Guitarist Kris Karlsson steps off the stage momentarily just before his set backing up singer/songwriter Paris Carney. The venue is the lounge at the Anaheim Marriott Hotel, which along with the Hilton Anaheim across the street, frames the entrance to the Anaheim Convention Center, home to the winter 2010 NAMM Show, the raucous annual bazaar where makers of musical instruments and related products gather to present their wares to thousands of industry retailers from around the world. Taking place Jan. 14–17, this year's show attracted approximately 90,000 attendees and exhibitors.
For all the drums, guitars, brass, pianos, and every other instrument imaginable on display, the show has also become an iconic crossroads of technology, talent and culture. Karlsson looks over the hotel lobby teeming with musicians, retailers, music teachers, songwriters, record producers, and luthiers — all knowledgeable in their respective fields — and acknowledges he's a little intimidated. "It's playing in front of the best of your peers," he says over the din of voices and clinking glasses. "It's an audience of all of us."
NAMM has become the confluence of a number of trends that have occurred in the wake of the music industry's transition in recent years. It is first and foremost a marketplace where goods are shown and sold, orders are taken, deliveries are scheduled, and prices are bargained. But the show also has an educational component, one which has become a fairly sophisticated collective of concepts and ideas in teaching retailers how to better position themselves as the industry retail landscape changes. At one of the show's panel sessions, Jonathan Lipp, owner of Madison, Wisc.-based Full Compass Systems, emphasized using the recession to retailers' advantage with an aplomb typical of the optimism necessary to succeed in the music business: "The [trade] magazines aren't as thick as they were," he said. "[So] your ad stands out more."
The show places a sizable emphasis on live music, an increasingly important sector in today's digital landscape, evidenced by record global concert revenue of $4.4 billion in 2009. The Marriott stage doubles as a well-branded shop window displaying, for instance, Yamaha's DTX 900 electronic drum kit and updated CP1 stage piano, both of which offer musicians the modern Holy Grail: a combination of analog feel and sound with digital features and a plethora of patches at the touch of a button.
Professional audio products, from recording consoles to huge PA systems, used to be the purview of a relatively few highly specialized retailers in major markets. But as digital technology has drastically cut the complexities and costs of recording equipment, one of NAMM's huge halls is practically dedicated to professional audio gear, lined with products from companies such as Avid (home to Pro Tools, the software-based recording system that has become eponymous with digital music recording), Ableton and Cakewalk. Mixing consoles from companies such as Solid State Logic and Soundcraft, whose multichannel mixers are now scaled back considerably from the heyday of the giant recording studio and are more attuned to today's vast personal recording market, have become more powerful, capable and affordable.
But the spirit of NAMM isn't simply to sell goods to musicians — it's also to empower them. The products underscore new possibilities. Take Roland's Battery Band, which features a six-piece ensemble playing their instruments fueled by the latest lithium-ion battery — without an AC outlet in sight. This technology allows musicians to play an entire set on a street corner or boardwalk. Compact PA systems such as JBL's E-System 10 and the Fender Passport, combined with effects such as TC-Helicon's VoiceTone Harmony-G XT, put precise harmonies and entire virtual choirs into the hands of musicians, both onstage and in the studio.
NAMM actually reflects how pervasive music technology has become. Sanyo was a first-time exhibitor at NAMM this year, showcasing its new Xacti Sound Recorder ICR-XPS01, a compact unit featuring Linear PCM allowing musicians to play along with and record tracks. The product, initially aimed to be a business dictation device, was adapted and repurposed for the fast-growing record on-the-go musician market.
Nearby, Mike Maxwell, an executive at Thunderball Marketing, demonstrates the next wave of DJ products, with one going beyond the use of compact discs in place of vinyl LPs and using a specialized mouse to scratch and mash file-based tracks. To guitarists, the difference between a "Guitar Hero" game controller and an actual Les Paul Goldtop is obvious, but the distinction between this simple DJ setup and a top-of-the-line turntable array is less readily apparent. "The difference between the Guitar Center crowd and the Walmart crowd is getting smaller every day," observes Maxwell.
Perhaps one of the more baffling displays on the show floor was the Beamz Interactive Music System, a w-shaped theremin-like "instrument" played by waving one's hands between the uprights handles, triggering multiple streams of musical notes and sounds. As enthusiastic company investor Bob Flowers puts it, users are "guaranteed to be on beat and on pitch. You can't play a bad note."
If the notion of a $299 air guitar is both fascinating and disturbing, well, that's part of what NAMM is there for: to let the market figure out what's next for music. GRAMMY- winning producer/engineer Jack Joseph Puig surveys the show floor and concludes NAMM is "less of a trade show and more of a collective where the technology and culture and business of music come to meet. It's a good place to be."
(Dan Daley is a freelance journalist covering the entertainment business industry. He lives in New York and Nashville.)