NAMM, the National Association of Music Merchants holds their annual show and exhibit in Anaheim every January. This year’s title was “Define Your Future.” As musicians, my friends and I had been thinking about the future of music, so I believed that I ought to go pay my respects. I found myself across a breakfast table facing Dan Crary and a plate of green eggs (spinach, not age). Dan was visiting to consult with Anthony Adams regarding their recent DVD film Primal Twang, a history of the guitar-due to be released later this year. Dan and I both love to talk about the music. As my eggs were getting cold, he discussed the show: “Be prepared to be overwhelmed” he said, “’cause it’s HUGE!”
As a veteran of the giant COMDEX computer shows thrown in Vegas during the late 80’s, I was not entirely a trade show virgin, but Dan was right, I was impressed. NAMM was founded in 1901 when competition between disc and cylinder phonographs was in full swing and electric lights were still a novelty in most homes. The association has grown into a major organization, representing manufactures of instruments, accessories, audio and video equipment, music wholesalers, distributors, dealerships, music shops and publishers, and record labels, among others.
This year’s show encompassed more than 1,500 exhibitors in booths ranging in size from small strips with a couple of tables and cardboard signage to huge, expensive complexes with the look and feel of a New York City block. There were literally miles of corridors a visitor could walk through to see displays of goods, sit at meetings to work out deals, try out instruments, watch instrument and equipment demonstrations, enjoy musical reviews, or even participate in jam sessions with musicians hired by vendors to showcase new items ranging from cable connectors to cymbals, electronic keyboards to violins, trombones to multicolored microphone and music stands. More than fifty lecture workshops, covering subjects from using color to sell to carving oboe reeds were in full swing. While the show is supposed to remain closed to the public, one of the NAMM managers I spoke with explained that the many music stars attending the show drew crowds in the unauthorized (and often unwashed) thousands, all attempting to gain entrance to rub shoulders with their idols and try out the latest in new gadgets.
At the Roland Corporate booth – the largest in the show – I watched a salesman from Roland Corporation demonstrating to a pair of Romanian buyers what some would consider a weapon of mass destruction: a digital accordion. It “featured” non-functional bellows (since the sounds were produced entirely by an internal amp) along with piano-style keys which could bring forth sounds of strings, saxes, trumpets and, yes, even reeds. The left hand buttons produced chords plus rhythm sections as desired. There’s something overwhelmingly eerie about hearing a Stratocaster guitar break coming out of an accordion-shaped box.
I cornered Chris Halon, Marketing Director of Keyboards for Roland: “We are the world’s largest maker of electronic music products. Our products include digital harpsichords, a digital accordion, digital drums, and control consoles. We sample over 400 acoustic instruments, whose sounds are getting more realistic every year. We also duplicate the feel of the instrument, with ivory-like and ebony-like keys on the pianos, etc: The keys are porous, like real piano keys, the hammers are weighted so they feel like an acoustic piano. We also see a need for people to be able to practice with headphones.” Indeed, there were many keyboard enthusiasts wailing away at dozens of samples instruments via headphone connections while he spoke.
Roland was holding workshops on the trade show floor and in a section titled “The Roland School of Music”. Included in their booth area was a complete professional showroom, seating 300 persons, complete with PA, stage lighting, even a fog machine for band demos.
China and many other Asian countries had numerous booths, some featuring swarms of violins, celli, string bases and other instruments. Others showcased jewel-like microphones, amplifiers and related audio/video gear, while several booths from Thailand, India, and others were marketing bundles of exotic wood, ready to be fashioned into guitars and other instruments.
There were numerous booths maintained by instrument builders and manufacturers. Cymbals enough to roof the Santa Barbara County Courthouse twice over flashed beams of reflected light on rows of trumpets, saxophones, and multiple drum kits many being noisily tested by enthusiastic percussionists, whose sounds competed for attention with trumpet and sax quartets and the general milling of buyers. The impression created was of a herd of Energizer Bunnies running amok in a skating rink.
I found a nattily-dressed Rick Shubb at his booth for Shubb Capos. Rick, a Berkeley banjo player who thirty years ago decided to manufacture a fifth string capo for banjos and has built a creditable business manufacturing capos for many stringed instruments. I asked him about how music store sales were comparing with web-based stores: “Our distribution is so good that we still sell most of our popular products via stores. In our part of the trade, traditional in-store sales are still the backbone of our business. It’s the more unusual products that favor web-based sales.”
