NAMM, world’s largest music instrument and equipment show, debuts free all-virtual Believe in Music week

The reconfigured 2021 NAMM Show will go on — make that, go online — this week. It will do so with a temporary new name, Believe in Music, and some of the most dramatic changes in the history of the world’s biggest annual trade show for the music, sound and event technology industries.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, NAMM announced last August it was canceling its 2021 show as an in-person event and would instead pivot online. Believe in Music, which runs Monday through Friday, will serve as an interactive community center and marketplace for musical instrument and technology creators and manufacturers to connect with each other, buyers, sellers, musicians, and fans.

Its goal is “to unify and support the people who bring music to the world.”

The all-virtual Believe in Music is a first for the 120-year-old NAMM — short for the Carlsbad-based National Association of Music Merchants — whose 2020 show at the Anaheim Convention Center drew more than 115,000 people from 120 countries.

Going online is not the only first this year for the feisty nonprofit. Its previous shows in Anaheim were exclusively for NAMM members and the public could not buy tickets at any price. Believe in Music, conversely, will open its virtual doors to one and all — and admission for all five days will be absolutely free.

“I think it’s a great approach. During all this craziness with COVID, and in the world at large, everyone can focus on music,” said James “J.C.” Curleigh, the president of Nashville-based Gibson Brands, which makes the Gibson, Epiphone and Kramer guitar lines, and various other products.

“Even six months ago, an online NAMM Show wouldn’t have worked,” Curleigh continued. “Now, people are ready for it and we’re excited to be rolling out new products at the show.”

Equally enthusiastic is acclaimed luthier Andy Powers, a partner at El Cajon’s Taylor Guitars, whose co-founders on Monday announced they had transferred full ownership of the company to Taylor’s 1,200 employees.

Like Gibson, Yamaha and other companies, Taylor — which experienced unprecedented product demand in 2020 — will debut new product lines at Believe in Music, just as it would at a normal NAMM Show. And on Thursday, Taylor is releasing “I Know What Love Is,” an all-star song that features such Taylor-playing artists as Zac Brown, San Diego Grammy Award-winner Jason Mraz, KT Tunstall, Keith Goodwin and several dozen other artists, including Powers.

Net proceeds will benefit MusiCares, which operates under the auspices of the Grammy Awards and provides financial and medical assistance to musicians in need. Taylor is partnering with the NAMM Foundation and Netwerk Music Group to promote the song and its accompanying video.

“Believe in Music is not the NAMM Show we all know and love,” Powers said. “But it’s another way to get together as a community and enjoy each other’s company. And it’s been wonderful to watch the way NAMM has made something new during a time of really dire circumstances.

“There’s a definition of ‘community’ a ‘a path you continue to show up on.’ I’ll miss not being able to go to the NAMM Show in Anaheim to see all these friends and industry cohorts in person. But we are still part of the NAMM Community and will be there with virtual content on different platforms.”

Those sentiments are shared by Yamaha Corp. of America President Tom Sumner, who said his company will definitely finish in the black this year after having global earnings of around $4 billion in 2019.

“Making this year’s NAMM Show free and virtual is the best way to get people involved,” Sumner said. “Joe Lamond has done a great job, not just with NAMM but with the industry overall. Early on with the pandemic, there was so much confusion and NAMM really helped guide the music industry through the Paycheck Protection Program and the CARES Act. NAMM’s guidance probably kept a lot of folks in business.”

Such praise is welcome music to the ears of Joe Lamond, NAMM’s CEO and president since 2001.

He proudly notes that this week’s Believe in Music will host nearly 200 online professional development sessions, along with a slew of events for musicians and specialists in audio production and music and entertainment technology. And he points to returning events that are NAMM Show favorites.

These include — both coming on Friday — the 36th annual NAMM TEC Awards and the ninth annual She Rock Awards, whose honorees include The Go-Go’s, drum ace Cindy Blackman Santana and former San Diegan Nancy Wilson of Heart.

Believe in Music homepage

Believe in Music, NAMM’s free online music instrument and technology event, will be hosted by the virtual platform company Swapcard.

