What should I be doing instead of this?
July 20th, 2009 By Ric Hickey | Music | Posted In: Reviews, MidPoint Music Festival

My Time in NAMM

Tags: NAMM
CityBeat Advertising Director Brian Kitzmiller and I went to Nashville for the weekend to cover this year’s Summer NAMM show. NAMM stands for the National Association of Music Merchants and they actually host two big conventions each year. Generally, the Winter NAMM fest is a bigger event held in California, but this year’s Summer NAMM show in Nashville is no small event. The premier music industry trade show, most in the business consider participation in NAMM to be crucial to the development and sales of their wares and services.

Held in the Nashville Convention Center over a three-day weekend, there is also a big kick-off party on Thursday night to get things started. Brian and I were already looking forward to the Thursday night party when we received word from our friends at Willis Music that they got us into a private party hosted by Pearl Drums on the same night.

At the Nashville Hilton we met up with Willis VP Dan Herbert and crew and boarded a chartered bus to the Pearl Drums warehouse. On the bus we met Pearl Product Manager Glen Caruba and Sales Coordinator Kay Mitchell. The bus soon filled up with other industry reps while Glen and Kay served us all ice cold beers from a cooler in the front of the bus.

On the bus, Herbert explained to me that this evening’s Pearl party was for AIMM (the Alliance of Independent Music Merchants), “an elite group of businesses” that operates outside the corporate realm of the big box stores. This network of independent merchants has representatives here from all over the country and Pearl has invited them all to a private party to display the newest Pearl products and offer them many one-time-only deals. Our private bus rolled confidently through Nashville’s rush hour traffic and 15 minutes later we pulled up in front of the building that houses Pearl’s offices and warehouse. As we disembarked in front of the building there was a quintet of Pearl employees there, playing an urgent figure on Pearl marching drums. Inside we were greeted by the sound of a 7-piece band playing Latin Jazz Rock that highlighted a whole array of Pearl drums and percussion instruments. The huge warehouse echoed with the sound of their sparkling rendition of Horace Silver’s classic “Song For My Father.”

The free drinks continued to flow as Pearl reps spread out to answer questions and provide spontaneous tours of the warehouse. The entire Pearl staff was incredibly friendly and hospitable. I kept thinking to myself, “It must be weird for them to have dozens of strangers wandering through their workplace drinking beer.” Snacks were served and outside there was a dunking booth where you could take a shot at dunking Pearl’s good-natured Credit Manager Jason Bean. Overall the vibe here was really positive. All the Pearl people seemed genuinely happy to have us there and answer all our questions.

The latest Pearl product to make a splash on the drum market is the revolutionary new kick pedal called the Eliminator Demon Drive and Pearl reps were justifiably eager to show it off. All the Willis reps said the Demon Drive was selling so well that they had trouble keeping it in stock and all their stores had it on back order. The Pearl guys corroborated these reports, saying they couldn’t make them and ship them out fast enough to keep up with all the orders they were receiving.

At the insistence of several Pearl employees, Brian and I took turns sitting behind a beautiful gold metal flake Pearl kit and taking the Demon Drive for a test run. Immediately it was apparent to me that this unbelievably smooth kick pedal will be considered the new gold standard. I’m not that great of a drummer myself, but playing the Demon Drive made my drumming better instantly. It’s hard to explain it better than that! I mean, as soon as I played it, this pedal made my footwork smoother and better than it had ever been before.

Kitzmiller, a drummer with 24 years experience, agrees: “The first kick pedal I had was a Pearl but I wasn‘t crazy about it. The Demon Drive pedal has changed my mind about Pearl! I’ve played Ludwig, DW, Tama … It’s the best pedal I’ve ever played. It responds to every move your foot makes. It’s incredible.”

One of the Demon Drive’s innovations is the use of high-end skateboard ball bearings. I was really taken by this fact because I know so many drummers who are skaters and vice versa. Another recent development that Pearl reps were eager to inform us about was Pearl’s new lifetime guarantee on everything they sell. A remarkable testament to the faith they have in their product and craftsmanship.

After the warehouse tour everybody helped themselves to a huge buffet supplied by Jim & Nick’s Barbecue. This was some of the best barbecue chicken I have ever tasted! During dinner, the band played some more and in between tunes the Pearl staff raffled off a bunch of their wares including a handful of full drum kits. Mingling, I met up with Greg Caruso again who told me that part of his job is helping to design and test drive Pearl prototypes. A touring drummer in his free time who has worked with Glen Frey and Jimmy Buffett, among others, Caruso spoke of scribbling design ideas on napkins and scrap paper. A proud participant in the whole production process, Caruso has seen many of his ideas come to fruition and when on tour he has the pleasure and privilege to work exclusively with Pearl prototypes.

