News

8 Jun 2022

NAMM or ‘nam?

by Jason Allen

The ominous reunion in Anaheim

I have a history of attending international tradeshows for the first time as they begin to decline. “You should have seen it five years ago; it was three times the size,” is a phrase I often hear. The phase of my career where I’ve been able to attend these shows has coincided with their transition from essential industry events to optional extras as companies question their ROI.

First it was the internet, and then COVID. These two challenges to in-person trade events have made everyone question their operating assumptions. COVID in particular has addressed the phenomenon of FOMO that has kept many shows alive over the last two decades in a real-world experiment that everyone was forced to participate in. I’ve heard many firms say ‘We’re not going this year, we’re sick of the cost and travel’ about almost every show, only to see them change their mind and attend anyway; the FOMO is strong. COVID finally answered the question ‘what happens if we don’t go?’, and often the answer was ‘not much, and we saved A LOT of money.’

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NAMM showed all the signs of a show that has contracted dramatically. I’ve seen it happen before with the MusikMesse/PL+S pairing in Frankfurt. High profile companies absent. Really, really wide aisles to hide the lack of exhibitors. Inexplicably empty areas of show floor. Exhibitors packing up early on the last day.

The Wide Open Spaces of Hall A

Now, I’m really only at NAMM because it was running so close to the main event for CX, InfoComm in Las Vegas. I’m here because I was curious to see the show, even though most of it is musical instruments. But I’d been told the pro side was definitely worth seeing, and bigger than an Australian show. This year, it wasn’t.

I’m sure most of this is down to COVID. On the musical instrument side of the show, Fender and Gibson were absent, which speaks volumes. The pro side, mainly housed in an adjacent hall to the main event, was patchy, with some major companies displaying a presence the size of a regional show. The proximity to InfoComm meant a lot of pro audio and lighting companies had to choose, and chose Vegas, where the exhibitor map and show guide seem to be the same size as the last time I attended, pre-COVID.

With the show already being a bit of a downer, the mood was definitely not improved by the highly visible face of the USA’s unique social problems. Militarised police in full camouflage carrying assault rifles patrolled the walkways between buildings and outdoor spaces. Snipers perched on the roof of the adjacent Hilton Hotel, high above the main outdoor stage. “Is this NAMM or ‘nam?” quipped one of my Australian colleagues.

As guests in their country, we foreigners spoke of this unnerving presence in hushed tones. As I toured the impressive production of the Yamaha-sponsored outdoor stage, the French national hosting us gestured to the roof of the Hilton. “See our angels up there, protecting us?” he deadpanned quietly, sharing the same dark sardonic humour as we Aussies. “That’s exactly what they need here. More guns.”

It’s impossible not to think of the unspeakable horrors that have occurred in the USA over the last few weeks when there’s such a visible reminder in front of you. The locals don’t seem phased. They were posing with photos with the ‘troops’. Fellow Australians were aghast. Turn on the news in the morning as you prep for the show, and you find out how many more mass shootings occurred overnight.

Metres from the show, my hotel sat on the intersection of two major roads. The streetscape was quintessentially US; a Walgreens on one corner, CVS on another, my hotel, a 7/11, and a strip of takeaway food and convenience stores. Dozens of homeless people slept around the 7/11 and the bus stops. Mentally ill, toothless, with nowhere to go. A ranting preacher with a megaphone harangued passers-by to accept Jesus.

There are local elections on in LA as I write this. The main issue all the candidates are addressing is homelessness. From the footage I’ve seen of the shanty towns and temporary tent cities elsewhere in LA, there are comparatively not that many homeless people here in Anaheim.

What’s this got to do with trade shows? What we’re seeing is that everyone likes getting together physically, and no-one wants to give that up. But the international show calendar is in flux as some shows fade and other rise. ISE in Barcelona was reportedly a great show, and InfoComm, which I’m about to head to, looks like it should be pretty good too. So why would we want to get together somewhere that makes us so uncomfortable? The domestic market might be OK with it, but talking to the other internationals, no-one else is.

Epilogue

Right after I finished writing the above text, I decided to go across the road to get a “coffee” at Starbucks. I ran into an Australian industry colleague doing exactly the same thing (and thanks again for shouting me the coffee). On our return, waiting at the pedestrian crossing, a very disturbed young woman stood in front of us and screamed “WHAT DO YOU SEE?” I said; “I see you’re very angry, and I think people have failed you.” Her faced changed. She then spoke quietly; “What are we going to about it?”. I said, “I think there are a lot of examples from other places around the world that might work.” She implored; “They need to stop torturing us.”

I crossed the road and she wandered off. On the other side of the road, a dishevelled young man decided to dance ecstatically into four lanes of fast-moving traffic, daring the cars to run him over. All around the intersection, throngs of families heading to Disneyland next door didn’t seem to notice. I guess you just get used to it.

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