On the Front Lines at NAMM 2012
MuseWire COLUMN: For immediate dispatch from the wild and wooly frontier south of Disneyland – after a decade of resisting the blandishments and imprecations of colleagues I finally re-attended this year’s NAMM convention (Jan. 19-22, 2012). NAMM of course stands for the National Association of Music Merchandisers. Its annual soiree is held at the Anaheim Convention Center, a gigantic monstrosity of a structure.
The basic concept is quaint. Imagine you are a mom-and-pop music store on Main St., USA. By this I do not necessarily mean a mother and father own your store, and your street could be named something else. My point is that you are a small music equipment retailer. You are in a quandary as to what items you should buy to stock as inventory. All of the major music equipment manufacturers have an exhibit booth at NAMM. So you go to the convention to see what you ought to buy to sell to your customers.
This template has been obsolete for at least a quarter of a century. Large mega-retailers like Guitar Center (and its mail-order counterpart, Musician’s Friend) dominate the music equipment market. They in turn are known for squeezing usurious margins out of manufacturers. In this cutthroat corporate environment, only the largest companies can succeed. Guitar Center does not want to expend the time, effort and energy required to deal with a bunch of small vendors. Essentially they are relegated to marginal boutique status, living a hard existence with high production costs, impaired distribution channels, niche markets and a host of other undesirable infirmities.
It is hard to see how some of these firms make financial sense. I mean, a business devoted solely to making guitar picks? What are the economies of scale? How many guitar picks do you have to sell even to afford a plane ticket to the convention (much less parking)? Another huge problem for manufacturers is the secondary market. Before they became commodified, companies like Fender and Gibson made products that were so durable, they survive to the present day. There must be hundreds of Fender amps and Gibson guitars available for repurchase on any given day of the week. Older instruments frequently are alleged to have more desirable qualities than newer ones. This secondary market for their own equipment is the manufacturer’s greatest enemy.
There used to be a sharp distinction between “pro” audio and “consumer” audio. The Audio Engineering Society (AES) represented the former and NAMM represented the latter. While AES still holds a convention, it is a shadow of its former self. The reason why is that the pro audio market – comprising primarily expensive recording studios – has collapsed. The democratization of technology began with the Mackie Mixer and the Alesis ADAT. Now it best is represented by digital audio workstations such as Logic and ProTools. It has brought machinery and equipment to the masses, which now assiduously records, promotes, markets and distributes their aesthetic output, free from the sphincter-like shackles of record production the way it was as recently as the 1990s. Instead of spending $250 thousand, or $100 thousand to record an album, now you can do it for $5 thousand, or even less. Of course the songs and performances still may be crap, but hey, that could be (and often is) equally true of projects that are far more costly.
Now, anybody with a garage and an urge to express themselves can hit the ground running. This has been a positive development for NAMM, because formerly “pro” equipment manufacturers have gravitated to it as a more plausible venue to hawk their wares. In a way, AES now is in a position analogous to that of the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, which now has been abandoned both by Apple and Microsoft – the two companies which should be their biggest exhibitors. As a parallel development, many of the NAMM attendees now are retail consumers of musical equipment – actual users – who view the convention as a kind of carnival to hang out and see what’s new on the scene.
So I spent the afternoon aimlessly wandering the gargantuan exhibit halls, every now and then running into friends and acquaintances. New product offerings were sparse. As an aficionado of analog synthesis, I was intrigued by some of the new modules on display at the Analogue Haven, Big City Music and Noisebug booths. It was nice to chat with Dave Smith and Don Buchla, both intrepid pioneers in the field who still run successful businesses. I was impressed with John Bowen’s new Solaris, and a monstrous synth designed and built by Stefan Schmidt, reported to cost $25 thousand euros. Oh well, all Greece and Italy have to do is default on their debt, which will bring the euro back into parity with the dollar, so the more affluent among us may view this as a viable purchase.
Moog Music was exhibiting a new bass synthesizer called the Minitaur (a play on words of their former pedal bass synth called the Taurus), a new effects device called the Cluster Flux (get it?) and an interesting new filter in the increasingly popular API 500 format. Jürgen Michaelis and Jomox have a new filter called the Moonwind, and if their former and existing product line is any indication, it should be amazing. As usual Zachary Vex and Zvex had the wackiest collection of effects pedals around. There were a few other pedals released this year of note, such as the Ravish Sitar from ElectroHarmonix and the Space from Eventide. The Ravish Sitar sounds nothing like a sitar, but it does do some really cool sh*t. And the Space has just about every weird reverb and modulation effect you’d ever want to hear. My apologies if I’m leaving anybody out to whom I said “hi.” There seemed to be a proliferation of ukuleles and tubas, the latter a fortunate development in view of the recently reported spate of tuba thefts in Los Angeles.
