NAMM: A Mecca for Musical Gearheads -- Don Was To Receive The Les Paul Award

Jesse Grant/Getty Images for NAMM
A general view of atmosphere at the 2015 National Association of Music Merchants show at the Anaheim Convention Center on Jan. 23, 2015 in Anaheim, California. 

Take any song, on any Billboard chart, in any style or genre, and the recordings have one thing in common -- top-notch musical gear created those songs. Even Pentatonix needs microphones to capture its a cappella delights.

So consider the importance to the worldwide recorded music industry of the equally global business of manufacturing and selling music and sound products. (The intertwined industries are of similar scale: global recorded music sales totaled $15 billion in 2014, according to the IFPI, while the music and sound products business was worth $16.6 billion in the same period).

The NAMM Show, which runs Jan. 21-24 at the Anaheim Convention Center, is the world’s largest trade show for the music products business. The event is expected to draw 96,000-plus attendees, some 1,600 companies representing 5,100 brands, including 650 from 50 different countries.

“You walk into the NAMM Show and you're in Oz,” says Joe Lamond, who since 2001 has been president and CEO of NAMM (the National Association of Music Merchants).  “You realize how much diversity there is in music and sound products from around the world. You really see its breadth and depth at the NAMM Show.”

But where to start?  Lamond offers a tip. “What I like doing first is going into Hall E; it’s where we bring in new companies. Last year there was a company creating snare drums with 3D printers, a company that was etching wood with lasers. You might find a kid who studied wood-working in college and now has his own line of guitars and he’s eager to talk to anybody.”

The same trends in technology that have transformed the recording industry have reshaped the music products business.  “Everybody can play now,” notes Lamond, noting the entrepreneurial spirit at the NAMM Show. “Everybody can have a product and get it out there. A company can start by making a dozen guitars, or hand-wiring five guitar effect pedals. This industry is nothing more than individual stories of people who did things like that. And this show is their platform.”

Recognition of those who have taken their technical skills to the highest level is an important part of the NAMM Show. The 31st annual NAMM TEC Awards, honoring excellence in sound technology and creativity, will be held Jan. 23. The annual Les Paul Award, named for the electric guitar pioneer, this year goes to Don Was, the Grammy-winning producer, now president of Blue Note Records. In addition, the NAMM Tech Awards Hall of Fame will induct guitarist Jeff “Skunk” Baxter (the Doobie Brothers, Steely Dan) and also Chris Stone and Gary Kellgren, co-founders of the Record Plant studios, founded in New York and still operating in Los Angeles.

Past recipients of the Les Paul Award have included Slash, Todd Rundgren, Pete Townshend of the Who, Steve Vai and Lindsey Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac. In the crowded calendar of award shows, it means something special to NAMM TEC Award honorees “to be in a room of their peers, to be recognized for a lifetime of work by guys you worked alongside,” says Lamond.

Indeed, NAMM draws thousands of musicians who come not as stars, but as musicians. “Stevie Wonder is a musician there; Eddie Van Halen is a guitarist there,” says Lamond of past attendees. “They are there like everyone else, trying to find the next part of their sound. There’s this sense that we’re all just trying to perfect our craft, and find this nirvana of the perfect chord or the perfect note. That’s what happens when they’re at the NAMM shows. They get to be players around other players.”

But NAMM, as a trade organization, seeks more than the perfect chord in promoting its business. Strengthening the music products business means strengthening the role of music-making in modern culture. The organization has done so throughout its long history. One notable example: NAMM funded the research in 1993 by physicist Gordon Shaw and psychologist (and cellist) Frances Rauscher at the the University of California Irvine into what’s been called the Mozart effect -- which suggested classical music could have a short-term benefit on cognitive performance. “That was the big bang of music brain research,” says Lamond.

The NAMM Foundation continues to support the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function, which was founded by the late neurologist Oliver Sacks to research the link between music and neurological conditions including strokes, trauma, dementia, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases.

And NAMM has been in the forefront of promoting music education -- celebrating a victory last month with the passage of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. In that legislation, for the first time, a “well-rounded education” is defined as including music and the arts, and obligates states to fund those classes.

“That phrase, `a well-rounded education,’ is going to allow millions of kids next fall to have music and arts that didn’t have it now, especially in the most under-served districts,” says Lamond.

So it was appropriate that the first stop for some NAMM members in Anaheim this week was a local school. The NAMM Foundation on Jan. 19 sponsored a day of service at the James Guinn Elementary School where the NAMM members worked with students to play guitars, ukuleles and to create a drum circle.

“We love music,” says Lamond, “and we believe music should be part of every child’s education.