Steve’s Incomplete Guide to NAMM

The NAMM show is on next week – for those who don’t know, NAMM stands for the ‘National Association of Music Merchants’ and the show is the world’s most important music gear trade show (it’s not the biggest, but it is the one where everyone launches their flagship products for the year and flies in their biggest endorsers.) It can be a huge amount of fun, and many of my favourite people in the world are brought together in one place for a weekend, so that’s great. But it’s also incredibly weird, and potentially a shitshow, so here in no particular order is my incomplete guide to how to behave at NAMM:

1) Listen to the person in front of you! It’s so tempting to keep one eye on who may be walking past, looking out for celeb sightings or people you’re trying to do a deal with. Ultimately, it just makes the person you’re talking to feel unwanted. If you genuinely have to be somewhere, just say so, don’t string people along. I’ve often described NAMM as “120,000 people lying to each other for a weekend” – and there’s so much in it that is false and meaningless. Avoid that. Give the person you’re talking to your attention, be as real and as kind as you can be, and carry yourself with some dignity… Likewise, wait your turn if someone is already in a conversation. Wait to be invited in (few things are more annoying than having a conversation about something that actually matters and having some numbnuts pile in and start hugging and high fiving you or the person you’re talking to with no awareness of what they’ve just interrupted). This isn’t primary school, behave like a reasonable person…

Steve Lawson with Vernon Paul and Morton

2) Don’t promise to go to everything. Factor in the time it’ll take you to get to places. Everyone at NAMM has unexpected encounters with friends and it messes up their schedule – that’s fine, obviously, but don’t go around promising to go see someone play or to go to an event or launch or whatever if you’re not going to show up. It just means you end up compounding the bullshit later when you see them again and start making up excuses. Put things in your calendar with at least a 10 minute buzzing notification so you can make decisions rather than piling up regrets at all the things you’ve missed…

3) If you’re not a buyer or a dealer, don’t expect manufacturers to prioritise conversations with you. This is one for artists – NAMM IS NOT ABOUT US! We are a vital and important part of the ecosystem, a big part of the mythology that fuels the whole shebang, but unless you’re Eddie Van Halen or Vinnie Colaiuta, you don’t take precedence over the dude from Iowa who needs to be convinced to stock your friend’s guitars/amps/pedals etc. Having a booth at NAMM is eye-wateringly expensive, and the companies are there to do business. If you do get some downtime with a friend there, great, they’ll be delighted to see you and talk to someone they know for 5 minutes, but as soon as someone with a buyer badge arrives, make yourself scarce, or if you know the builder well, offer to demo the product (and don’t be offended if they say no).

4) Eat a massive breakfast. Food in the convention centre is, well, convention centre food. It’s bogus. You can get out of the centre and go to Subway on the corner of Harbour and Katella (my food of choice for my first decade of NAMM – so much so that the manager recognised me and said hi every time I was in there for the next decade… 🙂 ) but I’d recommend a decent diner breakfast to get you through the day, and a snack at lunch time. Take it with you, so you don’t end up paying $8 for a slice of reheated pizza.

steve lawson with bryan beller at NAMM 09

5) Drink water! Loads of it. The air con in Anaheim is vicious and will destroy your voice in minutes. So drink water whenever you can. If you’ve got a friend on a booth that has loads of it, make regular stops. Bring a water bottle if you can to save on plastic, or reuse the first one you pick up – refill from a water fountain. NAMM is already a spectacular environmental disaster, try not to make it worse…

6) Be honest with people. This is perhaps the hardest of all of these things. The number of meaningless superlatives that get thrown about at NAMM ends up crushing you. If every person you meet is awesome and their music is the greatest and every guitar you try is perfect, and every amp is the greatest you’ve ever heard, you have literally no way of ever conveying an opinion that has any merit at all. NAMM is overflowing with people who’ve never learned that superlatives are best used in strict moderation, or they become utterly and irredeemably useless. I have a mental list of the people who every year tell me that I’m amazing and an inspiration, and I’m all too well aware that I hear or see nothing from them in the intervening 12 months – no social media comments or anything, and certainly no Bandcamp sales. So, vague rule of thumb: If it’s not something you’d part with cash for, if they aren’t a band you’d drop everything to go see if they come to your town, they aren’t ‘awesome’. There are other ways to make people feel loved and cared for beyond lying to them about the degree to which you’re invested in their life and work. You can be meaningfully and demonstrably delighted by your friends’ successes without trying to falsely insert yourself into that success. Be present, be honest and be compassionate.

7) Pace yourself. The history of NAMM is littered with people fucking their lives up for a weekend. Regional sales guys who suddenly think they’re in the Guns n Roses biography. It’s quite possible to have fun without getting wrecked and doing stupid shit. Look out for your friends too, especially if they’re new to this – NAMM is quite literally overwhelming. It’s unlike almost any other experience on earth – it’s a weekend in Vegas but with 10,000 hustling musicians trying to show off their musician-y-ness to each other. I have deep enduring friendships that I made at my first NAMM show in ’99, and people I still avoid because two decades ago they tried to drag me into their coke-fuelled hell. No. Don’t be a dick – rule #1 of human existence.

