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Toys for making noise

Times Staff Writer

There is music everywhere inside the cavernous Anaheim Convention Center. Dozens of guitarists shred the air with heavy-metal runs, chunky chord progressions and intricate blues solos. An army of drummers hammers out conflicting beats, pianists tease melodies from keyboards and every now and then an unseen horn player seasons the stew with a sudden blast of brass.

It is pure cacophony, and here at the annual four-day national musical instrument convention, it is the sound of money.

While the U.S. recording industry continues to slide under pressure from illegal downloaders and file-sharers, the other side of the music world -- businesses catering to those who create the music -- has nearly doubled over the last decade to become a $7.5-billion industry.

The key difference in their contrasting fortunes is a simple physical reality: You can’t download a tuba. But new technology has also been a boon: Digital home recording has played a large role in the industry’s growth and helped a new generation of hobbyist music-makers move out of the garage and onto the Internet.

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Using cheap -- sometimes free -- software and home computers, they are part of a rapid democratization of the music world in which artistic souls with very little money can create, record and distribute their own music through MySpace.com and other networking websites. It’s not just music. Digital cameras have become cheaper and better, and cellphones now double as video recorders. Everyone, it seems, can get in touch with his or her inner media mogul.

“We are looking at the first creative generation,” Henry Juszkiewicz, co-owner of Gibson Guitars, said last week as he was surrounded by instruments in his firm’s display room at the convention, which ended Sunday. “The cost of creative tools has gone down. And now you have the ability to share with other people your creation. These two fundamental, solid changes are allowing the younger generation to be actively creative.”

The growth has been driven in part by a cultural phenomenon, “American Idol,” which has turned the classic battle-of-the-bands format into a national wish-fulfillment fantasy. “People say they saw ‘American Idol’ and want to record their own voices, or ‘I got the new Jay-Z and I want to record like Jay-Z,’ ” said M-Audio sales Vice President Tony McCall, adding that home-recording enthusiasts represent one of the biggest growth sectors for his firm’s equipment and $25 Session software program. “The important thing is to have the technology, and it’s not complicated or expensive.”

The biggest market demographic is young adults. The NAMM musical industry group, which sponsored the convention, contracts with the Gallup Organization for a poll every three years. The most recent found that the number of instrument players ages 18 to 34 grew from 24% in 1997 to 32% in 2006.

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It also found that last year about half of American households had at least one person who owned a musical instrument, up from 43% in 1997. The instruments of choice: piano, 31%; guitar or bass, 28%; and brass, 27%.

All of this has helped propel unprecedented sales of musical instruments and related items, from guitar picks to sheet music to computer interfaces.

While the totals are still being tabulated, 2006 was considered tough for the industry, with online merchants cutting into neighborhood retail shops’ margins, and imports challenging domestic instrument makers. But that comes after several years of steady growth -- and amid anticipation of further expansion.

Brian T. Majeski, editor of the Music Trades industry magazine, noted that, despite a down year, “the biggest news for us was the prevailing attitude was a lot stronger than we expected.”

The size of the industry can be measured by the NAMM show itself. Admission is limited to tradespeople, but good customers of retailers can often wangle a pass from their local shop. As about 50,000 film buffs roam the streets of Park City, Utah, looking for the next big film -- and drawing massive media attention -- nearly 85,000 people were issued badges for the NAMM show, overflowing the nearby Anaheim Hilton, where bands jammed late into the night.

It’s the music geeks’ version of the L.A. Auto Show, and with 1,530 vendors covering 585,000 square feet over four floors, there were plenty of toys to admire. Gibson also introduced a new digital guitar, and Doug Ducey, a buyer for Iowa’s West Music Co. chain of seven regional shops, was wowed by a Digitech guitar and voice processor that allows a single singer to create four-part harmonies. “That’s pretty cool,” Ducey said as the jostling crowd worked its way around him.

It is the mark of such an industry-heavy show that the big names here aren’t that big to the broader consumer world. Rock guitar virtuoso Steve Vai, whose resume includes stints with Frank Zappa, David Lee Roth and Whitesnake, is hardly a household name, yet he drew a long line of aficionados who waited more than 90 minutes for a handshake and freshly signed poster. Convention-goers lucky enough to grab free tickets jammed into an Anaheim Hilton lounge Friday night to hear the likes of guitarists Gary Hoey, Vernon Reid and Marc Rizzo, bassists Doug Wimbish and T.M. Stevens, and former Parliament/Funkadelic keyboard player Bernie Worrell -- probably the best known of the lineup. The main sponsor: The Rock House Method of learn-it-yourself videos.

On Saturday, tickets were similarly scarce for a lineup of heavy-metal acts memorializing Darrell “Dimebag” Abbott, the former Pantera guitarist fatally shot onstage five years ago by a fan. The main sponsor: Coffin Case, a North Hollywood maker of guitar cases shaped with the broad shoulders of the traditional pine box.

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For entrepreneurs like David Rosenfeld, the boom in guitar sales has meant a boom in accessories. Rosenfeld, a colorectal surgeon by day, owns Stash Picks Inc. in West Hills, marketing specially designed guitar picks in small pocket cases. Rosenfeld and three partners -- two of them guitarists -- began the business five years ago, and he bought his partners out about two years ago. The firm has yet to turn a profit, but Rosenfeld has an entrepreneur’s optimism.

“Young kids spend four grand on a guitar and they don’t know what pick they’re going to use,” Rosenfeld said, viewing that niche as a window of opportunity. “Everybody uses them, and everybody needs them.”

Another growth area for NAMM are churches, driven by an increase in mega congregations with their embrace of contemporary live music, as well as upgrades at smaller established churches trying to compete.

“Until three years ago, we were targeting DJs,” said Brian Martin, a salesman for the Chinese-owned International Audio Group, which markets Audiolab and other lines of speakers. “Now churches are about 30% of our business.”

But the core market driving the industry remains the musicians themselves. Drummer Robert Wantland, 19, of Mission Viejo, wearing a Joy Division T-shirt and gray fingernail polish, scored a ticket through a friend’s father for his first visit to NAMM. He spent about 15 minutes on Friday testing out a $5,000 Roland electronic drum set, running through intricate patterns on black-rubber heads and cymbals that made little audible sound until the speakers were turned up.

He was like a little kid on Christmas morning.

“I love it,” Wantland said as other drummers went through their own paces on what seemed a small ocean of drum kits. “I could come here every day. I just can’t get enough.”

scott.martelle@latimes.com

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