No doubt you have heard about this loud spectacle in Anaheim that commences every third week of the new year for four days! But – if you have never been – what is the hype about this event? And what, actually, is it?
What is it?
NAMM stands for National Association of Music Merchants. NAMM is the 117-year-old association that puts on several events throughout the year including the NAMM shows – a smaller one in summer in Nashville and the huge winter NAMM in January. So, NAMM show is a business trade show and typically the biggest show the (sizeable!) Anaheim Convention Center puts on all year. Instrument manufacturers, gear creators, techies, educators, publishers, distributors, studio owners, marketers, lighting designers, sound engineers, software designers, musicians and performers of all genres and walks of life – all convene in order to learn about and participate in the latest of the art and business of music.
“Business” as in for example:
- Instrument manufacturers connecting with distributors from all over the world
- Music gear developers to pow wow on latest developments and trends
- New companies breaking into the worldwide stage
- Copyright law, social media, labels… – how is it all changing and how does it affect us?
“Art” as in for example:
- Hearing artists use old and new instruments and technology
- Catching up on how the latest in technology can support creative ideas
Companies can rent booths and showcase their gear. Some rent entire halls and put up huge stages and elaborate branded architecture, others keep it intimate and less bombastic, some evade into floors away from the main halls and rent big rooms that they transform into their own little worlds, often welcome escapes from the main hubs.
In this day and age, face-to-face meetings are not as essential as they used to be, so the business aspect has slightly shifted over the years (I hear that a lot of deals and face-to-face meetings happen in hotel or meeting rooms even prior to the show starting; many companies see NAMM show as a once-a-year touch point with their business partners). Truth be told, the place is so loud and unfocused that it is hard to focus on things like numbers, deals etc., so taking business cards or attending meetings set up prior to the show is as effective as it may get in that arena. Yet, being there, showing your latest creations, mixing and mingling is still high on the list of many music pros and companies. Whether NAMM is perceived a must-do-yet-again or an exciting first-time proposition, it is an expensive effort for everyone there to be there. Some get paid to be there, flown in and put up nicely (but someone picks up that tab!), while others max out their own credit cards just to be there.
What’s it like?
Loud and overwhelming.
The sheer amount of
- standing-in-some-line people
- screens with lots of colors and blinking moving things on them
- amazingly dressed people
- guitar people
- flat wound strings
- famous people
- shiny people
- 80’s hair and mullets
- people you-know-and-love people
- tired people
- fired up people
- fired up tired people
is mind-blowing. Every two steps you run into someone you either know or recognize from TV. I can’t hear what they are saying, though, because there is a drummer testing these new cymbals right next to me, while someone is checking if this Orange amp really goes to 11 and they just escorted a famous bassist out of the building because he turned up too loud and wouldn’t stop. Wait – what? (true story).
It is busy. You have to walk like you walk the sidewalks in New York – slaloming between talking, hugging or rushing people (late for the next meeting!); there are guitarists testing gear and demonstrators of the latest Waves plugin trying to get you to check out their cooest newest. Stars are giving autographs, so there are lines.
Booth babes in pink high heels and not much else give you free guitar picks and some earbuds and I still wonder how come they didn’t get the memo that booth babes don’t work… but, wait, it is NAMM show and maybe the logic has to do with the fact that there will be guitarists or guitarist-wanna-have-booth-babes-wannabes. I don’t know, but there they are.
Note: Booth babes of all varieties should not be mistaken with awesomely and outrageously dressed artists from all walks of life who have some heavy duty skill actually using said guitar picks the booth babes hand out. It is the entertainment industry after all and for some, the outfit is part of the legitimate musical package.
Oh, the Swag!
Grab your Orange bag early in the day (it is the biggest) and fill it with picks, free tuners, pens, fresh mints, magazines and weird gadgets. When you get home you will likely have forgotten what that gadget was actually for, but you will feel good about having scored it! Or not.
This place is a total challenge to your health – my guitar player friend and bandleader Brian aptly once called the whole place a “huge petri dish”. NAMMthrax is a known strain of an amazing flu virus, something like H1C7b9 or something! The food on site is terrible, everyone is dehydrated and the internet is crazy slow. That NAMM app never works and now I forgot whether Victor Wooten is playing the Hartke stage or at the Fodera booth at 11AM. I have five minutes to get to my next meeting, booth numbers are a confusing mess and the bathroom is on the other side of that gigantic hall. I want to step out for a moment to sort my notes, business cards, and brain, but even there: stages everywhere and the line for that subway sandwich shop wraps around the building three times.
