UpFront Guitars Big 2014 NAMM Adventure

After a couple years’ hiatus, the brain trust of UpFront guitars made to the trip out to the 2014 NAMM show in Anaheim, California. We had several goals in mind: 1) Meet with many of our biggest suppliers 2) Scout out some new opportunities to bring to UpFront Guitars 3) Meet up with old friends, and 4) Soak up a little SoCal weather.

If you’ve ever been to a trade show of any type, you know they can be crowded, noisy affairs. The NAMM show shatters all preconceptions of crowded, noisy affairs. I suppose that the CES (Consumer Electronics) and SEMA (Car accessories) shows probably rival NAMM for calamity factor, but just imagine 35,000 visitors a day, and four floors of musical instruments. Visiting the show is tiring, and it’s hard to imagine working a booth for four days. Here are some of the high points, observations, and cheap advice to consider if you plan on visiting NAMM:

G&L – After working with G&L for almost four years, finally meeting the crew – Jim, Natalie, Rob, and Larry – was like catching up long lost relatives. These folks are awesome, and it’s wonderful to have such a great working relationship with people who really put their heart and soul into a company. It’s companies like this that make the music business fun.

Godin – Godin gets their own room upstairs at the convention center, so it’s a little less chaotic. But as usual they are rolling out a lot of new products, and it’s a good place to hear an impromptu performance, often Latin in nature involving their Multiac line.  New items that we took a shine to include a P-90 version of their Montreal Premiere line (with Bigsby), gloss white versions of the Nylon ACS, and some cool affordable guitars from their Richmond line.

Vox – Interesting that their display was over in the Pro Audio section with Korg, while sister company Marshall was smack dab in Metal-Land. But Vox has done a nice job blending traditional amplifiers with technology, modeling, and their own line of unique guitars.

Percussion – Unless you are a drummer, you really want to stay away from their section. Think about it.

The Biggies: Taylor, Martin, Fender, Peavey, Gibson, PRS, etc – They mostly have their own rooms, and these tend to be very crowded affairs and are as much branding/culture exercises as they are selling to their dealers. The crowds were so heavy, that we had just walk by some of them and move on. Taylor knows brand building better than just about anyone, and their room was heavily focused on live performances and an almost museum-like approach to their displays.  They topped everyone on Saturday with an unannounced performance by Jason Mraz, which we missed getting into by mere minutes. You can see it on their website, and as usual Jason exhales more talent than most people ever have in a lifetime. In contrast, the PRS room was very low key, and basically just a room full of guitars with mood lighting. For a brand with such a fervent following, they didn’t bring the story like Taylor and others.

Breedlove – Way more impressive than was I expecting, and they have some beautiful guitars, and interesting design features that are both functional and attractive. They cover all the price points with USA, Korea and China-made models, and we may to have to take a closer look at these guys, specifically their USA line.

Metal is Not Dead – It’s in Anaheim. It’s grayer, older, several pounds heavier, but there was a whole heap of leather, tattoos, fishnet, and piercings walking the show. They must have all driven there, because there is no way they got through airport security. The artist signings were also heavily tilted towards hard rock, and any long line of black leather was typically waiting for autographs. But God Bless’em they love rock and roll and were out in force. Be nice to them.

Pedals and Effects – To paraphrase Chandler from Friends, “Can there possibly be anymore pedals?” There was just an unfathomable number of pedals on display, from the big names to the tiny cottage makers lurking in the far back corners of the hall. I have no idea when the bubble will burst, but it’s got to someday.

Band and Orchestra – We guitar heads forget how big the B&O segment is to the overall industry. Quite likely lessons, sheet music and rentals are keeping your local music store alive. If you can figure out how to start a guitar orchestra and rent them instruments, you will be very rich indeed.

Technology – In many ways, the Pro Audio and software exhibitors were some of the most fascinating. And that fact that a good deal of the stuff is right over my head is a real wake-up call. There will always (I hope) be a need for real guitars, amps and performers, but you owe it to yourself to stay abreast of even rudimentary recording and production technology. Record labels and radio stations don’t have the power they used to, and the ability to self-produce at a high level of quality has never been better. You still need talent, but you don’t need a big dollar studio to get heard. For around $500 you can get a pretty good mic-preamp/USB/Firewire interface, recording software, and an SM-57. You can do it.

Have a plan for the show – Just going to NAMM to “walk around” is like saying you left your glasses at Disneyworld and you need to go find them. It’s too big, too noisy, and too crowded to saunter. Many booths are so packed that unless you have an appointment you won’t even be able to talk to anybody. Make a plan of attack, make appointments, download the phone app, and get organized. Wandering is fruitless and unproductive. It’s great for people watching, but you can do that while outside in the nice weather, and sitting down.

Attend seminars and workshops – NAMM is after all a trade organization, and there are literally dozens of opportunities to learn about business, technology, finance, marketing…you name it. It’s free information, often taught by independent businessmen with a lot of personal experience to share. If you are in the business, or are just curious, these are well worth your time. We took a lot of notes and got some great ideas for UpFront Guitars.

China, the country and the brand – We all know that China makes about 75% of all this stuff, maybe more. But they are not just the factory anymore, and there is an emerging number of China-based brands looking to make their own name at NAMM. Much of the productive derivative and often blatant copies, but that was Japan fifty years ago.

Food – Hands down, the best food of any trade show I’ve been to. Nice weather means Food Trucks, and while the lines were long, we actually got something really good at a reasonable price.

Go early, leave early – Get your business done early in the day. Go back to your hotel, take a nap, and go back for the live performances that run late into the night. We at UpFront Guitars didn’t do that. Next time.

For more information about UpFront Guitars:  www.upfrontguitars.com