For those who have never been to a NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) show, it is an epic trade show for the music industry. Picture a university-sized Mecca for manufacturers, retailers, and distributors wanting to expand their business, as well as a place where musicians can get up on the latest toys. Naturally, tourists are welcome to purchase guest passes and wander and marvel at the awesome spectacle, maybe buy some gear, and spend their down time watching one of the many band performances on the outside stages — or perhaps watching one of the many band or solo performances on the multitudinous indoor mini-stages.
Additionally, the trade show is highlighted with events that make it into more of a convention / festival. Each morning begins with a breakfast session, featuring panels relevant to industry folk; the panels continue throughout the four days of NAMM, while entertaining diversions (like 50 pianos playing in unison) keep things interesting. Awards are also bestowed upon musicians and innovators. This year, Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award recipient and Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee Bob Weir (of The Grateful Dead) added the NAMM “Music for Life” award to his trophy shelf. As stated in a NAMM press release, the award was in recognition of his “five decades-long career of influencing musical styles, sound design, and the music business, as well as the many risks he and bandmates took along the way to become the iconic band that they are today.” Furthermore, this year’s show featured the 33rd Annual NAMM TEC (Technical Excellence & Creativity) Awards, wherein winners of 31 technical and creative achievement categories were announced. Highlights of that included Sennheiser winning awards for its new HD 200 PRO headphone design and for its “Pro Talk Series” (an educational series on its YouTube channel). The awards show also featured Jackson Browne being recognized with the Les Paul Innovation Award.
Despite all of the pageantry, the merch is where it’s really all at. Of course, various non-musical arts still make their way into the mix in any of the numerous exhibitor areas. While walking the floors, folks are likely to see displays featuring donated gear from famous musicians, photos of legendary bands, and art installations which incorporate musical instruments. Now, onto those exhibitors and their goods…
The amount of space dedicated to exhibitors is staggering, and it provides an excuse for one to explore every inch of the Anaheim Convention Center (plus some space in several adjacent buildings, like the Hilton and the Marriott). Generally, the floor space of the various halls is divided into sections. Guitars, drums, brass instruments, monitors, DJ equipment, microphones, scaffolding, lighting, and other categories each had their own zone. There was also a Newsstand, where attendees could load up on so many free periodicals that they could weigh their swag bags down 50lbs. The exhibitor displays ranged in size from a fairly conservative table and booth set-up (like that of Talon Guitar Picks, which was showcasing its innovative, patented pick design) to displays bigger than some people’s homes (like that of Zildjian, whose high-hat and ride cymbal display was so enormous that one might forget other percussive instruments exist).
Wandering amongst the business folk, eccentrically dressed musicians and entourage, and civilian families, some colorful product standouts included: illuminated fret boards, headless smart guitars, bass ukuleles, colored guitar strings, app-based tuning hardware, and unique handmade microphone designs. Then there were some more unusual items like the Slapstick, which is basically a stick with a strip of metal on it which, when struck, generates bass tones; and Aerodrum’s invisible drum set, for which one uses sticks to strike the air with this virtual drum kit. These two products represent a sort of bridge to a potential future of pared down musical machinery. In fact, while many companies featured drool-worthy displays of instruments, the products of other companies demonstrated a departure from some of the most basic musical components.
One of the Marriott meeting rooms was occupied by manufacturer Line 6, which showcased some of its latest designs in amplification processors. That is, no more amplifier, it’s all simulated. One of their products, the Helix Floor Processor, can simulate the sounds of 72 amplifiers, 194 effects, 74 M-class legacy pedals, 37 cabinet models, and 16 mics. With this bad boy, one can design their own amped recording sound (including deciding how far the simulated microphone is from the simulated amplifier, which is pumping the simulated effects-laden signal).
Getting further from what was once perceived as reality, VR company Survios was demoing their new program Electronauts. While Survios has already established a reputation as the largest VR gaming company in the world, their entry into the world of music production is comprised of a virtual environment wherein one can play instruments, create sequences and songs, and export the music that they create. The interface basically makes it impossible for users to sound bad (virtual instruments stay in key and on the beat). The program will be making its way into VR arcades (including a new one which is set to open in Torrance on February 9) and potentially into school educational programs in the near future.
NAMM is a real eye opener. It is as transformative as it is educational for people from all walks of life. And while it serves as a hub for professionals and business people to network and transact, it is a paradise for people who love music toys and a window into the future. Furthermore, if some of the virtual aspects that were on display this year achieve mass interest, then perhaps the future of music production will develop sans instruments.