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A First-Timer's Trip to NAMM

January 26, 2014
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It all started in a tent in my backyard, exactly 30 years ago. That's right, the first NAMM show was in an Arlington Heights, Illinois tent! No, actually the first NAMM show took place in 1901 (Player pianos? Jaw harps? The mind reels!) but that little orange tent was where I first became aware of it. I vividly recall reading coverage about NAMM in a 1984 issue of Keyboard magazine when I was a teenager, which is pretty strange since most people don't remember reading too many specific magazine articles when they were 14. But I remember this coverage! It left quite an impression. Since this was also the year I got my first "real" synthesizer (a Roland Juno-106), the notion that acres and acres of similarly cool musical instruments could all be converged in one area -- near Disneyland, no less -- was just too staggeringly awesome to be real. But it's very real, and I promised myself that somehow, someday, I'd go.

That day, I became one of the millions of interested musicians that were aware of the existence of NAMM itself, but mystified by the actual goings-on. I learned at 14 that it was a trade-only exposition for thousands of manufacturers and distributors of musical interments and devices, and that you can occasionally see an artist the stature of Stevie Wonder performing or just wandering around the halls checking out gear like everyone else. I'm sure that reading the Keyboard coverage painted some clear pictures, but the gory details of the true realities involved weren't all there. And as the decades rolled on, it became apparent that my cloudy perception was a lot like everyone else's average idea of NAMM.

At the outset, while walking through the vast sprawl of the Anaheim, California Convention Center, I found my decades-old, initial first impressions to be quite true. After 30 years of waiting, I witnessed the glittering mayhem of signage, and the long-haired in-crowd masses purposefully striding down crowded corridors overstuffed with musical object d'arts both imaginable and unfathomable. Virtually every commercially-available sonic toy on Earth has an example on display begging to be tried out, like ripe fruit on golden trees waiting to be plucked and enjoyed. 

The veil was lifted, and I had arrived! And appropriately enough, my arrival was in the context of documenting the experience for the very same magazine that introduced me to it 30 years earlier. Now, with any luck, there'll be another 14-year-old out there reading this article, giving birth to new dreams of his own.

Dreaming yet? Wake up!

The NAMM show is brutality incarnate! Majestic, fun, and utterly bad-ass, to be sure, but in much the same way as a Tough Mudder marathon event. If you ever become one of the lucky few somehow attached the music industry, you are going to have to mentally, and yes, physically prepare for your four-day weekend in paradise. I wish to God that I spent a couple of weeks doing power squats every day to build up walking muscles. Whether you're walking back and forth from your hotel to the Center, up and down hundreds of aisles, or to this or that hotel party into the night, you're going to want to be in very good shape.

Being the cartoonist for Keyboard's "The Packrat," I was also hopeful to potentially hole up in the Keyboard booth and sign a few "Packrat Sampler" books for fans of the strip. My publisher's booth was already overstuffed with many other magazines and needed to be used as a space for meetings, however, so it was not to be. The result of my presumptuous misjudgment was having to carry a bag full of books around all day. Please do not put yourself through this kind of Sisyphean task! Indeed, it can be tempting to want to collect every pamphlet or takeaway for a product you're interested in, but you will end up lugging a bag full of (let's face it) recyclables that will grow heavier and heavier as the day goes on. It's not "trick or treat;" keep your goals and your burdens light, and you will be rewarded with the stamina of the pros.


You Need Steenking Badges

Rule number one: If you don't have a NAMM credential badge, don't go. Security guards are posted at all doors, and it's their job to match badges to photo IDs. The chances of schmoozing, sneaking, or lying your way in are effectively zero.

On whatever day you begin your NAMM experience, you'll be bringing in your little bar-coded confirmation letter and trading it in for said badge. Those foolhardy enough to wait until sometime after 8 o'clock in the morning to do this will spend the first half of the first day waiting in line just to get a badge. Depending on the bearer's role in the musical instrument industry and (let's face it) coolness, the badge will be marked with a colorful letter of the alphabet. This is a quick visual cue which can help prioritize networking on the floor, and indeed, out in the streets surrounding the center (I actually suspect some people sleep with their badge on, because you never know when a good meeting might happen). A badge with a blue B is worn by buyers. Red E badges are exhibitors, and artists wear a black A. There are a few other letters, but you get the idea.

I proudly wore my green M for Mortal Media, although my pride evaporated when I realized that only "reds" got to enter the hall pre-show, while the riffraff has to wait around for an extra hour. Speaking of riffraff, the bottom-feeders are apparently the bearers of the dreaded yellow V for visitor. Visitors presumably assist the "red" or "blue" cohort who got them in, but they are also the only ones there who could ever come close to being labeled as (one more time, we're gonna face it) gawkers. As such, it might be challenging for the bearer of the yellow V to get any face time with someone with fun brains to pick. It is important to remember not to feel turned down if a given conversation is cut off in favor of someone higher in the pecking order. People spend a lot of money and energy on the NAMM show, sometimes hammering out their whole business plan for the next 12 months. Everyone at NAMM is working a job. It's usually a fun job, but in much the same way you wouldn't bust in on a boardroom meeting to talk about the dead batteries in your keytar, you can't expect your personal curiosity to make way for progress on the floor. You will meet great people, but with a few added social rules to which you might have to adjust.

