The Future Is Loud

Photo by Leslie SmithAs if there weren't already enough reasons not to go to war, the U.S. Army announced recently that it has started using digital bugles at military funerals. Due to a shortage of trained buglers in the ranks, the Army's digital bugles instead have an electronic cone in the bell that plays "Taps" through a speaker, while a faux bugler merely holds it to his lips. It's not bad enough that they send you to die in a fabricated war; now they send Milli Vanilli to play at your funeral.

If there are ever again enough real buglers to give you a proper sendoff, thank the International Music Products Association, an outfit so hip that its acronym—NAMM—doesn't come close to matching its initials. The NAMM (which stands for National Association of Music Merchants; they outgrew the name but kept the initials) Winter Market screeched through the Anaheim Convention Center last weekend, bringing tens of thousands of musical instrument manufacturers, distributors, merchants, rock stars and hangers-on to the county and leaving behind some impression of where our music and world are heading.

The economy, the looming war with Iraq and/or North Korea, globalization, the woes of NAMM's sister music industry (the record companies getting their asses kicked via file-sharing): it all has an effect here, and not just because I like to say "faux buglers."

NAMM once was a stodgy spit valve of an organization, content to merely vend its wares. But in recent years, when the budget ax has so often landed first on school music programs, the outfit has turned activist. If there is a study showing that musical training improves cognitive abilities or that kids who had music classes are more likely to go on to college, the NAMM folks make sure your congressperson knows of it. I've got a glockenspiel, and I vote!

This year, they're helping to directly fund music education with proceeds from the NAMM Elton John gala presented by Yamaha at the Pond of Anaheim Friday (along with Sir Elton hisself, neat-o folk like Ray Charles and Diana Krall did their favorite EJ tunes), and NAMM is sponsoring a John Lennon songwriting contest.

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"Ten years ago, I would rather have licked pavement than be actively involved in NAMM. Now I'm on the marketing committee because they're really promoting music," said ABC Sports commentator Howard Cosell. Actually, it was Ernie Ball/Music Man owner Sterling Ball, who at this year's show was terrifyingly made up to look like the late Cosell. Known for his lavishly outlandish NAMM displays, Ball's booth this year was done up to look like a football stadium.

Even when not wearing a rubber nose, Ball is an opinionated guy. "You have to wonder how resilient we can be, with the economy and other problems we have," he said. "Can we take a war on top of that? Two wars? One thing, though: the music business usually weathers changes well. People play the blues when they're happy, and people play the blues when they're sad."

Ball's more worried about changes within the industry. "We sell a bass for $1,800, and the Chinese make a copy of it for $200. It's not as good, but with such a price gap, a lot of people won't care. So we're introducing models pared down to the basics of what a customer needs to at least compete with that low end. You can gripe all you want, but to survive, you have to change when the world does. And the upside for players is there's never been a cheaper time to be a musician."

Indeed, there were more well-made cheap instruments at NAMM than ever. As much as I sympathize with Ball and others who have to cope with the glut of imports, the instruments that floored me this year were the Chinese-made Eastman Strings archtops. Eastman has long made quality orchestral stringed instruments, and its craftsmen are now hand-carving archtop guitars for around $2,000 that easily rival American archtops selling for $8,000 to $20,000. Given the fabulous sound and that price gap, I needed only the barest of assurances that Eastman's workers aren't hole-dwelling convicts to set aside my ethical concerns about buying one.

Eastman's Gordon Roberts assured me their craftsmen are indeed very well-off by Chinese standards, and you've got to appreciate excellence wherever you find it these days. Some American archtop builders are so back-ordered that customers pay thousands extra just for a better place in line, so I'm guessing the market can bear some competition.

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The Eastmans aside, even for an utter guitar whore such as myself, the eyes glazed over after seeing the show's 2,007th Stratocaster knockoff (even Fender, which introduced the OC-bred Strat a half-century ago, makes more than 80 niggling variations now, including ones where, for extra bucks, they'll pre-distress it with scrapes, cigarette burns and such. It's like having a dominatrix for your guitar).

The industry continues coming up with new standards of excellence, such as THD's Univalve and BiValve amps, and there are still innovations. Line 6, for example, makes a digital modeling guitar that pretty ably apes the sound of many popular guitars, and OC's Lace company makes models on which the necks have a weird ergonomic twist. But, otherwise, Jesus, give the guitar-wanking a break and bring back the trombone or something.

Hey, there's dapper Gram Nash of Hollies/CSN/etc. fame at NAMM for the unveiling of his signature model Martin guitar! Gram, do you suppose war with Iraq will be good for the music business, aside from faux buglers?

"I don't think war is good for any business except the people who create the wars to make money: the energy companies and military industrial complex," he says. "Those are the only people who benefit. Most Americans, unfortunately, are snowed by the war rhetoric, but I think it's a drastic, drastic mistake."

And what about the death of the music industry predicted by many sources, such as the current Wired magazine?

"The record companies are upset just because technology's doing what it's always done—changing, as it always will," says Nash. "Obviously the industry is in a giant tailspin now, trying to figure how to make money from all the downloading going on. But who are they to complain? In very few cases have they ever taken the cause of the artist to heart. So it'll be interesting to see what emerges from this change."

Though Nash has been making music since the days when transistor radios were cutting-edge technology, he has kept up on advances. That includes traveling with a 198-track computer recording studio.

And that's where the real excitement has been at NAMM for years now. While lacking the phallic fun of guitars, PC-based recording systems have become the most empowering musical tool in decades. For less than a good guitar costs, there's software (from Cakewalk, Steinberg, Digidesign and others) that gives you recording capabilities equal to most recording studios. Spend a couple of grand more on a CD duplicator from a company like Disc Makers, learn Internet marketing skills, and you can be your own record company without the "company store" practices that keep musicians broke.

While programs make your computer more like a studio's mixing board, companies such as Roland approach things the other way, making hard-drive-endowed mixing boards and keyboard synths more like computers. Built-in CD burners let you go from initial idea to fully mastered product on the same machine.

There's no Astroturf or go-go girls at these booths—just sleek rows of Apple flat-screen monitors or drab synths unfortunately dubbed "workstations." No wonder they don't get the respect they deserve. Like the digital marvels in films post-Terminator II, people take for granted technological achievements that were unthinkable two decades ago. In 1983, the sampling capabilities of the Kurzweil 250 were considered miraculous. It weighed 95 pounds, cost $20,000, and is utterly eclipsed these days by inexpensive programs you can load onto your home PC. Ho-hum.

As someone pointed out back then, Stevie Wonder (who was strolling last weekend's show as well) sounded great playing a Kurzweil, but he sounded just as great playing an $8 harmonica.

There was so much other fun at NAMM: hemp-coned speakers, wild effects boxes, high-tech earplugs to keep the other products you were buying from driving you deaf. Nearly every seller I spoke with at the packed show reported brisk business. Is the economy on the rebound or just taking a last gasp? If Armageddon is looming, will your home computer play "Taps" for you? Will I have saved up for my Chinese archtop by then?


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