So, it’s loud, a horrific assault on the senses, it is overcrowded and generally overwhelming. I am wearing the most comfortable shoes I own and my feet still hurt. I have not sat down since I left the car (oh, traffic was gnarly and don’t start me on how long it took to find parking!).
Yet, we all put up with this because of the passion that unites us: music and the people and things that make it!
Then There are the Satellite Events…
When the show floor closes, it is all far from over! Many companies put on their own events, renting stages and rooms near and far. Some are huge – Tec Awards for example, or – one of my favorites but no longer on during winter NAMM – All Star Guitar Night. Some are very small, intimate dinners – by invite only. And some of the best things happen unplanned and impromptus when you hear a bunch of guitars jamming in a hotel room and you happen to have a bass on your back and can’t walk by without peeking in.
A staple for bassists: Bass Bash – founded by Pete de Cur – started out as a one evening event at a German brewery and has evolved into one of the biggest attractions for many NAMM going bassists; this year celebrating its 15th anniversary and presented by Tone Compito-Wellington it is a breathtaking two-day event on a big stage with sponsors and booths right then and there, featuring star-studded lineups, as well as beer, brats, and bass!
Don’t stay out too long, however, because even before the show floor opens the next day, NAMM offers very relevant educational tracks in the early AM and throughout the day. Presentations on the latest in marketing, social media, copyright, and advocacy, from the must-know tools for DJs to the surefire way to get your fans to like you on YouTube, all events are highly relevant, well curated and of benefit if you pay attention (and can get yourself out of bed). Star-studded panel discussions and award shows await you in the AM. Thankfully they moved the She Rocks Awards to later in the day now!
Why is it the Rage?
Instrument companies work with endorsing musicians. All these amazing drums, trumpets and sound libraries there – it is all about hearing them in action! Artists from all over the world come to NAMM – sometimes because their endorsement contracts require it – to demo gear and showcase what the exhibited marvels can do. There are huge stages, little stages, booths with stages (and the sound police with their little DB meters trying to keep it all in check).
Here is a true story: my friend R (a promoter and educator) – annoyed with all the gushing about NAMM – finally joined me. Within her first hour on the show floor, she literally bumped into Stevie Wonder in a small busy aisle. She rushed to tell me: “Ariane, I get it now!”
So, NAMM is the rage, because the who-is-who of the business is there, and that includes artists, instrument builders, creators, distributors, writers, PR people and the list goes on. For professionals, it becomes a way to reconnect, do business, catch up and check out each other’s latest.
At my very first NAMM show, I ran into Tony Levin and scored a little personal – though very star-struck on my part – talk with one of my big idols. Then I started attending bass camps and NAMM became this once-a-year event to meet up and catch up with beloved bass buds from all over the world.
NAMM is not open to the public (with a few exceptions at times, such as a few hours on Sunday afternoon some years). The only way to get access is to be invited or work for a music manufacturer or be a member because you have a studio, educational company or are otherwise a full-time, dedicated music professional with the business license to prove it. There are strict rules who may or may not attend and they are there for good reason.
If you scored a first-time ticket and you enter the huge vast floor filled with music and possibility, make sure to stay down to earth, though. I have unfortunately encountered a few people who did not contribute to the event in a positive way. Okay, truthfully, there are quite a few of those people and they are somewhat legendary and met with eye rolls behind their backs by the people who really do the work.
I understand that this environment can be very intoxicating for an aspiring music professional (in whatever music or music related field) – all of a sudden you are “in”, you are “there” you have arrived. But here is the thing to keep in mind: if you are new or aspiring to be a professional, take it as an opportunity to learn. Don’t hope that anything you say, do or play (especially not if it is a thumped funk in E-, bassists) will make the experienced Artists Relations person or label great or the hiring manager of the Fender Marketing Department drop what they are doing and offer you a gig, deal or signed contract right then and there. Nobody is waiting for you, nobody owes you the time to listen to you, and nobody hates you either unless you behave to earn that…
- No gear testing unless you know what you are doing and are truly interested in the gear; if unsure, ask if it is okay
- No turning up too loud – companies pay horrific fines if the sound police ding them with a ticket and they may be busy talking to a client right when you hit the 130dB mark. Don’t. Just don’t!
- No groupie behavior – be a nice person. Don’t yell “You are a legend” when Bootsie walks by (really! True as t is, but… no!). If you run into your hero and say a quick hello and how they inspired you, that is probably okay because most people are nice people, just be respectful, truthful and to the point, because NAMM is overwhelming!