8) Feel free to step away from it all at regular intervals – get outside, go grab a coffee in a remote corner of hall E, go sit on the grass, or take an afternoon off to head over to the beach. It’s an utterly inhuman environment, in which a lot of human wonderfulness thrives despite the context not because of it. Be kind to yourself.

9) Watch out for the casual racism/sexism/homophobia/ableism. Politically, the wider context of NAMM is one of the most toxic environments on the planet. The position of women within many, many dudes’ understanding of what’s going on is ‘promotional eye candy’ – a huge number of the women there – regardless of their skills and experience – are essentially handed an ultimatum – look sexy, or stay away. Feel free to celebrate with the women who’ve carved out a space for themselves outside of that, but do not fall into the trap of either objectifying or vilifying those women whose work requires them to engage with that toxic bullshit. From the ‘booth babes’ (pro-tip – never use the term ‘booth babes’ about anyone ever) who hand out flyers and pose for pictures with provincial dudes to the artists who are ‘strongly encouraged’ to get overly glammed up in order to make any kind of headway in a world where male musicians are listened to and female musicians are gawped at. You WILL see a lot of that, and you will likely hear a bunch of hideous bullshit spewing from people with horrible opinions. Work out before you get there how you plan to deal with it – don’t be blindsided but also don’t be complicit. Offer solidarity, but also don’t commiserate with someone doing their job – just don’t reinforce the culture that limits their options. (it goes without saying that there are a lot of women who get glammed up because they LOVE it, and should be and ARE free to do that – that anyone might question their motives is a sign of just how toxic the environment is. If you assume that every woman looking glam is only doing it for ‘attention’ that’s as much a part of the problem as giving her marks out of 10 to your guitar-bro. Just treat all humans with dignity, and all musicians as fellow professionals. It’s not that hard, honest.)

10) Phone home. Stay in touch, stay grounded, talk to your partner and kids, get away from the mayhem to do it. E.T. understood this in the early 80s, and he was a fictional alien. As a real life human, it’s not beyond your abilities.

11) Wear VERY comfortable shoes. I’ve sometimes walked more than 10 miles a day at NAMM. The convention centre is huge and the events are often a few blocks away. Don’t get caught wearing shoes that you couldn’t comfortable do a quick 3 mile walk in, you’ll injure yourself. If your schtick requires showbiz shoes (I say his as someone who wore a fake-fur coat in the sweltering California heat for YEARS at NAMM), take some flats in your bag…

12) Bring earplugs! This was suggested by my lovely friend Sam over on FB – (he’s a many-year NAMM veteran, and can often be found playing crazy-fast jazz on upright on the booths of some of the sax and jazz guitar amp companies..) But yes, the ambient noise level at NAMM is pretty high and gets fatiguing – I’m not sure if the high percentage of that noise that is total bullshit makes it even more draining, but I like to think it does. So bring earplugs. Maybe even wear them all day. You’ll take them out at 6 o’clock and it’ll feel like a new day.

There you go – I may add to this over the weekend, so check back, or add your own tips in the comments… 🙂 

One Reply to “Steve’s Incomplete Guide to NAMM”

  1. Just back today and, with mind frazzled, I revisited this blog to give myself a mark for how I got on (and consider where I might differ next year).

    1 Listen to the person in fr0nt of you: 8/10. I did this fairly well. I’m good at ending conversations positively when they need to end, not something we Brits tend to excel at.

    2 Don’t promise to go to everything: 5/10. I didn’t let anyone down in the evening, but the number of artists/gear manufacturers who I promised to revisit “for a proper catch-up” and then failed so to do was large. Poor judgment in the moment.

    3 If you’re not a buyer or dealer etc… 8/10. Pretty good at running away when not desired!

    4 Massive breakfast: 4/10. I bought eggs and nuts and worked on those for breakfast, but in insufficient numbers. I neglected my nutrition and ingested toxins, thus leaching away my energy and happy hormones. Not great.

    5 Water: 7/10. I was annoyed at NAMM for having insufficient water flow through the water fountains, and also because the media center ran out (privileged lovey writer that I am), but still managed to stay hydrated. Not sure how.

    6 Honesty: 8/10. I told it like it was, most of the time.

    7 Pace oneself: 5/10. I didn’t act like an idiot but I did drink too much on Tues, Wed and Thurs, meaning that I was miserably hungover all the way to the weekend. Poor choices, alleviated a bit by the fact that I didn’t drink for the remaining three nights.

    8 Step away: 6/10. Not really enough, although in fairness I had a lot to achieve and not much time to do it in.

    9 Prejudices: 9/10. Not usually a problem for me, although I did negatively judge quite a lot of haircuts.

    10 Phone home: 9/10. In Whatsapp we trust.

    11 Comfy shoes: 8/10. In Doc Martens we trust.

    12 Earplugs: 0/10 because I forgot to bring/buy any. As a result I had to leave the Center often and in some discomfort. What a moron.

    The verdict: 77/120. Hmm. Must improve next year… thanks for the guidance, old bean!

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