After a great meal and quite a few beers, our party reluctantly boarded the bus back to town.

Dropped off back at the Hilton, we were only a few short blocks from “The Hang” — the NAMM kick-off party being held in a ballroom at the Renaissance Hotel. Accompanied by Paul Finke, one of the main buyers for Willis, Brian and I made our way through Nashville’s lower Broadway area, past the legendary Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge and the world famous Ryman Auditorium, and soon arrived at our destination. The uphill walk in the heat of the summer evening just about wore us out, but our spirits were revived by more free booze at “The Hang." A band played in the darkened ballroom while we made the rounds and said “hi” to a few people. Paul’s energy and spirit seemed boundless as he recognized and cheerfully conversed with dozens of friends in the biz.

After some time I made a suggestion to Brian: “How ‘bout we go ’round the corner to The Ryman and see Ralph Stanley?” Brian had never been to The Ryman before so he immediately perked up and emphatically embraced the idea. We were only a few blocks away and soon found ourselves seated in the center of the Ryman balcony for a truly moving performance by Dr. Stanley and his band, The Clinch Mountain Boys. This was my third or fourth time seeing Ralph Stanley and it was probably the best performance I have seen him give. Brian was in awe of the whole experience and it was the perfect end to our first day in Nashville.

Friday was the first day of the convention and after a quick breakfast we hurried downtown to check out the show.

We donned our laminated badges and ducked inside the Nashville Convention Center to find it fairly bursting with booths and vendors, musicians and merchants. I may be prone to sensory overload in scenes like this because, as an amateur musician myself, I felt like a kid in a candy store. Brian and I tried to stick together but soon found that we needed to separate in order to cover more ground. Brian is a drummer and I’m a guitarist so I guess we naturally were drawn to our own separate interests at the convention. We would excitedly reconvene every 15 minutes or so with lively tales of literally hundreds of cool new instruments and accessories.

Our friends from Willis sent text messages to Brian every so often when they wanted to draw our attention to something interesting. One of the first things we saw and really dug was the JamHub silent rehearsal studio.

Smaller than your old 4-track and lighter than most effects pedals, the JamHub allows up to 7 musicians to plug in, don headphones and even enjoy individual mixes of a completely silent rehearsal experience. This device is a godsend for musicians working in urban areas where lugging gear is a major burden. But the primary appeal here is the opportunity that JamHub provides for musicians rehearsing in close quarters like a small apartment, dorm room or Mom‘s basement. Even in a full band setting with acoustic drums, the other musicians and singers can adjust the volume and customize the mix to hear more or less of what they need in their individual headphone mix. With three different models starting at just $299.99, the JamHub is a revelation and one of the more innovative new products we spotted at NAMM.

With our heads still spinning with all the new possibilities the JamHub provides, Brian and I approached the POWER Wrist Builders’ booth. In short, the Wrist Builders are drumsticks made of aluminum and brass weighing anywhere from 2 to 28 ounces. Not for actual drumming, these are recommended for daily warm ups and practice. Creator and designer Terry Loose first handed Brian a regular pair of drumsticks and instructed him to play a little on a rubber mat. Proceeding through a series of the Wrist Builders increasing in weight as he went along, Brian’s eyes lit up. He described it as a sort of work-out for a drummer’s hand and wrist muscles. I thought this was a brilliant innovation and I marveled at the fact that no one had thought of it before: really heavy sticks for working out and warming up the muscles in a drummer’s hands and wrists! Brilliant in its simplicity.

Elsewhere we saw dozens of new products, including portable amplifiers, crazy colored guitar strings, skeleton-hand guitar hooks, gig bags, DJ equipment, chord-forming capos, effects pedals, a banjo with bass strings, a black Flying V ukulele, and a dazzling display of custom-made guitars, built in various shapes and sizes, including Egyptian gods, green dragons, a Tommy Gun, and a giant spider replete with all eight legs and, inexplicably, a full head of long black hair. Crazy eye candy everywhere at this thing!

As a Sponsorship Coordinator for the MidPoint Music Festival, Kitzmiller kicked ass at NAMM. Making the rounds like a marketing shark, and with some vital assistance from Bill Phipps and the other Willis Music guys, Brian snared a number of crucial sponsorships for this year’s festival. Go, B!

In summary, I just gotta send out another great big thank you to Dan Herbert and Bill Phipps and everybody else from Willis Music who made this wonderful experience possible for me and Brian. We had an incredible time and we’re already scheming for an angle to make it to next year’s NAMM Convention!

Thanks, guys!
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