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The Big Show Fits Itself Into An Even Bigger Universe

by Dan Daley • in
  • Last Word
• Created: January 26, 2017

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Welcome to Anaheim, January 2017. The Winter NAMM Show floor may seem as busy and cacophonous as ever, but underneath that familiar buzz is a very changed world, one that is well reflected in the MI business and the show itself, if you look closely enough.

First, NAMM is much more diverse that it ever has been. Not diverse in the way that the recently ended political season might have used the word, but as they understand it in MBA programs. It’s not just a musical instrument and retail-centric show anymore. That’s evidenced by the conference activities that take place on the periphery of the show floor. The “Retail Boot Camp” and “Breakfast of Champions” are still fixtures on the agenda, but so are substantial nods to how musicians have now routinely become recordists. The TEC Tracks curriculum, which began in 2010 (then called the H.O.T. Zone), a year before the TEC Awards moved to Winter NAMM from their original perch at the AES Shows, underscores how recording music has become virtually tantamount to playing it, in the life and career of modern musicians. Show attendees will find more than 70 sessions intended to sharpen professional audio skills in the fields of recording, mic choice and placement, mixing and mastering.

What sets this year’s show deeper into that groove is how the professional audio conference elements have now been regimented for the first time into categories on specific days. On Thursday, TEC Tracks will focus on live sound and lighting. While live performance has always been an element of being a musician, a tectonic shift in the larger music business has placed new emphasis on it as the primary means of making living for most musicians who choose the commercial artist path. The TEC Tracks at Winter NAMM offer a synergistic solution to a uniquely contemporary issue: audience expectations of live music performances have never been higher. Consumers expect to hear live music sound like a record, and the pro audio industry has responded with a growing array of technology solutions that can do just that, from stomp boxes that can make a single voice into a choir to synchronized backing tracks that can take what musicians make in the studio and integrate it into what they do on stage.

In fact, that melding of recorded and live music is part of what’s propelling another new wrinkle in NAMM’s technology agenda: networked audio. This year, on Thursday, a special “Introduction to Dante” session hosted by Dante’s parent company Audinate will offer an opportunity to learn more about the networking, a technology that’s been around a while but which has taken on vastly more importance in the last two years, as the number of tracks and channels in a typical production has swelled. Products like Focusrite’s RedNet series of Dante interfaces have been scaled to accommodate the entire range of recording applications, from large commercial studios to home recordists with a laptop, and in the last year has extended its applications deeper into live music, where the number of elements – live and prerecorded – has also continued to proliferate. In another first for NAMM, Audinate will host two days of the company’s Dante Training and Certification program at the show. (The rapid shift towards networked audio has some musicians and pro audio professionals griping that music’s starting to look like a career in IT. MI retailers may soon start feeling the same way.)

The Biz

Just as the TEC Tracks agenda has been integrating recorded and live music technology into the conference, it’s also been paying more attention to the business side of being a musician today. Sunday will offer a line-up of speakers and panelists who will address the thickets of strategies and tactics putatively necessary for navigating the wilderness that the music industry has become.

It’s this particular aspect of the conference where the ice is thinnest. It’s not only laudable to acknowledge and address business and economic issues in a music context – it would be a serious omission to not do so these days. However, doing so also underscores what has become perhaps the only truly guaranteed method making money in music: run a music-business conference. These tend to be a mix of dry topics like copyright issues and howto’s on subjects like getting music placements in films and television shows, interspersed with marquee names whose celebrity is key to getting seats filled. Some of them, like last year’s keynote by Nashville producer Tony Brown and this year’s Saturday session with Jack Douglas, producer for Aerosmith and John Lennon, fill in needed gaps in music’s historical narrative. Others can seem more like 30-minute infomercials. But between them, they function as a combination of meat and vegetables – enough of the stuff you want to eat and some of the stuff you’re supposed to eat.

But at the end of the day, NAMM’s embrace of these tangential aspects of music is welcome pragmatism at a time when MI retail – almost all retail, actually – remains challenged. Being a musician these days is complicated. NAMM is offering some tools that have neither frets nor valves, but do have a lot of potential value. Kudos to them for recognizing these changes in the culture of music.

Now let’s hope that Anaheim’s city fathers come to their senses about clamping down on AirBnB rentals there; back in July the city gave short-term rental operators 18 months to essentially get out of Dodge. A hospitality infrastructure geared almost exclusively as a resort acts as an annual travel budget squeeze that adds to the financial burden of a certain class of attendees – small shop owners, independent media, and boutique manufacturers among them. We get it: in Anaheim, The Mouse rules. But going back to that earlier comment about diversity, it’s useful to remember: the more mice, the better.

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