The 2019 Summer NAMM show floor, courtesy of NAMM.

Summertime Sizzler

As a heatwave swept across the U.S., the annual Summer NAMM show cranked up a different kind of heat in Nashville, Tennessee. From July 18–20, the Music City Center was abuzz with idea sessions, networking events and demos of the latest products.

According to NAMM, 16,001 registered attendees visited this summer’s show, up 7% from last year. The convention was particularly robust in international attendees, who were up 32% over 2018 figures. NAMM also noted that 500 exhibitors presented on over 1,500 brands.

Exhibitors spanned the range of MI products and services, and included Avid, Boss, Hal Leonard, TransAudio, Martin Guitar, Fender and Yamaha. But the show skewed heavily toward the guitar market, with manufacturers of both electric and acoustic guitars saying they are seeing growth for the segment.

The return of Gibson Guitars to the show was particularly notable. Gibson featured the show’s largest booth and a wall-to-wall schedule of showcases in a show of force after going through a massive reorganization in 2018.

Yamaha narrowed its booth focus to guitars this year, leaving most of the company’s other products out of the mix.

“We made a conscious decision to come out this year as Yamaha Guitar Group because we wanted to snap into focus that Line 6 and Ampeg are owned by Yamaha,” said Tom Ring, Yamaha sales marketing liaison. “The concept this year was to set up experience stations, so people could go around the booth and see that we have Yamaha, Line 6 and Ampeg together as integrated solutions.”

Nearly 200 companies were new to Summer NAMM, including the likes of British Drum Company, GO Pedal Boards, Maton Guitars, Whitestone Audio Instruments and many others.

"Summer NAMM seemed to highlight the important role of both the manufacturer and the dealer in maintaining a strong musical ecosystem,” said Joe Lamond, NAMM president and CEO in a statement. “While the marketplace is evolving rapidly, our manufacturer and retail members are adapting and finding strength in better understanding each other and finding new and innovative ways to work together to better serve the music-making community.”

This year’s show marked the debut of a few highly anticipated product lines, including Fender’s Vintera series, an update of some of the brand’s classic models. The name “Vintera” is a portmanteau of “vintage era,” and the series features revamped versions of the Stratocaster, Telecaster, Jaguar, Mustang, Jazzmaster, Jazz bass, Precision bass and Mustang bass. The instruments feature revoiced pickups and a range of classic colors.

“The Vintera series celebrates the different vintage eras of Fender with the fundamental design of the Stratocaster, Telecaster and Precision bass remaining largely the same, but with each decade assuming its own unique feature sets,” said Justin Norvell, Fender’s executive vice president of product. “Depending on your feature preferences, bands you love and the era that you grew up in, each of these decades has a different appeal in terms of sound, colors and pickups.”

Boss highlighted its new SY-1 Synthesizer pedal, a polyphonic guitar synth pedal that fuses ease of use with broad functionality.

“It’s zero latency, so I can actually play fast and keep up with it,” said Austin Sandick, product specialist. “It’s all via a ¼-inch cable, so it can basically synthesize anything with a ¼-inch on it. There are 11 different types of synth engines on here, with 11 variations for each, giving you 121 sounds.”

Yamaha displayed its new Storia acoustic guitar line, which is geared toward a younger, trend-setting market. The company also exhibited the reimagined FG Red Label acoustics, harkening back to classic models from the 1960s and ’70s.

Summer NAMM served as a coming out party for brands like Kepma Guitars, said to be the No. 1-selling acoustic guitar brand in China, which is now available in the United States. It’s a high-end line with mid-line prices, brought to the market by industry veterans Tony Moscal and Brandon Foster.

“When Tony first walked into the factory, it was like walking into a NASA facility,” Foster said of his business partners’ first visit. “There were robots and lasers, impeccably clean.”

Foster said the company’s founders are two young engineers who started the company a decade ago. They spent two years perfecting one model. Today, Foster said the company is selling 25,000 guitars a month in China alone.