By the way, not all the jobs look fun. I spotted a young Japanese girl, all alone in a booth full of what appeared to be a lot of unpopular boutique speakers, fast asleep in her booth. This was on Thursday, the very first day, and not even lunchtime yet. She must have had a very long weekend.


The Halls

On the first floor, there are five massive antechambers of auditory activity, each with its own unique cacophony. It is loud but bearable without ear plugs, at least for people who are used to every kind of music in the universe being played on 1,000 radio stations simultaneously. Hall A is presumably the most expensive one in which to set up shop. It houses many of the big names: Avid, Shure, MOTU, and more jump right in your face as soon as you enter. Their "booths," if you can really call them that, are lush, open, lavishly carpeted and stage-lit edens, with plenty of room for meeting tables, lots of product, massive display screens, demo stages … you name it, they had it. Casio even set their booth up like a lounge, complete with tasty hors d'oeuvres and a bar at the end of Thursday's show. My little green M got me right in, as this turned out to be a reception for the press. Sorry, V's!

Hall B was a great personal time. Lots of my favorite companies in the world had friendly faces to hang with here. One minute I was talking to Michelle Moog-Koussa, and conveniently enough, Dave Smith was right next door. Dave was a true champ, by the way, tirelessly and endlessly talking with associates and admirers alike. The Waldorf booth was in a pretty terrible location, but as such it was a hidden gem. That I could just stroll up unimpeded to the almighty Zarenbourg Piano and take it for an extended test cruise was just unthinkably cool, and one of my favorite discoveries.

Halls C and D were the havens of guitars, drums, and band instruments, and while they were of measurable interest to me as well, that interest was tangential enough for me to give these areas cursory skims. It should also be no surprise that the drone from these halls was truly thunderous; any extended simmering in it would certainly overcook your brain. Besides, I was too interested in checking out the freak show downstairs. That would be the famous Hall E.

Around a hidden corner, venture down an escalator, and you were at the circus. Upstarts, wannabes, deserve-to-bes, and just-plain-shouldn't-bes abounded! This is where much of Barry Wood's famous "NAMM Oddities" videos (seen on otherroom.com) are shot. A great portion of these honorable (for the most part) peddlers traveled far and wide and have gone to a great deal of trouble to roll their dice at NAMM in the hopes that a beneficent distributor might stroll by and purchase 10,000 of their weird little glass flutes or whatever. There were also some very impressive home-grown analog and modular synthesizer rigs on display, which is where I spent the majority of my time down there! Depending on what you personally put into exploring Hall E, you will either have the best or the worst time of your show.


After all this, there were two more floors waiting above the main hall! This video game had bonus levels! Destinations at the other end of the escalators housed larger suites and ballrooms dedicated to either very large playgrounds for big companies including Peavey and Roland, or presentation halls for educational and entertaining lectures. My favorite was "The Future of Synthesis," with synth author Mark Vail moderating a panel of five luminaries including Dave Smith himself. This was just one of dozens and dozens of engagements going on every day, simultaneously. For every positive experience I had, I was forced to lament the missing of countless others, owed to the limitations of physics itself.

It should be mentioned that across the way, in a completely separate building (the Marriott hotel), Yamaha took over an entire grand ballroom with its own "booth," and as such felt very much like a separate trade show. My friend and roommate for the weekend Tony (of Psicraft Designs, and also the repairer of my Juno-106 from thirty years ago!) called it "YamaNAMM," and it stuck with me.


Sleep Is for the Dead

Active participants may want to prepare their livers as much as their legs, and certainly for some sleep deprivation, because a huge portion of the wheeling and dealing happened not only in carpeted expo booths, but over cocktails by moonlit swimming pools. Countless neighboring hotel lobbies, lounges, antechambers, and dungeons (I presume) had both open and invite-only parties going on well into the night. I was fortunate enough to attend Hammond's celebration of its 80th anniversary and new Hammond Hall of Fame roster of artists, where their first inductee Keith Emerson showed up to accept the award. What followed four floors down in the main hotel lounge afterwards will surely go down in history as one of the biggest blowout bashes for organ enthusiasts anywhere, with Keyboard's own Stephen Fortner daring to emcee the whole thing. Dozens of incredible performances left my head rattling on my pillow hours later.

The blocks near Disneyland are very, very long walks, so if a hotel is described as being "just a few blocks down Katella Avenue," a trek worthy of Marco Polo is in the cards. Battles must be fought bravely and chosen wisely in this playground of parties and politics.


NAMMtastic

There are a lot of trade shows going on every day on this planet, but this is the Lollapalooza of them all. The preparation for this event's truly taxing affronts can not be stressed enough, but neither can its rewards. An unforgettable time will be had, and hopefully a useful one as well. As with anything in life, the more you invest and put into your experience at NAMM, the more you will get back. This is not a gamble (unless you sell glass flutes, I suppose); it is a guarantee.


I left my NAMM experienced used, bruised, abused, much less confused, and thoroughly enthused for next year.


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