By Randy Lewis, Los Angeles Times
8:45 AM PST, January 28, 2013
Celebrity, as it turns out, is in the eye of the beholder, and one of the fascinating aspects of the annual convention that brings together makers and sellers of all manner of musical gear for four days in Anaheim is that there are nearly as many universes of celebrity as there are stars within each.
This year's National Assn. of Music Merchants convention — "the NAMM show" in the industry parlance — drew the usual plethora of household names from the music world, from Stevie Wonder and the Who's Pete Townshend to Beach Boys creative leader Brian Wilson, Elton John and "American Idol" judge Randy Jackson along with a host of other pop, R&B, jazz, folk, country, blues and world music acts.
And that's just the tip of the NAMM iceberg.
"Oh, my God — I just saw the drum tech for Mötley Crüe!" exclaimed a young, long-haired male rock fan who bore a passing resemblance to actor Mike Myers circa "Wayne's World" as he strolled outside the main convention hall.
Only at NAMM do the behind-the-scenes people who create, assemble, tune and plug in guitars, tweak drum kits and wrestle with recalcitrant microphones get as much respect as the stars who use them.
"That's been happening to me a lot too," said a wide-eyed Larry Craig, the technician who keeps guitars and amps in shape for Neil Young and who was at NAMM doing consulting work on a newly revived line of Magnatone guitar amps.
Inside, hundreds of booths overflowed with equipment manufacturers' latest and greatest creations meant to dazzle — and, they hope, sell — to upward of 97,000 registered attendees from around the world who came this year to NAMM, the trade association representing 9,000 member companies. The Anaheim convention is the flagship event for the $17-billion (as of 2011) global musical products industry and the largest trade show of any kind on the West Coast.
Sales reps, mom-and-pop music store owners from Wisconsin, Florida, Tokyo and other far-flung locations as well as hard-core music geeks swarm as excitedly around company namesakes such as Chris Martin IV of the 180-year-old Martin Guitar-making family or Fred Gretsch of the Gretsch guitar company as they did around jazz guitarist George Benson when he dropped by the Fender Musical Instruments booth. A crowd of headbangers in black built around heavy metal guitar hero Zakk Wylde of Black Label Society when he showed up at one of his sponsors' booths for an autograph-signing session.
Signs around the convention center proclaim in large letters: "NAMM Is Not Open to the Public," but NAMM is nevertheless a magnet for gate-crashers bent on somehow acquiring a coveted NAMM badge allowing them entry into the otherwise forbidden world.
"It's flattering — it's cool," NAMM President Joe Lamond said with a broad smile on the subject of convention interlopers. "I think I'll leave it at that."
The draw is multifold: First, and possibly foremost, there's the gear, a cornucopia of products spanning everyday items including guitars, amplifiers, microphones, drums and accessories to band and orchestra instruments of every shape and size, deejay equipment, pro sound and lighting gear and a mind-boggling array of specialty products from the latest hot niche instruments — ukuleles and mandolins this year—to one-of-a-kind creations that may or may not ever be seen or heard again.
Mitchell Manger, chief executive of Culver City-based Antiquity Music, happily fielded intrigued looks and inquiries about his company's unusual-looking and sounding wheelharp from visitors passing by his booth in the convention center's basement showroom, reserved for new and/or fringe equipment makers.
Wheelharp co-inventor Manger said the contraption is inspired by an instrument design that Leonardo da Vinci, 15th century Italian inventor, artist and all-around Renaissance man, never got around to building.
Beyond the equipment, there's the ever-present possibility of celebrity sightings of artists who turn up for promotional signings or intimate performances at various booths.
There's a broad spectrum of reasons that musicians take part in the NAMM show — sometimes as a quid pro quo for equipment they get from sponsoring manufacturers, sometimes for high-profile (and high-paying) special performances thrown by gear makers to wow customers, and sometimes just because they're still gear freaks at heart.
Another signature of NAMM is the marquee concerts, also usually invitation only, such as Friday's John-topped bill thrown by Yamaha to celebrate the company's 125th anniversary. It also marked the introduction of new technology that allowed Yamaha pianos in 20 cities around the world to precisely replicate live in real time what the British rocker was playing onstage in the Hyperion Theatre at Disneyland's California Adventure.
Across town at the Anaheim Hilton, Who lead guitarist and songwriter Townshend was given the Les Paul Award at the annual TEC Awards, presented to musical and technical innovators by Mix magazine.
"Nobody told me it was this ... far to Anaheim," Townshend told the crowd, eliciting laughs.
Then there's the matter of business, which, as it happens, also has different levels of relevance to different NAMM attendees.
"I hope we sell a lot of stuff," said "Hippie" — that's the title on his business card — Tom Bedell of Nashville-based guitar-maker Two Old Hippies." "But it really doesn't matter; I just come to see a lot of old friends."
Vendors often extend guest passes to steady customers, friends or family members, who in turn figure out ways to bring spouses, kids or fellow gear heads with them. Nathan Morris, 21, of Santa Paula got a pass from his employer at Pulse Drumming in Ventura and scored another badge for his girlfriend, 21-year-old Mia Lysaght of Ventura, who was on the lookout for tips on which cello to buy with the money she's been saving for one.
All the shopping, chatting and negotiating goes on against a cacophonous background of screeching electric guitars, pounding drums, throbbing bass, dexterous displays of technique by saxophonists, trumpeters, clarinetists and trombonists, fledgling uke strummers and would-be deejays and electronic dance music enthusiasts.
In the early days of the NAMM show, it was all conducted with amplification cranked to 11. But about 20 years ago, NAMM officials instituted volume restrictions to keep the noise to a quiet roar. Ten "sound control" officers trod the aisles armed with decibel meters. Any overenthusiastic equipment testers who push the meter's readout above 85 decibels get a polite but smilingly firm reminder to turn it down.
"Some people come and crank it up hoping to be discovered," said sound control officer Dan Hornback, who said his pedometer clocked 14.1 miles of rounds on Thursday's opening day. "I'm glad I don't have the percussion section this time."
The modestly reined-in din is the aural manifestation of NAMM's melting pot character.
"It's the gathering of tribes," NAMM president Lamond said. "Each tribe has its own culture, its own customs, its own language. There are Bollywood stars here who you wouldn't be able to get within 100 feet of if they were in Mumbai. But they all come here because even though many are stars, they still want to be respected and acknowledged as musicians. In a lot of ways, a lot of these tribes couldn't be more different. But underneath, we're all still that 12-year-old kid who wanted to be John, Paul, George or Ringo."
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