It’s that time of year again where tens of thousands of music industry professionals, rock stars and hopeful dreamers converge upon Anaheim, California for NAMM – the National Association of Music Merchants trade show. It’s where musical instrument companies – a lot of musical instrument companies – showcase their newest gear to the world’s retailers, distributors and media; where hopeful designers and luthiers present their ideas to prospective investors; where musicians pitch themselves to potential endorsement partners; where historic jams take place; and where you can’t turn a corner without bumping into a legendary rock star, producer, or builder. Or, if you’re unlucky, Andy Dick. And it’s also pretty damned intimidating for NAMM first-timers. Unfortunately I can’t make it to NAMM this year – the first one I’ve missed after 10 years – but over the years I’ve learned a few tricks to navigating this overwhelming schmoozefest so if you’re going to NAMM for the first time this year, I hope you find this guide helpful.
How To Get In
For starters, NAMM is pretty hard to get into. It’s industry-only, which typically means you need to be associated with an attending company or be in the media in order to get a badge. Occasionally, stores might have a handful of passes that they give to favoured customers. Once you do have your registration, it’s a good idea to pick up your badge early – that is, before doors open on the morning of the Thursday that NAMM officially begins on. If not, you could be waiting in line for a long time, although the process is a lot smoother now than it was when I first started NAMMing. If you get to Anaheim a few days early you’ll be able to pick up your badge in advance and it’ll make life a little bit easier for you on show day. Also, a lot of people mistakenly refer to the Sunday as ‘Public Day’ which just isn’t true – maybe it was many years ago? – so if you don’t have a pass, don’t just rock up on Sunday demanding to be let in.
Where To Stay
If you’re heading to NAMM this January you’ve probably already got accommodation sorted out (right? RIGHT?), but if you haven’t, you’d better get on it! NAMM is held at the Anaheim Convention Center, just a stone’s throw from Disneyland, so there are plenty of hotels around for all budgets, and a buttload of AirBNBs. Some advice: make sure to check if your hotel is on a NAMM shuttle bus route. It’ll make your life a lot easier. You’ll be doing a lot of walking throughout the day at the show; the last thing you want is to be walking back to your hotel after a long, long day of schmoozing, and some of the hotels are a bit of a schlep.
Oh and Disneyland is relatively quiet at this time of year, at least compared to summer, so if you want to take a break from NAMM by throwing yourself around on a roller coaster or skulking around Galaxy’s Edge, have at it!
What To Eat
Because NAMM is so close to Disneyland you’ll find plenty of wallet-friendly meal options in the neighbourhood, including Denny’s, IHOP, Tony Romo’s, McDonalds and all that stuff. Just the thing to shove some greasy breakfast down your throat while taking advantage of free WiFi before a long day of NAMMing. And Downtown Disney is a retail and dining section of the Disneyland Resort that is open to the public without an entry fee, so you’ll find plenty of dining options there. I heartily recommend Tortilla Jo’s for great guacamole and margaritas. The Bloody Marys are pretty good too. And the Anaheim Convention Center itself has various places to eat and drink including various coffee and beer stalls, places to grab a burger or a salad or a slice of pizza, and a whole bunch of food trucks outside. There are also Starbuckses in the Hilton and Sheraton, and at the Hilton you’ll find a food court with Sbarro, Baja Fresh, Submarina and Just Grillin’. If you’d like to get away from the Convention Center there are plenty of great restaurants all throughout the wider area. The Michelin-listed Gabbi’s Mexican Kitchen in Orange is spectacular if you can handle a bit of a wait at busy times.
What To Do
Your very first NAMM can be quite overwhelming. There’s a lot to take in. There’ll be tens of thousands of people roaming the halls (that’s no exaggeration. Tens. Of. Thousands), a few hundred dudes playing Vai covers, buxom promotional models handing out flyers or posing for pics, and the persistent distant thrash of cymbals (It’s kind of like in Lord Of The Rings as they get closer to Mordor and they can see the fire in the distance and everything starts to grow dark… the closer you get to the drum section, the more the survival instincts kick in and you might find yourself trying to fend off
Orcs reps with a cymbal stand or something).