But the rest – several thousand exhibitors in all – remain a mystery. How many different varieties of drums, cymbals, amplifiers, violins, saxophones etc. really are capable of mounting an effective U.S. marketing campaign? I used to have 500 or so guitar effects pedals. I was you might say promiscuous, unable to settle on a sound that I liked. It was what the Danish proto-existentialist Søren Kierkegaard might have called the “despair of too much possibility.” A library of sounds, to which I could refer. Over the years, there came a time when I realized what I liked, and what I no longer required. So I got rid of the rest. I mean, how many overdrive or fuzz pedals does one really need? The same thing was true with amplifiers, guitars, synthesizers, literally every musical tool I ever had used. Now I feel as creative as ever, though with a much-reduced armamentarium. With the possible exception of some Lincoln-head pennies in elementary school, I never have been a “collector” of anything.
A collection implies regarding an object qua object; as Martin Heidegger might have characterized, as a thing that is present-at-hand, there to be regarded, observed and inspected. Like something in a museum. Rather, for me, musical instruments always have been tools to realize an aesthetic concept – a means to an end, ready-to-hand, not an end in and of themselves. This is how I conceptualize the predicament of the prolix product offerings at NAMM. Who needs it?
Then there is the strange situation of spatial location. How come the violin manufacturers are located immediately adjacent to the drum manufacturers? I felt sorry for the former, desperately trying to demonstrate their instruments over the raucous din created by aspiring percussionists, bass players and guitar players. I have to go on record as saying that the Stanley Clarke-style of bass playing, where one “pops” the strings with one’s fingers, is extraordinarily annoying.
Another puzzle is the phenomenon of endorsers. In an attempt to build rapport with their potential audience, manufacturers scurry about and try to sign influential musicians, or at least musicians perceived to be influential, to use their guitars/amplifiers/keyboards whatevers. It is with deep regret that I must report I did not know who any of these people were. Given the current state of pop music, it is difficult to see where, on margin, the reputation curve of the endorser intersects with the demand curve of the consumer. If the endorser is too big, then they won’t endorse the small boutique instrument. After all, they might be able to get more money from somebody who was bigger. Even after they endorse it, they don’t bother to use it, preferring instead to stick with what they find familiar. Conversely, if the endorser is too small, then the manufacturer has no use for the endorser. Where are the members of Blue Oyster Cult when I need them? At least back then matters were less ambiguous. Of course it must have been a shock for the BOC to go from playing arenas and stadiums (stadia?) to micro venues like the Canyon Club in Agoura Hills, which is where I last saw them. Their endorsement value went from massive to zero.
The point of advertising is not to sell products. Products are sold by word-of-mouth among satisfied consumers. Rather, it is to reduce cognitive dissonance; to reassure people who already have bought the item that their purchase was a wise one. Over-the-hill endorsers won’t accomplish this objective. I lament the expectation cost of all of the bands who started out with such hope and promise, with a large retinue of agents, managers, lawyers, accountants, groupies, hangers-on, etc., only to vanish in thin air like a wisp of smoke. I particularly was disturbed by large posters of Taylor Swift, which seemed to be everywhere. Is it just I, or do her eyes seem too close together?
One thing that hasn’t changed is attendance by a coterie of audaciously attired wanna-be rock grrrls. This year’s fashion seems to be (from the bottom up) fringy boots, fishnet stockings, short skirt and spandex top. Come to think of it, that was the attire 10 years ago, too. Disconcertingly, they seemed not to have aged; that is, I keep getting older, which makes them keep getting younger. I was concerned for the fate of those (my contemporaries) who no longer were present; how shocking was it to see Pattie Boyd, ex of George Harrison and Eric Clapton, on the recent HBO special re: the former?
Where are the vixens of vinyl, the swingin’ chicks of the 60s, the drive-in dream girls, the femme fatales, minxes, sirens and foxes of yesteryear? Young girls are coming to the canyon, indeed. Evidently, all of them left. I was comforted to think, however, that most of the new crop really were molecular biologists in disguise. Strangely, many of the guys didn’t seem to have changed (albeit with less hair and larger torsos). We’ll see what condition their condition is in next year.
Article is Copr. © 2012 by David Kronemyer, and originally published on MusicIndustryNewswire-dot-com before the site was revamped as MuseWire.com in March 2015 – all commercial rights reserved.