Times Staff Writer

In 1983, the introduction of technology that permits the linking of electronic synthesizers with computers shook the music world like an atomic explosion. At the 17th Winter Market convention of the National Assn. of Music Merchants (NAMM) this past weekend at Anaheim Convention Center, the nation's instrument manufacturers and retailers did their best to see that fallout from that explosion continues to spread and touch as many people as possible.

Without any major innovations such as 1983's Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI), which allows synthesizers and computers to communicate with each other, this year's convention drew more than 500 exhibitors and 25,000 visitors to explore product refinements, new applications for MIDI technology and methods of boosting business in the $2.5-billion musical instrument industry.

In the wake of statistics showing a steady decline in the number of Americans who play music, the association announced that it will sponsor a series of public-service commercials in March aimed at encouraging more youths to take up music. Built around the theme "If You Really Love Music, Play It," a half-dozen 30-second ads scheduled to air on MTV will feature rock guitarist Yngwie Malmsteen talking about various ways in which music has affected his life.

"It's a new step for us," said association president Alfredo Flores. "Up to this time, NAMM's functions have not included the generic promotion of music. Music is more and more important to Americans today, but fewer and fewer Americans are playing music. A lot of people have a play-practice type conception of music. We are trying to show how much fun music can be, that it's not all study. Study is important, yes--but the message we are trying to convey is that music is the best indoor sport there is."

Exhibitors' enthusiasm for the new promotion was proportional to the degree to which they expect it will help their businesses. Manufacturers of guitars and drums--instruments that have increased in popularity most in recent years because of high visibility in rock videos--predicted great things from the ads.

But those involved with band instruments such as clarinets, trumpets and trombones were less optimistic about the rewards they might reap.

"It might help down the line if they have some highly visible professionals using horns," said Joe Colantonio, eastern states sales representative for Getzen Musical Instruments of Elkhorn, Wis., which makes brass wind instruments. "I have a hunch it's going to be a lot more important to guitars, keyboards and drums. Any exposure has got to help, but face it: today is the day of electronics."

Rapid technological advances have created a boom market for some and have made electronic musical instruments better and cheaper seemingly by the month, but they have dramatically cut into sales of the conventional organs and acoustic pianos whose sounds they emulate.

"Electronic organs have taken it on the chin," said Layton Rawlins, vice president of marketing for Schafer & Sons, a Dana Point-based piano and organ maker. "The manufacturers got too technical and forgot about people. Their mistake was that they took the fun out of music. They started selling bricks and mortar instead of selling a dream. If it's a good dream, people are not concerned with how much it costs."

One hot topic was the coming of new MIDI equipment that will allow standard pianos to hook up with home computers. In addition, association president Flores said, at least one manufacturer will be introducing a device at the association's June show in Chicago that will permit other acoustic instruments, such as saxophones and trumpets, and even voices, to be coupled with computers and synthesizers.

For exhibitors of all manner of products, attention was focused chiefly on how best to exploit the computer-electronics connection. Even the publishers of music books are finding ways to get on the techno-bandwagon by marketing computer software to supplement instruction method books.

"There are a lot of Commodore 64 and Apple IIE computers out there," said Kathryn Oltman, public relations and marketing coordinator for Passport Designs Inc., a musical software manufacturer from Half Moon Bay, Calif. "But a lot of people have some kind of keyboard in one room and their computer in another. Our idea is that it's just as easy to put the two together as it is to hook up a stereo system . . . and turn the home into an entertainment center."

Daytime hours at the three-day convention were devoted to exhibitor displays of a host of new products as well as seminars with titles such as "Using the Computer to Stimulate Band Instrument Sales" and "MIDI for Everyone Else: Applying the New Technology to Band Instruments, Pianos and Organs." Evenings were turned over to performances by musicians--drummer Billy Cobham, trumpeter Maynard Ferguson and his big band, Christian artist Phil Keaggy and others. More than two dozen other musicians, including Ted Nugent, the Motels, Kiss member Ace Freley and the Moody Blues' Patrick Moraz, were scheduled at various manufacturers' booths.

Association president Flores said participation was better than last year's winter show, with the number of exhibitors up from 465 and visitor registration outpacing 1985 figures by about 25%.

"This seems like the most positive show I've seen in a long time," Flores said.

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