Music, it feels safe to say, is going to be free from now on. Regardless of legality or ethics it will only continue to become both cognitively and strategically easier to download whatever we want, whenever we want: the most we can hope for the future of this commodity is that its physical remains, so lovingly collected in another time, will one day end up in a museum somewhere. Indeed, Raymond Pettibon’s Black Flag LP covers already adorn totes and other gift store drivel at the Geffen MoCA; the prism rainbow from “Dark Side” is now known to an entire generation of tumblrs as the refined and tripadelic print on Ninja’s underwear. Does Roger Waters get a royalty check every time someone clicks on a Die Antwoord youtube? Best to not think about it.
As alien as the concept of purchasing a song will be to your hypothetical teenage grandson, I don’t think he or his physical media-starved ilk will ever, ever balk at the concept of purchasing a Stratocaster. The Strat will probably have a “share” button on it and only make dubstep chords but still: the desire to create music seems to be an inherent part of human nature. That’s why I think the musical instruments industry is a good long bet, every bit as good as the food and healthcare sectors.
Every year around this time the National Association of Music Merchants hosts an "industry-only" exposition at the Anaheim Convention Center. While other conferences maintain an air of stuffy exclusivity, NAMM prides itself on bringing its end users into the fold. Sure, there are regional sales representatives all over the place, but they look more like Jimmy Buffett than his square bro Warren. The majority of NAMM’s attendees in 2013 seem to be the humbly iconic riff-raff with "artist" badges: leather-clad axe gods, pimply gauged-lobed So-Cal post-pop-punk skins slayers, and aspiring divas in distressed graphic tees from the Juniors section at Target. I love them all: it’s a portrait of a passionate and un-jaded America that I rarely see anywhere else. Especially not on the internet.
Imagine, if you will, a gigantic Guitar Center [if there is no Guitar Center where you are, god help you, it’s like Wal-Mart for music gear], or maybe 10 or 20 football fields worth of Guitar Centers. This pretend Guitar Center is only open once a year and is flooded with more inventory than any human could possibly peruse in the time allotted. You know those little jam stations where you can listen to tweens playing "Stairway" to "test drive" a guitar amp or pedal? NAMM is littered with them, but their patrons are all on the better half of the spectrum that lies between "Wayne and Garth" and "determined Creed impersonator with no feelings."
Now, stuff a bunch of party shit into the picture: beer, live music, cigarettes, an errant drunkle or two. Also, you’re a few hundred feet away from Disneyland. This is the wonderful hell I inhabited today for six hours: like all commercial gatherings, the people were, by and large, more interesting than the products they came to scope out. I will tell you about some of those products in a minute but first I want to tell you about the Patio Stage, a semi-enclosed courtyard that played host to dozens of rock acts, all of their members between the ages of 12 and 19. As if that weren’t enough to lure me in it was also the only place you could drink beer and smoke cigarettes at the same time in the whole Convention Center: I don’t know who steered the planning committee for the Patio but I just wanna give him (I’m sure it’s a him) a shoutout here real quick: thanks. Here are the awesome ladies of Fenderella, live from the heart of Orange County, in the middle of a super-solid rendition of No Doubt’s "Just A Girl":
These are people that put away their Facebooks and hashtags every day long enough to become a very good rock band and stress really hard on their pre-calc homework: these are the self-disciplined Renaissance women who become the leaders of tomorrow. and give me hope for a better tomorrow not entirely dominated by internet culture. Look at them: it’s almost as if Friendster never happened!
Between visits to the Patio Stage I did manage to explore the showroom floor. Like any good trade show, NAMM brings the future of its industry into the present. At first blush the future of music gear looks a lot like the past of music gear...but now it’s available in your favorite color from Lisa Frank’s crayon box!!!
Seriously, anything you want that makes music, you can now get to match your sofa. This facet of hyperconsumerism isn’t annoying to me in the same way Hot Topic isn’t annoying to me: it’s too stupid to get mad at, so so stupid that it wraps back around into being the best, and also please I want everything in the store now.
This theme of customization extends to the realm of accessorising. In the consumer electronics industry of 2013 "accessory" is a thinly-veiled euphemism for "iPhone case." At this point the mere sight of a sheath for any Apple product induces alternating waves of anger and nausea in my gut: there is no symbol of purchased, perceived individuality more poignant to me, no better expression of why the terrorists hate us, no beacon of conspicuous consumption more outrageous (except the one that makes it look like an NES controller...so cute!). Music accessories, refreshingly, actually have a purpose! Sure, there are lots of cases (like so many cases) but they help protect your axe, man, and your axe is gonna get you famous or at least laid one day! Distortion pedals help you make cool new womping or buzzing sounds! Maybe a Bedazzled microphone is kind of like a stupid iPhone case but, come on. You’re the next Mariah and you deserve and maybe probably even need that shit.
The truth is, though, NAMM isn’t all about a perfectly-preserved pre-9/11 aesthetic of rock and roll cool. As you may know, the most annoying department of any Guitar Center is the dimly-lit cave full of synthesizers, beatboxes, and, sometimes in a separate cave with more lasers and fog, the DJ section. You thought a 10-year-old longhair butchering "Layla" through a poorly-operated wah pedal was frustrating? Try listening to a smelly gang of twenty- and thirty-somethings attempting to produce the next Flocka record on a Korg Triton or, worse, trying to learn how to beatmatch with the demo trance songs that come with Serato or whatever. Somebody get these boys a contract fast...a contract to go to hell.
