The Meaning Of NAMM|
(Soapbox Column #6)
Bass Player Magazine
Published July, 2000
The NAMM show. What it is depends on how you feel about what you know.
Sure, you've seen the screaming headlines in Bass Player and every other gear mag you can think of. This issue - Winter NAMM Report! The accompanying stories inevitably contain pictures of gleaming new equipment and live shots of jam sessions featuring impossible combinations of players ("Michael Manring, Oteil Burbridge, Marcus Miller and Victor Wooten tear it up in the annual ‘Who Needs Guitar Players Anyway?' NAMM Jam!"), all while throngs of music-loving ordinary citizens mill around in awe. The overwhelming spirit of pure music brings together disparate groups of people from all around the world in an semi-annual celebration of . . . well, what exactly?
NAMM stands for the National Association of Music Merchants. Now repeat after me the most important word of the previous sentence: Merchants. Only a value as universal as commerce could attract the owner of a small music store in Iowa, the head buyer for Guitar Center, the gear-freak who got a badge through his friend at Alesis, the editor of Bass Player, a sales rep from West Virginia, the CEO of Peavey, and a hundred of the most talented musicians in the world to a noisy convention hall in downtown Los Angeles for four consecutive days. It is not open to the public. This is no street fair. Serious business is being conducted and only the properly credentialed shall pass. Still, restricted access or not, it's a mob scene (by NAMM Saturday you can barely walk the aisles without getting caught in someone else's hair). Actually, it's more of a mob circle, jet-propelled by five distinct factions that chase each other around until the resulting commercial sphere hums and spins in a Contact-like frenzy:
The Manufacturers. They're at the top of the circle. They're the ones who actually rent the floor space in the hall, square foot by bloody square foot. It's their show, because it's their wares that are on display. Everyone from industry behemoths Fender and Korg to the most obscure luthier from South Dakota has been busting their asses for months leading up to the show, slaving over the products they hope will change the world - and their fortunes - forever. Success is a new commitment from Sam Ash to carry their brand new active bass, a high-profile player choosing to endorse their flagship amplifier, sales reps crawling over each other to carry their high-end line in Rhode Island and Connecticut, a buzzing crowd around their booth, and a favorable review in next month's Winter NAMM Report! issue of Bass Player. Failure is an empty booth, with people pointing and laughing at their "radical" new designs as they walk by. Or, even worse, maybe they don't get noticed at all. All that money spent flying themselves and their company's precious gear to L.A., the hotels, the airfare, the bloody square feet . . . believe me when I tell you that it's a risk for any company just to attend.
The manufacturers touch every part of the circle because their booths are the islands amidst the sea of humanity in constant motion. And like I said, it's their show. But when it comes right down to it, they chase one specific group of people. . . .
The Dealers. So if every manufacturer is chasing the attending dealers, they must have it easy. They just walk around, smiling and winking, waiting for the best deal to come their way from manufacturers lining up for their business - a cakewalk, right? Not if you're an independent struggling to keep cash flow alive during the Mars Superstore grand opening just two miles from your location. Not if you're Guitar Center and your main competitor has just bought a nationwide mail-order catalog. And especially not if your store doesn't have the products that customers want this year. No dealer can carry every manufacturer's line of products. They must choose which products and which brands best suit their local (or nationwide) customer base, which they do by prowling the NAMM floor for the latest and greatest models. They have to meet commitments to manufacturers to sell certain amounts of product annually to keep their status as an Authorized Dealer for So-and-So, which they promise to do in meetings throughout the show. They have to keep turnover rapid to generate enough cash to pay for the next already-committed-to-in-last-year's-meeting quarterly purchase. And they have to do it all with a smile on their face, because they're at ground zero chasing the ever-elusive. . . .
End Users, a.k.a. Customers. Without them, there is nothing. They are the part of the circle that drives the rest of the wheel crazy, because they are fickle and - whether they realize it or not - totally in control, because it's their money that everyone's after. They dictate the market. The irony is that, at NAMM, they're largely unrepresented. The small percentage of those lucky enough to get in appear as friends of those who work at dealerships, manufacturers or industry mags who cared enough to score them a badge. They're fairly easy to spot. Signs of an end-user crashing NAMM: a "visitor" badge, a camera, a perma-grin, lots of pointing, and the walk of weary legs. But those legs would never be too tired to chase down an autograph and a picture of their favorite. . . .
Endorsers. Their view of NAMM is slightly skewed. After all, no one else is getting anything for free here, but that's exactly what a player/endorser is after: accommodation befitting that of a busy, professional musician. They also cruise the show looking for an opportunity for promotion by a powerful gear maker. Manufacturers and dealers both know damned well that nothing sells a piece of gear like their customers' heroes getting their favorite sounds through that new model that just happens to be in the window this month. So the endorser is an obtuse, yet essential glue to the NAMM circle: a manufacturer offers a special deal to an endorser, who then attracts the end users to the booth, which attracts the attention of the dealers because they see their customers freaking out. And, hopefully, they cause enough commotion to be noticed by the one faction endorsers seek out more than anything. . . .
The Press. That's right, Bass Player, Guitar Player, Keyboard, Saxophone Weekly, you name it. They're on hand to pursue their charged duties: capture the event in pictures and words, sum it all up, and report it to the masses in a coherent, informative and entertaining fashion. They have access so you can feel what it was like to be there. All true . . . but their goals are not completely altruistic. They can't be, or else they wouldn't fit into the circle of commerce I'm attempting to describe on their behalf. They've got bills to pay just like everyone else. Like the other factions, the end-users/customers drive their market in terms of subscriptions, but if that alone paid the printing and mailing bills then they wouldn't need advertisements. And who places and pays for the ads? The same people who bought the space on the convention floor - the manufacturers.
Don't get the wrong idea. This isn't a screed against NAMM's blatantly capitalistic essence. Quite the contrary, in fact; the market has a funny way of balancing things out. Manufacturers can't sell a product to a market that doesn't want it, no matter how great, awful, cheap or profitable it is. Dealers can't survive by dictating to customers what brands they must buy, as other dealers will surely beat them to the punch with alternate lines. Endorsers lose credibility if they appear in six different ads for competing amps inside of a year. Magazines must maintain objectivity in reporting amidst the potential conflict of incoming ad revenue, else the readership loses trust in the publication and subscription nosedives in a backlash. Abuse of the competitive impulse all around is noted and enforced by the end users/customers, especially in cases where their pocketbooks are adversely affected.
On the other hand, if Manufacturer A makes something great that the market can afford, the dealers will compete with each other to stock it, the customers will buy it in droves, an endorser or two will use it on tour, and New Gear Monthly will report that Joey Schlabotnik (whose mug is on the cover, of course) is a damned good musician who uses the Great New Product X. Then Manufacturer B does A one better with an Even Better New Product Y, which they advertise heavily in New Gear Monthly, and the whole thing starts all over again. Everybody wins, and the money flies like rice at a wedding.
So what does that make NAMM? Certainly more than a series of flashy photo ops. At the very least, it's a gathering of folks drawn together by business, gear and music, in that order.
But more than likely, it's a microcosm of . . . well, that's for you to decide.
Reprinted with permission from the July, 2000 issue of BASS PLAYER. For subscription information, please visit http://www.bassplayer.com.