The show wasn’t all about guitars, though. Casio unveiled a redesigned version of the Casiotone series of keyboards. The original Casiotone CT-201, the company’s first MI product, came out in 1980. Designed to function well as an entry-level instrument, this revamped line of electronic keyboards features three models that draw on the Casiotone’s legacy.

“We are excited to introduce the newest evolution of the Casiotone series to a new generation of music lovers,” said Stephen Schmidt, vice president of Casio’s electronic musical instrument division. “After almost four decades of successfully delivering musical products made with cutting-edge technology and musical artistry that create authentic piano sound quality, we couldn’t be happier to continue to bring music into the lives of enthusiasts of all ages.”

Over at KMC, the big announcement wasn’t about a product, but rather a resource for retailers. The distributor relaunched its classic One-Stop Catalog in a digital format that can be continuously updated.

“When you have so many products, keeping them all current becomes a problem,” said Mark Terry, KMC president. “The minute a catalog goes to press, it’s out-of-date. This (digital version) becomes a lot more palatable. Retailers can put it on their computer or their tablet. The One-Stop Catalog is really iconic. This is a new, better way to receive it.”

First-time exhibitor NuTune Music, which created a music education app geared toward helping students learn scales, also found its way to Nashville.

“It’s a great tool for musicians and teachers,” said Matthew Wirtz, a high-school senior and partner in the business. “We’re actually doing a study with UCLA right now to see the effectiveness of how the students using the app are progressing with their scales.

“Our clients are the students, but we found that it helps to have someone who owns a music shop or a studio to encourage their students to use it.”

“We’re doing it all ourselves,” said Cameron Wirtz, NuTune’s creator, who is a music education student at UCLA. “We’ve gotten a lot of good feedback from music educators around San Diego, where we are based.”

Summer NAMM wasn’t just about gear, though. It was also a chance to hear great ideas from people both inside and outside the MI industry. One theme that ran throughout Summer NAMM was how the MI industry, like arguably the world in general, is in a transitional moment.

As he introduced the first Breakfast Sessions on July 18, which focused on disruption, Lamond noted that “The world has changed … the new world is coming … it is on the way. The old world that we know, it’s gone forever.”

Drawing an example from outside the world of MI, Breakfast Session presenter Larry Bailin noted that Amazon has effectively used technology to eliminate customers’ obstacles for buying. The company did research by watching shoppers in grocery stores, and noted which parts of the retail experience were unpleasant. “People love buying,” Bailin said. “They get to the front, to the cashier, their smiles turn to frowns.”

So, Amazon figured out a way to eliminate the checkout process and charge customers directly via their phones.

“Their disruptive technology was to eliminate something that made you feel bad about shopping. Their stores have no checkouts,” he said. “They’re getting rid of every reason to say ‘no’ to them.”

The new CEO of Gibson, JC Curleigh, struck a similar chord when he addressed the NAMM YP membership. Curleigh, who has previously worked for companies including Mars and Levi’s, shared lessons from his professional history and how they’ve shaped his leadership style. One point he emphasized was the importance of legacy brands thinking like startups.

“I think part of leadership is understanding what’s worked, but if it doesn’t work, you don’t just incrementally shift it — you’ve got to smash it and change it. Guess who does that best? Startup culture,” he said. “They don’t have heritage, they don’t have something iconic … startups have to earn every cent, and if they make one big decision, (and) it’s wrong, it can significantly alter the course of the company. I want us to be future-focused.”

Near the end of his presentation, Curleigh succinctly summed up what he sees as one of the major challenges facing the MI industry: the preponderance of choices facing consumers today.

“For the average 17-year-old, if you came home and said ‘I got three choices and they’re all worth $1,000. Do you want the new iPhone, do you want to go to Kelly Slater’s Surf Ranch for a day or do you want a new guitar?’ That’s the order, right there. They need the new iPhone for sure,” Curleigh said.

The question facing Curleigh — and by extension, all musical instrument manufacturers and retailers — is clear: “How do I, as the leader of iconic (brand) Gibson, imagine a future where those same things are presented and (kids) say ‘I want the guitar, because it’s something that I’ll have forever.’” MI