Nearby, I found the Honer booth, which manufactures harmonicas, accordions, and other metal reed-based instruments. Bill Greenhalgh, wholesale distribution manager, stressed that they sell only acoustic accordions, with increased sales to Hispanic musicians. “What about competition from digital instruments?” I asked. Bill maintained that a keyboard player can play a wind instrument (which I suppose would include an accordion) that has more expressive and has more “feeling” than its digital counterpart. Bill also mentioned that baby boomers, forced by anxious parents to learn accordion, are returning to the fold even if they play only for self satisfaction.
Descending to the basement floor, I found numerous luthiers and instrument companies specializing in acoustic instruments. It was a little quieter than the hectic main floor, and a little more on the homey side.
One noticeable trend is the re-establishment of instrument companies from the 1920s and 30s, many of whom had quit business during the Great Depression, and now active again with authentic copies of their original, rare specialty guitars. National Guitars, who made some wonderful “resenophonic” instruments which use one or more amplifying cones set into their all-metal tops, had a very active booth featuring a quartette of players including Piedmont bluesman John Cephus and multi-instrumentalist Bob Brozman. Bob mentioned that he’d published a book on the history of National Guitars and was very busy traveling world-wide as a solo artist. Calling himself “a roving guitar anthropologist, working at the frontiers of colonialism,³ Bob explained that, “guitars arrived at the frontiers of colonialism without instructions, and it’s turned out to be very interesting what the local people did with them.”
Speaking of the blues, I found local bluesman Alistair Greene ( AGSongs.com) wandering through the show’s lobby: “It’s a bit overwhelming … a lot of people, a lot of noise, it’s exciting to see new products, but everybody’s trying to getting everyone’s attention all at once.” Alistair noted that even major companies, like Fender Guitars, now make instruments that look old and worn. We talked a while about the impact digitization has had on the music scene. “With digital music, a lot of the proponents are saying that it has leveled the playing field, but that’s not necessarily a good thing…Just when you think you’re getting an angle on something, when you’re getting your head above the crowd, you’re put in a place where you compete with anybody who can make a CD in their bedroom, and everybody can be competing for the same market that you are. It doesn’t mean that they can go out and get gigs in clubs and bars, but it makes reaching your audience more difficult. If music becomes free, maybe a lot of other things should become free as well, say if gas and groceries became free. I don’t know how it’s going to turn out…I think it will always come down to live appearances and that’s what’s going to keep, especially in roots music, that’s what’s going to keep it alive:as long as live performance gives a way for musicians out there a way to make a living, a way to get their music out there…”
C.F. Martin guitars had a large booth, showing exquisitely-ornamented guitars priced in the multiple-thousands, along with multi-colored entry-level instruments. Dick Boak, with Martin Guitars for 32 years as designer, prototype maker and marketing expert, had many interesting, if unsettling, comments on the current music scene. On the impact of digital music: “I don’t think that there’s been any diminishment of acoustic instruments in the digital world. I think if anything there’s more demand for great instruments. I do have a lot of concerns about musicians…that they will loose the traditional ways of reaching the public…they’ll have iTunes, but…I’m concerned about the diminishment of the natural resources, the wood, changes in our instruments, and about China. There’s now incredible exportation of manufacturing instruments to China and it creates a disparity between the value of a product, between its perceived value and its real values…China is now interfering illegally with us, being able to get precious resources to make our guitars:that’s started to happen already and it’s really disturbing to us.³
“You can buy a Chinese violin for anywhere from $25 to $2,500…how do you differentiate between something that’s real and something that’s just fluff? A music store owner today told me: ‘We can’t afford to buy the high end!’ The high end to him is a $2,000 guitar. To us that’s the median or low end…it takes a lot of work to make a great guitar. The Chinese are paying pennies on the dollar for materials and labor. It doesn’t feel right to me:a guitar shouldn’t be considered a commodity. If you line up 10 D-18s (a popular Martin acoustic guitar), they will each have a different sound within a certain tonal range. Guitars are like living things: they age like living things, they develop wrinkles, a personality…that cannot be duplicated.”
Another concern of Dick’s is that forests are being destroyed in the exploitation of the rare woods used in instrument building. “Unlike India, which has a law prohibiting the exportation of raw lumber, many other developing countries, along with the USA, are permitting the exportation of lumber without restrictions.” On a more positive side, Boak feels that CF Martin will be around for a long time to come. “There will always be customers who understand the value of a well-built instrument.” Let’s hope he’s right.
Peter Feldmann of BlueGrassWest.com studies and performs old time and bluegrass music. His next performance is Saturday, February 2nd at the SY Valley Grange Hall in Los Olivos.