Those that describe the National Association of Music Merchants convention, better known as NAMM, as a toy store for musicians are halfway right.
It could be a toy store, if there was a toy store that covered several city blocks and three separate locations.
Just a month ago, I was only aware of NAMM through the descriptions I had heard from fellow musicians, who seemed to have a golden admission ticket every year. I assumed it was something that only endorsed musicians and high-level music executives attended. I was shocked when a friend in my musical circle was able to get me a guest pass. Three weeks later, I was on my way.
Rather than try to explain everything in words, I decided to share my thoughts from the perspective of a new attendee. As you can hopefully see via my blurry cell-phone photos, it was a dizzying experience that drew me from legendary fusion drummers showing off their skills, into heavenly halls filled with every grand piano brand I could imagine, into jam sessions with top-notch touring musicians trading riffs late into the night off-campus in Hollywood. To help give you some context, I’ll divide my descriptions up into three categories – the Place, the People, and the Performances.
I was told to bring comfortable shoes to NAMM, and it was good advice. The convention center was massive, and each square foot of the space was populated by every manufacturer, publication,and musical device you could imagine. It was impossible to see everything. The crowds, which were already thick by Thursday, seemed to double each day. Getting through each hallway without running into five or six famous musicians was impossible – and that was a good thing. From Yamaha, who had their own hotel, to drum companies like Sabian that had a wall of cymbals 20 feet high, to a piano hall complete with a player piano playing back the actual performances of Thelonious Monk and Art Tatum – the level of musical overload can’t be overstated. Surprisingly, except for perhaps the drum hall, it was never overly loud in the halls, probably because NAMM representatives (known to some exhibitors as the NAMM police) routinely monitored the noise levels at each booth to make sure they were not drowning out neighboring musicians.
That being said, it was hard to focus on any one area. For example, on day one I was drawn to a jazz pianist demonstrating in one booth, only to be lulled away when I heard an amazing demo of a software synth just feet away. A few minutes later, I found myself in a booth where a jam band was playing using all virtual instruments. There’s no way to predict what will happen around you at NAMM, so the only way to handle it is to expect the unexpected as you traverse the huge halls of musical excess.
It’s unlikely that any event, other than the Grammys, attracts as many musicians and stars to one place. At any point you might walk by Steven Tyler, or shake hands with Billy Bob Thorton (who knew he had a band?), or catch a glimpse of Stevie Wonder a couple of feet away (surrounded by bodyguards, of course – we must protect our last few legends). Despite the star power that permeated the conference, it was comforting to see many familiar faces in the midst of thousands of musicians and executives. It seems that no matter how big the convention felt, each step brought me face to face with someone I knew from home or from a previous performance. It’s nice to know that no matter how small I feel compared to the grand music landscape, there are people at every level that I can connect with.
That doesn’t mean that I didn’t participate in plenty of hero worship. Standing next to people that you have only seen on album covers and in music videos makes you pinch yourself to ensure you’re not dreaming. Especially when you discover those people are extremely gracious.
This is the part where I was truly overwhelmed. It seemed at every second of the day, another concert or demo was happening that could be considered a “can’t miss”. Which meant, of course, I was going to miss lots of “can’t miss” concerts simply because I couldn’t be in two places at once. I used the NAMM app (yes, there is an app for that) and tried my best to map out the performances I just had to see. The ones I managed to catch included Lincoln Brewster (read this previous post to see how that turned out), Brian Culbertson, Billy Cobham, Shaun Martin, Marcus Anderson, Eric Parker, and a jam session featuring Doobie Powell after hours (where I got to hang out singing BGVs in the audience with Chantae Cann!) There were a ton of other concerts that I wanted to see, but again, the blessing and curse of NAMM is the sheer magnitude of the event. I simply had to pick and choose the times that I would dash to the other side of the convention center to find a performance.
My last day of NAMM doesn’t really count as a performance, but it deserves to be mentioned. I got word through friends and through Instagram that Teddy Campbell, former drummer on the Tonight Show and husband to Tina Campbell of Mary Mary, was hosting a musician’s Bible Study at Nisan Stewart’s church. Nisan has transitioned to pastoring, but is still recognized as one of the top drummers in the touring and studio worlds. Needless to say, I decided to give up a few performances and hear some people in the industry who promote the ideals that God and Gigs also promotes. That morning was confirmation of all I’ve been working on through this project. Aaron Lindsey, Waryn Campbell (Teddy’s brother-in-law), Joel Bodker and Teddy himself spoke honestly, expounded on biblical truth, and prayed for the musicians that attended. It was an anointed moment, and I don’t use that word lightly. I heard and saw proof that God is working within the music industry regardless of the style of music on the label. (Not to mention the epic jam session that ensued after the bible study.)
For my fellow musicians who have only heard rumors of this fanciful dreamworld, I can tell you it does exist, and it’s definitely something you have to experience – if for no other reason than to see just how much there is for you to strive for. You may not leave with an endorsement deal with your favorite company, but you will gain invaluable knowledge from rubbing shoulders with your fellow artists – many of which you would never meet outside of this conference. Not matter what level in the music industry you have reached so far, once you arrive at NAMM, you will sense that you are in the right place.