Trade shows, by their nature, usually fly under the public radar. No one would particularly care about a plumbing products trade show—unless you happen to be a plumber (and even then that might be doubtful). The music industry is different. It is high-profile and glamorous, and everyone wants to go to the NAMM show. NAMM is the National Association of Music Merchants, and the stated purpose of the show (as in any trade show) is to bring sellers and buyers together. There is a fair amount of networking and sales, no doubt, but the reality is that the NAMM Show is a four-day event with parties, concerts and the chance to rub shoulders with rock stars. In case the casual music fan got the wrong idea, there is a big banner in red outside the Anaheim Convention Center: “Trade Only. Not Open To The Public.”
Fortunately, Screamer has the right connections. Welcome to NAMM 2014….the doors are open for you!
Your badge is around your neck as the security guard nods and waves you in. The first thing you notice is the crush of people. Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands. And lines for everything. Lines to get something to eat or drink. Lines to use the bathroom. There are so many people that security is requesting that people skip every other step on the escalators as not to overload them. And the noise! Everywhere music is blaring. People trying electric guitars and basses, testing DJ and sound reinforcement gear, playing trumpets and saxophones. The floor where the drum manufacturers are located is an insane roar of pounding drums and cymbals. Taken aback, you step outside to the lobby and regroup.
You decide to start at the third floor, and then work your way down to the second, and eventually the first.
As with everything in life, in the music business there is a distinct pecking order. Stepping off the escalator on the top floor, you see the exhibits of Gibson and Fender, arguably the two most revered names in the business of electric guitars. As a guitar player, you are in awe of the amazing collection of Les Pauls and Stratocasters. You could gawk all day—look, behind glass is one of Jimi Hendrix’s Strats—but there’s a lot more to see.
You take the escalator to the second level. The piano manufacturers are here, along with Paul Reed Smith, Schecter, ESP, Taylor, Line 6, Peavey…again, you could spend hours here. You chat with complete strangers who quickly become friends. That’s one of the cool things about NAMM. Since it’s an industry event, people aren’t copping attitudes—everyone’s guard is down, people are relaxed and having a good time, as are you.
Descending to the main floor is where all hell breaks loose. The show has taken over every square foot of the convention center, and there are five halls, labeled A through E. Here is where it gets really interesting, and here’s where the dividing line between the major and minor league players is very apparent. Names such as Ernie Ball, C.F. Martin, Dean, Marshall, Zildjian, Sabian….the list goes on and on. Booths of the major names are always packed, particularly when there are celebrity endorsers present. You see Lita Ford here, George Lynch there. One moment you’re standing next to Todd Rungren, the next you nearly bump into Geezer Butler. One thing you ponder is that there are so many rock stars, and people who look like rock stars that sometimes it’s hard to tell them apart. You see people getting autographs and having their photo taken with someone, and you assume it’s someone, but you really have no clue. You ask the guy standing next to you, and he says everyone’s waiting to see the shredmeister guitarist from some death metal band. You’ve never heard of either the guitar player or the band, but you just nod knowingly and move on.
A world away—literally—from the main hall are the fringes, where the booths for the Chinese gear manufacturers are located. Unknown, and sometimes unpronounceable to the Western consumer, these booths have hardly any foot traffic at all, and are staffed by horribly jet-lagged reps that are battling both boredom and fatigue. Walking through those aisles, you can’t help but to notice the interesting contrast between these quiet-as-a-pin-drop booths and the glitz, glamor and excitement of the mainstream manufacturers.
By the time you’ve navigated all three levels, your head is pounding from the constant aural assault, and your legs and lower back are aching from the hours spent on your feet. Pulling out your phone to check the time, you’re surprised to see that it’s almost 5:30. The show closes for the day in a half-hour. You’ve been invited to a private party tonight, but fatigue has taken its toll. Time to pack it in and head for home: It’s only Thursday, and the show runs for three more days. You begin the long walk out to the parking lot, shoulder-to-shoulder with thousands of fellow attendees who no doubt have similar thoughts in mind.