Lockdown Blues: Music Trade Show NAMM Goes Virtual Following Banner Year for Instrument Sales

Says Sweetwater Sound's CEO: "The two things that sell best during a depression or crisis are musical instruments and alcohol."

Tony Forte/MediaPunch/IPx

This year’s virtual NAMM — the National Association of Music Merchants — marks the Carlsbad, CA-based association’s 120th anniversary since its founding in 1901 as “the world’s largest trade-only event for the music products, pro audio and event tech industry.” From the 120,000 who usually attend, the show’s activities will be viewed by more than half a million.

The winter edition, dubbed Believe in Music Week — “the online, global gathering to unify and support those who bring music to the world” — got underway on Monday (Jan. 18) and lasts through Friday. Ordinarily held at the 1.15 million square-foot Anaheim Convention Center, the free NAMM is now taking place entirely online, with the highlights including interviews featuring Garth Brooks, Melissa Etheridge and Gibson Guitar head James “JC” Curleigh, along with the usual instrument demos, training sessions, performances and fundraising outreach to aid those devastated by the pandemic.

NAMM President/CEO Joe Lamond, who has logged two decades at the organization since joining in 2001, explains: “There are things best done physically and then there are ways digital can work even better. That was our challenge. Not just to recreate the normal NAMM, but to do something unique taking advantage of the limitations placed on us.”

Covid’s effect on various industries — for good and bad — has clearly impacted the music instrument and pro audio market. According to Fort Wayne, Indiana-based instrument retailer Sweetwater Sound, guitar sales are up 50%, as are stringed instruments over $279, while those under are up 70%, meaning newer players are getting into the game. Also up are such home recording staples as microphones, electronic percussion, strings and accessories, pedals, keyboards, drum kits and amps. The company is expected to announce record-breaking 2020 revenue in the weeks to come. Other music instrument retailers, including Guitar Center, which filed for bankruptcy late last year, didn’t fare as well.

Sweetwater founder/CEO Chuck Surack, who started the now-2,000-employee strong company in 1979 as a four-track recording studio out of the trunk of his VW microbus only to evolve into the country’s top seller of musical instruments and audio equipment, realized early on the opportunities presented by the pandemic. Without a brick-and-mortar footprint – the company has one giant retail outlet at its Fort Wayne location — Sweetwater’s largely mail-order direct-to-consumer business was in the perfect position to take advantage of the pandemic. In fact, the company had just opened a large warehouse that was fully stocked to meet the demand.

“I’m somewhat humbled and embarrassed to talk about it because so many people have suffered and continue to suffer,” says Surack, who was forced to close down for two weeks before gearing up at the end of March. “My wife, daughter and I were in the warehouse literally packing and shipping from 5 in the morning to 11 and 12 at night. At the time, most of our competitors weren’t even shipping product.  All this pandemic has done is speed up the process.”

Indeed, NAMM’s Lamond noted the temporary shutdown of member C.F. Martin & Co.’s Pennsylvania factory at the start of Covid — it had been in business since 1833 — sent tremors through the industry. Within weeks, orders started flooding in, as demand quickly outpaced supply, meaning the only danger for instrument manufacturers was not being able to fulfill the orders.

“People are telling me they haven’t seen this kind of gap between supply and demand since the Beatles were on the ‘Ed Sullivan Show,’” says Lamond, who mentions ukuleles and electronic keyboards, as well as Zoom staples like video cameras and USB mics experiencing sales booms. “A lot of those shipments got stuck in the water or in China.”

Lamond points out the “Tale of Two Cities” between those NAMM members experiencing success in the COVID economy and “those who aren’t sure they can make it through the next month,’ particularly the live touring industry, mom and pop music stores and school music suppliers. “Believe in Music is our way of trying to come together to help all of us recover equally.”

Pointing out what a “terrible business model” a free online NAMM represents, Lamond describes himself “laughing in my tears,” the non-profit organization suffering a “huge, huge financial loss,” which will give away any revenue to the other charities it supports. “We feel blessed to have weathered this storm, thanks to the leadership of the board over the years.”

Musicians like guitar virtuoso Gary Lucas, a touring musician who has played with Captain Beefheart and Jeff Buckley, among others, survived thanks to his thrice-weekly live streams and occasional online tutoring session. “Frankly, I should have done this a long time ago,” he says.

NAMM’s Lamond, who came to the organization after a career as a Buffalo-born touring drummer (for Tommy Tutone, among others), then worked in music retail and as a tour production manager for Todd Rundgren, is hoping the pandemic has taught the music instrument industry a lesson for the future.  He points to history repeating itself when, during the Spanish Flu of 1918 and 1919, piano sales went through the roof.

“What usually happens after a major setback like this — whether it’s a World War or a pandemic — is a renaissance of innovation, of music and art… Think of all the songwriters sitting home coming up with content that is about to be heard. Think of how many artists will want to get back on tour… Will there be enough sound engineers and lighting designers to go around? It’s very important for us to prepare for what’s coming next. We have to look forward and be prepared to take advantage of the positives of what has been a tragic event.”

As for the role of the electric and acoustic guitar in the making of music today, Lamond waxes philosophical. “Every generation creates its own voice, but we will both be long gone before the guitar loses its popularity,” he says. “The guitar is never far from the sweet spot in pop music.”

Adds Sweetwater’s Surack: “We’re trying to help grow tomorrow’s musicians, while also giving back to the community. The two things that sell best during a depression or crisis are musical instruments and alcohol. Maybe it’s just people drowning out their blues. But music is timeless. If you learn how, you can play your whole life.”