This year, from January 13-16, 85,000 people from 100 different countries travelled to the Anaheim Convention Center, located across from Disneyland, to attend the NAMM Show.
NAMM (National Association of Music Merchandisers) is the annual trade show for the music industry and it’s been assembling every year since 1901. This year there were over 1400 exhibitors covering over 800,000 square feet. That’s 18 acres of space, bigger than 14 NFL football fields.
The show is not open to the public. But if you are lucky enough to go it is the world’s greatest music store.
As a member of the Recording Academy I receive an entry badge. This year I went for more than window shopping. The first Beethoven’s Wig Songbook was just published by Alfred Music Publishing, one of the world’s largest music publishers. It’s a compilation of Piano/Vocal arrangements of songs on my first Beethoven’s Wig album. I was excited to go to NAMM to meet retailers and promote the book. And hang out with some of the brass at Alfred to discuss ideas for future Beethoven’s Wig publications.
The people at the Alfred booth were extremely friendly. Even though Alfred publishes songbooks by some of the world’s biggest rock stars, they made me feel like a big wig. I was introduced to people in marketing, distribution, and editorial and shown the Beethoven’s Wig Songbook on display. I was also told how the book was being featured on the home page of Alfred as a new release.
While I did meet a few retailers at the Alfred exhibit, and they all liked the book, it was clear that remaining at there all day was not going to significantly help move product. I grabbed a copy of the book and hit the exhibit halls.
I started at an area not far from the Alfred booth where many of the acoustic guitar manufacturers showcase their offerings. While at this point in my career, I mostly play classical piano, I have played guitar my whole life. I studied classical guitar formally and have dabbled in jazz, bluegrass and western swing. I love guitars. I couldn’t pass it up.
The Martin Guitar exhibit was the center of the action. They are one of the premiere makers of acoustic instruments with a history that dates back to 1833. Their giant display space complete with walls of handcrafted custom guitars, private meeting spaces, lounge area and more, did not disappoint. But it was crowded. People were strumming guitars, shredding fancy solos, and jawboning with representatives from the company. Not a good place for an intimate sit down with a fine six string. I moved on.
I visited some smaller guitar manufacturers and played a few instruments. I even got to talk to the head of the company at one of them. Then I happened to bump into a dealer who owns a guitar store in Los Angeles. He noticed my songbook and I offered him a closer look. “Congratulations,” he said. “Alfred’s a great publisher. It’s quite an honor to get a book of your songs published.”
“Thanks,” I said. I felt pretty happy. I decided to keep the book in plain site for my next encounter. I wandered into a few other exhibit areas. One was a tribute to hippies. There were tie-dye t-shirts, bell bottoms and wavy design paterns everywhere. I felt like I had just tripped and fallen into Woodstock. Pretty groovy.
I stopped for a bite to eat and sat at table with a guy who works for a company that makes DJ equipment. I put the Beethoven’s Wig Songbook on the table. He asked about it and I told him my story. Then he remarked, “I’ve got great respect for anyone who knows something about classical music.”
I headed to the pianos. Most are on the second and third floors. At tech heavy NAMM, they are not the biggest draw. For me, it was heaven. I played some beautiful instruments from Mason Hamlin, Baldwin, Kawai, and Young Chang, and a bunch of brands manufactured in Europe that I had only vaguely heard of.
I even got to play a Fazioli, the 10’2” version of which retails in the vicinity of 200 grand and is sometimes called the Lamborghini of pianos. I met some college age kids ogling the instrument. “How’d you guys get into NAMM?” I asked. Turns out they were students from the University of South Dakota who were music industry majors concentrating on merchandising. They were at the NAMM show as part of their curriculum. Now that’s what I call education!
At Schimmel Pianos, a venerated German brand, I ran into the manager of one of the biggest piano stores in LA, a guy I happen to know. When he saw my new Beethoven’s Wig Songbook he invited me to make an in store appearance where I’d get to meet piano teacher and fans. “You’ll sell a lot of books,” he promised. It sounded good to me.
Having tried everything else, I moseyed around looking for a Steinway or Bosendorfer, two legendary pianos I hoped to get my hands on. But they were nowhere to be found. Neither were any Yamahas.
Steinway, I found out, no longer attends the NAMM show. They put on a private show for their network of dealers. And Yamaha recently bought the Bosendorfer brand. Both were on display at the Yamaha “pavilion” set up in the Marriott Hotel exhibit hall next to the convention center.
I started over there but was waylaid by the Gibson Guitar exhibit hall on the way. There was a big crowd. They were gathered around legendary singer-songwriter Jackson Browne sitting there romancing them with his new signature guitar. It was too crowded to try any instruments so I watched for a while as people snapped Jackson’s photo on their iphones. Then I continued to the Yamaha mother lode.
The Yamaha hall could have been a music industry trade show all it’s own. As a manufacturer of just about everything musical, its presence is probably the biggest at NAMM. There are electric drums, electric keyboards, and electric guitars. There are saxophones, flutes, and trombones. There are sound systems and speakers. And there are lots more things too. I passed them all on my way to the acoustic pianos positioned on a distant side of the hall. Unfortunately there was no collection of Bosendorfers. There was just one lonely big beauty perched on a stage. It was clearly “off limits” and for display only. I played a Yamaha grand and then tried out two electronic pianos, which for a lot less money were advertised as sounding just like the real thing. They were pretty impressive.
Although I had only been there for four hours, I was ready to go home. I had seen some great guitars and played some amazing pianos. And I had interested a least a few people in my Beethoven’s Wig Songbook. But NAMM is really loud and really over stimulating. For someone whose main interest is classical music, I had been there long enough.
On the way out I passed through the giant Roland hall. Roland is a big attraction at the show because they make some of the most highly touted electronic instruments and gadgets on the planet. There are lots of hands on opportunities at their exhibit, and people were banging on electronic drums, testing out guitar synthesizers, fingering digital keyboards and playing with music making machines of every sort. Everyone was smiling. Like kids in a candy store.
I left the building and headed back to my car. On the plaza there was a huge stage where a band, made up of four kids who couldn’t have been more than ten years old, was rocking out. Turns out they were winners of a talent contest whose prize was to get to perform at NAMM. There was a big crowd.
As I walked away, and the crowd thinned, the kids’ music faded into the background. Then I heard a familiar tune. I looked over and there was a Jimi Hendrix impersonator playing for five or six onlookers. He appeared pretty close to the real thing - headband, leather vest, and left handed guitar. He sounded pretty good too. It crossed my mind that he was a busker. But I figured that if street performers were allowed at NAMM, the place would be overrun with them. My bet is he was hired by the show to bring back memories so attendees leave happy. It worked on me.