- No wannabes – companies get inundated with requests for endorsements. If you understand how endorsing works and think you have something to offer, it is okay to briefly and respectfully connect about that, but you may have a better shot asking for a card and following up later with a serious proposal. I have seen terrible misuse or misunderstanding of what endorsements mean, so be respectful of the expensive items and hard working people you encounter and understand that they get a lot of these requests.
- No giving out cards, CDs, birth certificates or other without making a connection first.
- Never under any circumstances play Stairway to Heaven
Keep in mind, you just flew in on Thursday morning, but some of the companies and people there may well have scrambled to get their gear and booths ready for months, are jetlagged since Monday morning, when they got there just to dive into setting up, shlepping heavy props, securing expensive gear, standing in various lines, potentially dealing with a non-native language, or customs regulations and shipping issues gone all wrong. They are not there to wait for you to tell them how great you are or how the business works. You may well be awesome, it is just not the place and time to hit anyone over the head with it.
Learn. Listen. Watch.
Watch people who you look up to or who do what you would like to do and look for ways to contribute (by the way, offering to bring a cup of coffee or bottle of water to someone who cannot leave their booth over long hours is truly appreciated)
Be a nice, upbeat and positive person. It is easy to succumb to the thoughts that “the business sucks”, that “gigs don’t pay like in the old days”, that “YouTube kills the live scene” and that “Basses should only have four strings”. But stop yourself right there – things keep changing, business keeps changing and the fact that NAMM – the music industry trade show – is as huge as it is should be an indication that there are opportunities galore! People there are committed to this music thing. I truly appreciate how hard this business is, how brutal and unfair it can be to various ages and demographics, I truly get that, but if you are there, open your eyes, take it in, attend clinics, observe the people who are successful and see what it is you can contribute to today’s marketplace, how you can shape the future of music and help everyone be more successful. Most answers are found by asking questions, not by assuming to already having the best answers.
To Sum it All Up
NAMM Show is an interesting intersection of business and art. It is where the mundane (if you have ever broken down a booth, you know what I mean) and the exhilarating (amazing jams happen between artists who usually don’t play together) meet. It is where lifelong friends reconnect and it is where pivotal first connections are made. Most striking, it is an amazing, strenuous, loud, overwhelming, overcrowded and oversized beehive – yet we all happily put up with it for the love of the music and the people that make it.
If you are there and want to say hey
Please come visit me at the Marleaux booth!
My performance calendar as far as for scheduled performances is below. You can also find me at these booths:
- Dean Markley
- Kala Ukuleles
- Legere Reeds
- TC Electronic
- GruvGear – Check out their 2018 NAMM extravaganza
- Vienna Symphonic Library
- Pigtronics Pedals and Loopers
- and of course Marleaux (home base)
for impromptus or scheduled performances and/or hangs with all these fine companies I am happy to be affiliated with.
January 25, 2018, with Muriel Anderson & Tierra Negra, Whittier, CA Ruth B. Shannon Center for the Performing Arts at Whittier College Time: 7:30 pm. Admission: $25 adults $20 Seniors $10 students of any age with ID. Address: 6760 Painter Ave, Venue phone: 562-907-4203. With Tierra Negra and their International Band! With special guest blues legend Bobby Messano. and stunning visual backdrops by Bryan Allen.
January 27, 2018, Fri NAMM Booth outside Hall E 11:00am-11:30am
January 27, 2018, Fri NAMM Booth outside Hall E and 1:00pm-1: 30 pm with Tierra Negra
January 28, 2018, Sat 11:00am-11:40am Grand Plaza Stage. Outdoor stage with Muriel Anderson and Tierra Negra
January 29, 2018, International Guitar “Peace Through Music Concert” at University of La Verne, Morgan Auditorium United States Time: 6:00 pm. Admission: Free for students, and open to the public. Address: 1950 3rd St. $20 recommended donation to Guitars in the Classroom. Doors open at 5:30, No reservations required but for best seats reserve online, Featuring internationally known guitarists: Muriel Anderson, Nadja Kossinskaja (Ukraine), Se-Huang Kim (Korea), Luis Gallo (Spain), Tierra Negra (Germany), Don Alder (Canada), Michael Ryan and Special Guests, with visual backdrops by Bryan Allen.
(Keep in mind all the above is my personal take on NAMM. I have been attending NAMM shows for over two decades, the last 15 or so of which I have been heavily involved as an endorser of many wonderful products I love, and the last 12 or so being hands-on involved with the Marleaux Bass Guitars booth).