Behind the Setlist’s own Colin Poulton is on the ground at Summer NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) in Nashville July 13 through July 15. Check back for our daily recaps and make sure to follow us on Facebook for live streams from the show floor.

Day one of Summer NAMM just wrapped and it was nothing short of incredible. I’m already on record kvelling about Nashville for Behind the Setlist and I’m happy to do it again. Summer NAMM is just one of the many events that draws people from all over the world to my fair city.

I walked in with no expectations, but a quick glance at the events list for the day as well as a little research that I had done gave me a loose framework for a few things I didn’t want to miss. Every stop and interaction I had today taught me a lesson about the state of the music industry and as someone who spends time in the belly of the beast, I hope that you take this article as a rebuttal to the others talking about how music is “dying” or “losing value.”

After a delicious breakfast and not quite enough French press, I headed downtown to the shiny new (to me at least) convention center. A friend of mine commented that it was a noted improvement from a previous NAMM he had attended at the old convention center in town a few years ago. Music City Center is so big that it’s also holding another giant convention. I snuck a picture standing about ten feet inside the adjacent National Association of College and University Food Services convention and let me tell you, the security lady had her eye on me the entire time.

Lesson Program Do’s and Don’ts

I made it onto the convention floor to catch the last two thirds of an event at the NAMM Idea Center for a talk titled Lesson Program Do’s and Don’ts. I dabble in private instruction and a lot of the subject matter dealt with the minutiae of running a lesson studio like rates, lesson length, and make-up lessons, but Carol Cook, the speaker, suggested a demographic that she felt studios miss out on: special needs students. She told the story of a 24-year-old man named Geoffrey Mikol. Mikol has Down syndrome and was interested in guitar lessons—he had coordination problems but was motivated. Through the lessons, Mikol found something that is sorely ignored in this world: beauty. In the end, this discovery of beauty turned into a passion for photography. Selling photos at local fairs and farmers markets turned into a full-fledged gallery, which you can find online here.

Mikol’s story was profound and told me that music was not an endeavor undertaken in vain. It’s all too easy to overlook the joy of the simple beauty of music and personally, I’m inspired now to start looking again. Cook related this to the studio setting by reminding us that odds are, among a staff of teachers in a studio, at least one has someone in their life who has special needs, thus one running a studio shouldn’t necessarily fear this demographic. Special needs students often go unnoticed in the marketing attempts of independent music studios, and Cook’s attention to this shows that conversation on who has access to music education isn’t finished and is still evolving.

Casio Booth

I bounced from the Idea Center to the Casio booth, where they had a few new lines of keyboards to showcase. While we all have our image of that Casio keyboard at Goodwill going for $25 that you almost buy every other time you’re in there, don’t make the mistake of judging Casio solely on that. Casio is a technology company first and foremost in the midst of truly innovative expansion. I tried a few keyboards, although not very proficiently as I am a guitarist by trade. I was impressed with every instrument I tried. They are making strides in the home piano game and I played two impressive instruments for different types of home pianists.

One is catered to the casual player and new technology has allowed for more authentic sounds that surround you instead of coming out of two speakers panned hardly right or left. I felt like I was sitting at a real piano. I was even more impressed with their grand piano hybrid, designed in a collaboration with C. Bechstein, which had real hammers that triggered one of three beautiful sounds. Their goal for that model was for someone in a different room of the house to hear the keyboard and think it was a real grand piano. I gotta say, it did just that.

What took the cake, though, was a $99 keyboard akin to that one sitting at Goodwill, but with modern sounds and Dance Mode. Dance Mode turns the keyboard into what seems like a very stripped-down version of a sampling program like Ableton. You can use the lower octave of the instrument to trigger various samples or dynamic changes in the music while still playing melodies on the higher registers. To me, this is the obvious future gateway drug of aspiring electronic musicians, who I must say (with very objective prescription lenses) are musicians too. Casio is an example of a company that is expanding and exploring new technology but not at the expense of the consumer. It’s a welcome practice from this consumer’s perspective.

Black 35 Guitars, Avedissian Pickups & Black Arts Toneworks

From there, I found myself at the booth of Black 35, a guitar builder from New Jersey. Here was an example of the power of collaboration and how small companies working together can compete and be at the same trade show as an industry monolith like Fender or Gibson. Black 35’s booth had a few guitars featuring pickups from Atlanta winding company Avedissian Pickups and the only pedal in the signal chain was a fuzz pedal that was a collaboration between Black 35 and Black Arts Toneworks, a boutique pedal company. In that way, three companies were able to be present and thus be in the conversation at NAMM. The gear all sounds killer, by the way. This is a great time to mention that you should be following both me and Behind the Setlist on Instagram and Twitter while keeping your eyes glued to Behind the Setlist on Facebook, where I will be manning Facebook Live. You can find a video of this tasty tonal trifecta there along with a few other great moments!

Chris Poland and Stone Tone

I left the Black 35 booth in search of Chris Poland, formerly of Megadeth, now guitarist for rock/jazz fusion band Ohm. Somehow, I had heard that he was playing somewhere at NAMM at some point and made my way to the Stone Tone booth after some internet sleuthing. I stumbled upon him in the middle of his demo session, which made me want to leave NAMM and go home and practice. Chris was gracious after he finished his demo and told me and a friend of mine that the secret to his tone was a tremolo block made by Stone Tone. He then showed us a small piece of stone that sits in the guts of his Floyd Rose tremolo. He attributed his sustain and tone to this piece of gear and said that part of how he got involved with the company was the way that the owner truly believed in his product. It makes sense and it was clear that the owner’s belief inspired a genuine one in Poland. After all, the bridge is a point of contact between the body and string of the guitar and it would make sense that higher quality material at that point of the instrument would be extremely beneficial.

Classic Audio Effects

I encountered more innovation as the day went on. I was particularly impressed by Classic Audio Effects’ pedal design that facilitated an expression wheel instead of a normal knob of pedal with a sweep. It worked well for volume swells but it really shone on their delay and pitch shifting pedals. A bystander commented while I was experimenting with this pedal that you could do things with it that you would normally need to bend down and take your hands off of the instrument to do. These things are mostly whale noises and other ambient things, but my favorite notes have always been the ones that aren’t really notes. Their analog delay is on my wishlist for sure. Established companies like Wampler are continuing to also make strides and push the boundaries of their craft. Their demo board was almost bigger than some stages in downtown Nashville, and you can expect to see some more coverage from there tomorrow.

All in all, today was very encouraging for someone who makes his dough with a guitar. Every stop I made was another story, another triumph for someone chasing their dream, and it helped me frame how I view mine. To the naysayers of the future of music, whatever the genre is, you should take a moment to instead thank the universe or the higher power of your choosing for the life you’ve been given, because as an anonymous tour manager once said, “you’re not really in the music industry until you want to get out of it.” If that’s you and you find that you’ve still lost the plot, it calls for a changing of the guard and more triumphs from the next wave of builders and dreamers. Today was about ideas; tomorrow will be more gear driven.

Be sure to follow Behind the Setlist and follow me at @colinpoulton and I’ll try to find how many strange noises I can make for you. Cheers.


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