This is an issue that obviously hits far too close to home, and so I’m sorry I said that, guys. The point is that there are acres of DJ controllers and amateur production workstations to slog through at NAMM, their knobs and faders sliding relentlessly into square footage that used to be dedicated to old-style production tools like "drum" and "guitar." And while many of these new tools are iterations on a theme, there is also a lot of weird new DJ stuff coming out that I have to tell you about because it is so cool and is also, regrettably the only type of music gear I know anything about at all.
If there’s one thing DJs like to do more than smoke weed and DJ at the same time, it’s play PS3. Lucky for them Numark made this thing.
The Orbit is a black handheld wireless controller with shoulder buttons and an accelerometer that feels far more DualShock than SL-1200: the detailed key combos and frenetic buttonmashing used to control it could easily pass for round-winning Street Fighter II Turbo moves. The Numark rep’s eyes lit up when I mentioned the resemblance: many of the developers were hardcore gamers themselves, and the Orbit’s ergonomics were informed accordingly by their love of controlling things from the couch.
The grey area between creativity and mindless self-indulgence already hazily defined by DJ Hero and free entry-level software like Virtual DJ will no doubt encourage the probably-enormous class of gamers with an interest in beatmatching to make the leap; the Orbit, which will be $99 when it comes out around May, is the first actually-awesome piece of hardware in what I’m sure will be an interesting space to watch. The 32 pads are highly customizable: individual color and routing settings encourage interacting with the music in a way that’s on par with with the decidedly-pro Traktor Kontrol F1, but with a mass-market price tag and form factor. It even has a belt buckle clip on it so you can walk to the bar while you’re still technically DJing, for Christ’s sake, which is a party trick this DJ hero can totally definitely get behind.
Hidden amongst the aisles of humdrum Far Eastern hardware knockoffs, there’s always at least one product at NAMM that is so unflinchingly Asian in concept and execution that it’s definitely not humdrum and kind of not even really a knockoff. This year’s contender is the PDJ, a diminutive Korean all-in-one that crams the functionality of Ion’s two-iPod mixer iDJ into the form factor of tiny controllers like Numark’s DJ2GO. If that sounds like a "two wrongs don’t make a right" sort of deal on paper I might agree with you, but in person this thing feels like one of those memory eraser sticks from Men In Black 3D might if it were to leap off the screen and into your hands.
The 49,800円 PDJ picks up where the well-intentioned but fatally-flawed Pacemaker left off in 2008: a highly portable complete DJ solution, independent of any external hardware or software. Capacitive displays at either end of the aluminum candybar hold swipeable interfaces for pitch control, a sampler, and EQ. A minimal hardware mix section sits in the middle with pressable rotary encoders -- again, it doesn’t sound like much to write home to Seoul about. But there are lovingly-coded touches all over the interface, like an oddly innovative FX control method, a dead-simple sequencer, and a built-in mix recorder. The auto-sync algorithms kind of suck, sure, but I’m pretty whatever about that. The PDJ has all the panache of a pristinely-restored Yugo: completely weird, probably not very capable, but fascinatingly well-done and you kind of want to hug and/or lick it. You know what, I’ll just let this mixing/mixed chick in the brochure sum it all up for you.
So I was kind of getting pretty pissed at Teenage Engineering. These fucking dudes have their OP-1 synthesizer and everyone, including Paul, just freaks out all over it whenever they run their dang mouths in public. It’s a bunch of handsome Swedish guys in tastefully-designed, well-fitting matching black sweatshirts and they’re super-friendly, which would all be cool if they hadn’t brought the OP-1 to NAMM for the last three fucking hundred million years and it’s always the coolest thing at the show because they have free health care and Lisbeth Salander and have changed the way the world buys furniture via innovations in flat-packing AND THEY NEVER EVEN BOTHERED TO MAKE ANYTHING ELSE, just riding that OP-1 alllllll the way to the bank, which has probably never ever been bailed out by the government because it’s "too big to fail." So it’s a good thing they showed up this year with the OD-11 and that it had a cute cat on it in the photo to distract me from how upset they had made me.
You know now that I’m thinking about it again I’m just mad at myself for not still being mad at them. The box is a just a re-hash of Swedish speaker design from 1974, and they’re branding it as "the worlds [sic] first Cloud Speaker" which is super-annoying and really it just kind of looks like maybe Bose could have made it. AND! they didn’t even bring a working version of it, just a prototype with a red LED and a regular-sounding speaker in it. But...yeah, this next part is sick. It sits on your floor and projects the sound up to the ceiling and is specially designed to reflect the sound waves off the ceiling into the air around you at ears-level. So, I mean, it wouldn’t have really worked on the show floor with all those dudes wailing on carbon fiber 9-string basses or whatever, and the ceiling at the Anaheim Convention Center is way too high to bounce sound off of anyway so I let it go. And then, there’s this little magnetic puck that says "ortho remote" on it and it sticks conveniently to the side of the box, and it’s got Bluetooth so you can just put it on the table or fridge or wherever and rotate it slightly to change the track or volume. You know, so it has no buttons, and is super slick and minimal...I mean, it still kind of sounds like you could get one at the Bose store or SkyMall but Teenage Engineering uses WAY better fonts than Bose and SkyMall and it’s probably going to be super sick in the end because it comes in red too. You win again, assholes, I gave you a good review without even hearing your new speaker which isn’t even out yet, I hOPe-1 you’re proud of yourselves.
All of the Parrotheads and old industrial guys and womyn were easing into the weird part of their all-day drunk so I decided to go home and then I saw this.
Here are some specs from the spec sheet.
Authentic Marshall Features:
That’s all I know about NAMM so far, except for the Deadmau5 story I didn’t tell you yet for cliffhangers’ sake. See you again tomorrow!