If you’re planning to go to all four days of NAMM, Thursday is where a lot of business gets done and is kinda busy. Friday is very busy and with more signings, appearances, performances and launches. And Saturday is absolutely crazycakes, a huge crowded cacophony of noise. Saturday is when you’re likely to find yourself muttering, randomly sobbing, and saying things you would never, ever say at any other time in your life, such as “Oh shit, Steve Vai’s just showed up at Ernie Ball – better take the long way around or it’ll take me an hour to get through the crowd.” And Sunday is pretty quiet, especially in the afternoon. It’s tempting to be all like “Dammit, I’m staying to the very end to wring out every last drop of awesomeness from this experience,” but NAMM after about 2PM Sunday is a bit of a downer as companies start to slowly begin winding down and everyone has lost their voice and their enthusiasm for life.
If you’re at NAMM to work, it’s all about meetings, meetings, meetings. If you’re booking meetings with company reps in advance and you’re not already in California, here’s a tip for travellers which could save your ass: write them down on paper or in a text file: don’t immediately pop them in your smartphone calendar because – as I learned at my very first NAMM – my iPhone scheduled all my appointments in Melbourne time and didn’t adjust for the fact that I was in LA! iOS is a lot better at these stuff nowadays but why risk it, right?
If you’re hoping to hit up some of the approximately 8 billion artist signings happening during the show, it’s best to check the social media accounts of your favourite players and gear companies for schedules. Then check them again because things inevitably change. And there are all sorts of performances going on all the time, some of them listed on the NAMM website and some of them more spontaneous. Make sure you pace yourself and give yourself plenty of time in case meetings run long. Get your hands on a floor plan of the Convention Center or the official NAMM smartphone app so you can figure out who’s where, and how far your appointments are from each other.
Oh and dude, business cards. Don’t fall into the ‘Oh nobody needs business cards any more’ trap. If you have ’em, bring ’em. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve looked back at my post-NAMM pile of business cards and remembered a piece of gear or a new contact that would otherwise have faded into the fog of memory.
The other great thing to do at NAMM is to play NAMM Bingo.
Oh and wear comfortable shoes. Seriously. I shit the not, every NAMM I lose about 5kg from all the walking. By the third day your feet are likely to feel like a pair of tenderised steaks flopping about on the end of your legs. So think ahead! Maybe pack some kind of foot-soak to rest your feet in after your last evening. One of my favourite things in the world is the moment of serene solitude on a NAMM Sunday night, making a foot soak in a bathtub, maybe lighting some candles and reading a book and just not being blasted by the combined noise of the entire musical instrument industry being under one roof.
Many companies have VIP events at NAMM, especially on the Friday and Saturday nights. A lot of these are secret and you’ll need to be on good terms with someone at the company to score an invite. Maybe don’t just go up to someone you’ve never met before and immediately ask if they’re putting on an event, but don’t be too shy to ask after you’ve had a nice chat either.
Even if you can’t get into a secret gig, party or dinner you’ll find plenty of great events around town. And after dark, the lobbies of the Hilton and Sheraton right outside the convention centre are great places to catch gigs and jams, have a beer with a favourite player, network with some new contacts or, once you’ve been to a few NAMMs, catch up with old pals. Some of the best times I’ve had at NAMM have been at these loose, informal get-togethers in the outdoor area just behind the Sheraton bar. Oh and karaoke at the Clarion? Unbeatable.
Make sure you go out of your way to check out Hall E downstairs. This is where you’ll find some of the more offbeat builders, tinkerers and designers as well as incredible boutique luthiers and pedal companies. You’ll see some pretty out-there ideas for new gadgets that their designers think will revolutionize guitar, and maybe they will, maybe they won’t, but it’s always enlightening. Every now and then you’ll see something utterly ridiculous that you just know will never, ever catch on, but try not to be a dick about it, okay? It’s someone’s dream.
So There You Have It.
If you’re a first-time NAMMer, hopefully this will help you to wrap your head around it before you go in, so you can make the most of your time. Personally I look back on my first NAMM and just think of how overwhelming it all seemed. My fist NAMM was basically a lot of “OMG! WTF! EEEK! WHOA! HUH!” My second was more like “Okay… starting to get into the groove now…” and every one since has been like “Aaah, I’m home.”