See if you can wrap your head around this: 1.2 million square feet stacked with guitars, basses, drums, horns, amps and every other piece of musical equipment that you might conceive. Now flood this space with 100,000 musicians and industry types and give them four days to have at it. Welcome to NAMM.
The signature event of the music industry is the annual winter trade show of the National Association of Music Merchants, held each January in balmy Anaheim, California— otherwise known as “NAMM”. Closed to the general public, the purpose of the show is to provide a central forum for music equipment companies to do business together over the course of four days. 1,600 companies convene from all across the globe, representing over 5,000 brands of instruments, stage lighting, cables, sheet music, switches, picks and tiny little widgets you didn’t know existed that fit onto musical instruments.
Industry heavyweights such as Gibson, Fender, Peavey and Taylor occupy their own massive showrooms, complete with private stages and thousands of instruments available for anybody to pull off the wall, plug in and go to town. To drive traffic to their booths, companies host private gigs, autograph signings and clinics featuring their endorsees — heavy-hitters like George Clinton, Dave Mustaine, Stu Hamm, Devin Townsend and renowned L.A. bassist Tanya O’Callaghan. Upstairs, a queue over two hundred strong waits for a meet and greet with David Ellefson, Chris Broderick, Mike Portnoy, Rex Brown and other metal icons.
Alcohol flows freely at NAMM, with full bars set up throughout the hall and music blasting from every cranny, inspiring a euphoric Mardi Gras abandon that sharply contrasts the millions of dollars of deals being cut in the thick of it all. But while the vendors talk business, everybody else chatters about all-star jams and awards ceremonies, both of which are in tall supply.
On Thursday night, Peavey celebrates its 50th Anniversary Birthday Bash with sets from Blue Öyster Cult, a trio of members from Lynyrd Skynyrd, original Van Halen bassist Michael Anthony and drummer Kenny Aronoff. In nearby Santa Ana, the Bonzo Bash showcases a rhythmic supernova that includes Portnoy, Brian Tichy, Steven Adler and a special appearance by former Sabbath timekeeper Bill Ward.
Friday night is utter madness. The festivities kick off at 6 p.m. with George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic playing an outdoor gig behind the convention and then it’s over to a local club for a star-studded Randy Rhoads tribute show. Local act Steel Panther, along with Sweden’s Hardcore Superstar and Vegas rockers Otherwise, have packed a private party at the Anaheim Grove, where Tommy Thayer and Marty Friedman turn up and jam with the spandex-clad headliners. On Saturday evening the NAMM Technical Excellence Awards honor former Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash, while across town, metal fans make their way to the Schecter party, which this year is headlined by In This Moment and Escape the Fate. Back at the Hilton hotel behind the convention center, after-hours parties stretch well past sunrise, tapping deeply into the heroic Epicureanism of Hollywood’s fabled “Riot House” in the mid-Seventies.
Sunday morning predictably sees the lightest traffic of the convention, with bleary-eyed vendors still shaking out the cobwebs from the Saturday night parties. In a ghastly display of callousness toward these hangover-plagued warriors, Sunday morning is also the chosen day for the NAMM trombone circle, proving once and for all that hell exists, and it’s in California. Although pretty much everybody is more than ready to drive or fly home and nap for a few weeks, NAMM 2015 has once again proven that business and pleasure actually do mix, and rather nicely at that.