and reproduced it down to every last cigarette burn. As much as I loved Stevie Ray, this is getting too much like exalting the icon instead of the essence.
There probably isn't much left that hasn't been done with a guitar. It's reached the point that one firm offers a Strat called the Flipout where the neck is mounted on the wrong end of the body for comic effect.
How do all these instruments sound? Who knows? There is such a constant wash of noise filling the halls that it's like a wine tasting where you have to slurp the samples off an already wine-soaked carpet. After an hour or two of the audio bedlam, a snootful of rug-wine or any numbing form of NAMM enhancement is the only thing that sounds good.
But there's so much more: trombones, cellos, tympani and then the whole tech side of things. For scarcely more than you'd pay for a good spit-brush for your flute, Apple is now marketing its GarageBand software ($49 as part of Apple's iLife bundle, or free with new computers) that combines music making (with 50 virtual instruments and 1000 loops) with 64-track music recording and editing capabilities. So, for free in your little laptop you'd be getting a built-in orchestra and something like eight times the recording capabilities the Beatles had to make Sgt. Pepper.
Such entry-level bargains aren't negatively affecting the high-end of the business. Costa Mesa's Lynx Studio Technology, for example, is thriving while making the most expensive ($400-to-$1,100) analog-to-digital sound cards in the industry. Their locally made boards are widely praised as the most hi-fidelity sounding way of getting music into your computer, and business is good.
All this perfection is also making folks nostalgic for the human sound of flaws. Bob Moog, who invented the modern synthesizer back in the 1960s, was at the show with gear that replicated the slurpy, glitchy synth sounds of that bygone era. And my favorite ad copy at the show was for the Metasonix Agonizer effects pedal, that warned, "Bad sound. Bad sound. Ouchie. Run away. Run away."