Hello Troubadourians! In a normal year, this month’s column would be about my experience at the NAMM Show. Not so this year. This is not a normal year and, due to COVID, Disneyland, the Anaheim Convention Center, and what seems like entire city of Anaheim, are all closed, so NAMM was cancelled. There was a “virtual NAMM” that was held online but I declined to attend. The point of the show, for me at least, is to experience the entirety of the event, which includes the noise, crowds, and of course to play the instruments and see all the new things that the manufacturers have come up with. It is also the time when I get to visit with some very good friends that I have made over the years whom I’m only able to meet in person at the NAMM Show. It will be very interesting next January to see if there is a show and, if so, what will it be like. I expect that it will be dramatically different from the show to which we have become accustomed. Given the international nature of such a trade show, there will be rules and regulations in place that will significantly alter the NAMM experience. I have questions: Will there be a reduced manufacturer presence? How many manufacturers will want to come at all? Will everything be spaced further apart? The NAMM Show already takes up the entire available space at the Convention Center and has overflow exhibits in some of the hotels on the campus, so how would that work? Would there be a reduced and limited visitor count? How could there be social distancing in already tiny booths? I am glad I’m not the one trying to figure this stuff out. The good news—if there is any—is that the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM), the Anaheim Convention Center, and the city of Anaheim will have had almost two years to work on it. I hope they use that time wisely.
On the other hand, will the NAMM Show become another casualty of changing times instigated by the pandemic and never come back? Possibly. But musicians are social people, and the NAMM Show is an enormous social gathering, one that thousands of people look forward to every year. And there are hundreds of musical performances during the run of the show both during show hours and certainly in the evenings during show week, which have been vital to the careers of scores of musicians. There are so many things that cannot be replaced by a tour of a company’s website or even an online demo that I think we will have a few more shows—I would say to at least 2030, maybe 2035, but the world will certainly be a different place by then. The tactile experience of playing an instrument cannot be replicated and I know from personal experience that it is in the playing that the sale is made. Buying an instrument without playing it first has always been an iffy proposition. Economics play a large part as well. If the global economy rebounds quickly and positively then we could see business as usual for quite a long time. However, a slow economic recovery could jeopardize large-scale trade shows unless there is an expectation of a high volume of consumer response. The NAMM Show, while large in attendance, remains a niche-driven market and is limited to “trade-only” participation. The traditional audience of musicians will likely carry on for a while, but that demographic is definitely aging so the entire music industry will have to adapt to changing times and there will need to be an infusion of younger musicians—and manufacturers—to fill the needs of those new musicians. None of this is new information. I have heard that rock ‘n’ roll is dead and guitars are passé for years. But none of that nonsense has proven true. At the very least it is not imminent. For example, guitar manufacturers had their best sales year ever in 2020, often struggling to keep up with the demand for instruments. The restrictions imposed by the pandemic afforded people the opportunity and time to learn to play or relearn to play. It is unlikely that all those people will continue to play once things get “back to normal” but many will continue to play. And even if the majority do stop playing, there is a strong possibility that the children of those adults held captive by COVID will pick up their parents’ abandoned instruments and get inspired to make music a lifelong pursuit. That would be good for everyone.
There is a natural ebb and flow to the NAMM Show from year to year. Some are better than others and that can have many causes, not the least of which is the perception of the person attending. If you have a bad time, then it is normal to condemn the show as having been bad. Conversely, if you had a great time then the show must have been great. I have been on both sides of this and I know my impression is largely based on my experience. When later writing my column about the new gear I discovered, I often realize that the show was much more interesting that I thought it was in the moment. It is easy to become jaded about the NAMM Show when you see the same exhibits in the same places with the same things on display year after year. But the truth is that music publishing, band instruments, pianos, and other old-school industries have not changed very much for decades. Expecting innovation and something new from them is unrealistic. That said, even for the biggest manufacturers, innovation can be self-limiting. There is only so much that you can do to a Stratocaster before it is either too expensive, too impractical, or no longer a Stratocaster, all of which leads to simple variations on a theme that are often little more than cosmetic. Still, if the next hot thing in pop music has a signature guitar release, there will always be thousands of acolytes who will have to buy one even if the only measurable difference from the standard model is the color. Yet I have also seen some highly innovative product ideas that made their debut at the NAMM Show. (There are too many to list here but check out some of my previous NAMM columns for reference). While not all of them made it, they might never have seen the light of day if it weren’t for the opportunity afforded to those brave souls by the NAMM Show. So, while the NAMM Show might seem like a dinosaur and no longer relevant in an online world, it serves a purpose that simply has no replacement, and I am looking forward to what 2022 will bring. Long live the NAMM Show!
Need to know? Just ask… Charlie (firstname.lastname@example.org)