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NAMM Show 2020 at the Edge of Music’s Future

Dan Daley • January 2020Last Word • January 13, 2020

Got milk? Probably not, these days. The classic 1990s-era advertising campaign promoting more consumption of moo juice (whose first television commercial was directed by the bombastic Michael Bay, no less) sought to further establish milk as the all-American beverage, not just for Rice Krispies anymore.

Its signature white milk-mustache on celebrities from Heidi Klum to Alex Rodriguez made it one of the most memorable campaigns of the century. However, be thankful you’re not a dairy farmer today. Milk sales were down last year by over $1 billion, knocked off by the rise of oat, nut, soy, and other alternative “milk” products. They join beef sales, being done in by “impossible” burgers and other meta-meat novelties. And let’s not bring up taxi drivers – Travis Bickle is too depressed to be pissed off anymore. The future has arrived, and it looks… different.

NAMM Looks At A Very Different Future

As we roll into the NAMM Show 2020, we see the landscape of music changing just as radically. We no longer have to seek music out – it finds us, following our data trails, which usually assess our tastes with auto playlists that are both comically wrong and disturbingly spot on. And music is increasingly being made by those same algorithms, written and performed by a growing cadre of software, such as IBM Watson Beat, Google Magenta’s NSynth Super, Jukedeck, and Amper Music. If the project studio revolution put sophisticated recording technology at the fingertips of musicians, this next wave is putting it on the iPhones and iPads of a cohort for whom 10,000 hours is an abstract concept, not a career strategy.

As an organization, NAMM has excelled at focusing on the nuts and bolts of retail management. This year, it’s also going deeper into financial strategies for the MI business, during Wednesday’s new Retail Financial Summit. And the NAMM Show has been aggressively going after the pro-audio aspects of music production, picking up the slack left by a slow-to-change Audio Engineering Society. Finally, its education programs at the show have been well done and getting better, often making it difficult for attendees (and journalists) to hit all the panels they want to see and still get in enough floor time on the convention center’s expanding real estate.

But how does NAMM confront the kinds of changes that are taking place now, as the creation and realization of music moves deeper into virtual territory? The things that AI, VR and mobile are already challenging our definitions of what music and musicians are, and what they can be. And it’s not just the technology of music production – the business of music, the ability to derive a living wage from playing and performing it, has only become more marginalized in an economic environment of intrinsic and deepening inequality. That’s also extending to music education: at a time when online tutorials abound, the conventional teaching relationship has become potentially less relevant. Given the symbiosis between lessons and retail, it’s another shifting dynamic that MI has to take cautious note of.

We’re on the verge of fundamental changes to music as a profession and a pursuit, one where coding and sight-reading merge, and IT becomes a necessary skill, not just to record the music, but also to simply make it.

There will always be marching bands, as long as high schools and colleges play football, and there will always be sketchy dives where shoe-gazers can play gigs for tips in a plastic beer pitchers, but will those customers continue to be market models for MI in a decade or more?

The desire for music won’t disappear, nor will the deep-seated need to create it, but how music comes about, and how we consume it, are changing and will continue to. Like 1984, the year 2020 has a somewhat ominous ring to it. I would not be surprised if we one day look back on this year’s NAMM Show as a major inflection point.

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