In a Digital Culture, NAMM Keeps the Music Industry Alive and Well

There’s something about sitting at a hotel bar with hundreds of performers, producers, vendors, writers, and other music industry professionals that can’t be replicated by any amount of YouTube reviews or eBay delves. It’s not even just that you can listen to an audio engineer tell stories of working on Bowie’s last record while a photographer a few feet away geeks out over meeting both Zakk Wylde and Alice Cooper less than an hour ago — all while making enough connections to last any musician a lifetime over a single vodka soda. It’s the sense of wonder that you can only get from being in a place where everyone knows so much but no one knows anywhere near all of it.

The best part of the National Association of Music Merchants’ (NAMM) annual show isn’t unlike the old days of going into Tower Records or Virgin Megastore. No matter how much you thought you knew about music, there were likely entire aisles and sections of the store that you knew nothing about. Experts in punk or metal probably weren’t too familiar with the Latin jazz section, and those who could name most of the artists in the hip-hop and R&B aisles generally didn’t venture into the classical or country areas of the store too often.

NAMM is the same thing, but from a gear-based perspective. National and international experts on everything from guitars to trumpets to digital audio workstations are used to being the smartest person in the room most of the time, but they’re surrounded by people who know just as much about other corners of the music industry at NAMM.

As with any major industry, social media and online shopping have all but eliminated the need for any two people to physically be in the same place to learn about and purchase the latest and greatest musical instruments, accessories, and related products. But every January, incredible amounts of people and companies flock to Anaheim to get a look at what directions the biggest (and smallest) music brands are going for the next year.

Beyond just previewing what’s up next from well-known brands like Ernie Ball and Zildjian and hearing the stories of legendary records from the people who were actually there, NAMM’s most invaluable asset is the sense of community it builds among the entire industry. Sure, there’s still some competition between the giant neighboring displays of brands like Fender and Gibson, but it’s far overshadowed by the sheer amount of products and information available for everyone to peruse.

In an age where local guitar shops have been all but forced out of business by the internet and the corporate greed of stores like Guitar Center, NAMM allows even the most informed and musically educated of people to go learn about musical technology that they never even knew existed — much like a 12-year-old with rock star dreams walking into a local instrument shop for the first time. It’s an experience the internet has taken away from a lot of people, and something that many of the most knowledgable folks in charge of the music industry today undoubtedly look back on fondly.

As much as NAMM is based around business and so many companies sink a ton of money into making sure they can put the best possible display up, no one got into the music industry without first being a fan. The social and community aspects of the four-day weekend make it so much more than just your average trade show, much like how San Diego Comic-Con isn’t really just a comic book convention anymore. After all, despite all of the glorious displays and free swag being given out, the most crowded spot in the Anaheim Convention Center this weekend (since the hotel bar was technically next door) sure looked like the line to get a picture and an autograph from Zakk Wylde.

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