Garth Brooks and Melissa Etheridge

Lamond will conduct multiple livestreamed Believe in Music interviews with such stars as Garth Brooks (Thursday) and Melissa Etheridge (Friday). The two are the 2021 NAMM Music for Life honorees. Lamond will speak with them, and other Believe in Music participants, online from Gnarlywood studio in Carlsbad.

“In hindsight, especially looking now at where we are in mid-January, moving to a free online event seems like the easiest decision ever,” Lamond said.

“The hard part was coming to grips with what being a free online event means for the NAMM Show — an event that hasn’t been canceled since (skipping) two years during World War II — and the revenue impact being free would have for our ability to fund the music charities we support.”

How different is staging an all-virtual event from a real-time NAMM Show? Very.

“What we are doing with Believe in Music,” Lamond said,” is equivalent to going to the factory of C.F. Martin & Company — which has been making acoustic guitars since 1833 — and saying: ‘We’re not making guitars anymore; we’re making jet engines!’

“Our team at NAMM has had to reinvent ourselves and help our exhibitors build virtual display booths for Believe in Music. We don’t know what to expect. We’re building the event for 150,000 people online, and we don’t know if we’ve overshot or undershot it — or if we’ll get more global participation than the NAMM Show usually does.”

Can Believe in Music break even as a free virtual event?

“Not even close,” Lamond replied.When all is said and done — I want to phrase this very carefully — the virtual show is not (going to be) profitable.”

So, why do it?

“As a bridge to the 2022 NAMM Show,” he said. “Everyone is looking at these virtual events as bridges to getting back to physical events. The pandemic made it impossible to produce the winter NAMM Show this year and that has resulted in a significant loss of revenue for NAMM.”

The global music equipment and technology industry had revenues of $18 billion in 2019, according to NAMM. Figures are not yet available for 2020, when sales plummeted for audio, lighting and stage production companies stilled by the shutdown of concerts, festivals and nearly all live events. At the same time, sales for guitars, keyboards and home recording gear have soared, as more and more housebound people turn to music. But the market for school band instruments all but evaporated.

Musician Annie Clark, whose stage name is St. Vincent, and NAMM honcho Joe Lamond

Musician Annie Clark, whose stage name is St. Vincent, is interviewed by National Association of Music Merchants’ honcho Joe Lamond at the 2016 NAMM Show’s opening day at the Anaheim Convention Center. Garth Brooks and Melissa Etheridge will be honored at the 2021 NAMM Show, which will be held entirely online because of the coronavirus pandemic.

(Photo by Jesse Grant/Getty Images for NAMM )

A year of unique challenges

“A year ago at the 2020 winter NAMM show, the industry had enormous momentum. Then, just a few months later, everything came grinding to a halt, literally and figuratively, and production closed down,” said Gibson Brands honcho Curleigh.

“But as we went through the pandemic, there was this burst of ‘COVID creativity,’ demand went through the roof and we couldn’t make enough guitars. We did amazing online sales. We’re adding extra production shifts and will more than finish in the black.”

Fender Guitars, Gibson’s biggest competitor, saw its sales soar 17% during the pandemic, and — after temporary factory shutdowns, furloughs and pay cuts — the company expects its 2020 sales to top $700 million, up from $600 million in 2019.

Yamaha, whose sales have also surged, is buoyed by some unexpected trends that developed as a result of the pandemic.

“One of the good things is that a lot of the people buying guitars, keyboards and recoding gear are new players, and that’s definitely exciting” Yamaha Corp. of America President Sumner said. “And, anecdotally, they seem to be coming from every demographic.

“We’re pretty bullish about 2021, especially here in the U.S., because we haven’t been able to meet the demand yet for those ‘stay at home’ instrument and recording equipment categories. And we think the demand for school band instruments will come back in the fall. The one area that is unclear is (concert) touring gear. That doesn’t look so hopeful, at least early in the year. But, for the rest of our products, we think it will be a pretty strong year.”

Alas, with festivals and concert tours at a standstill, the sales and rental demand for live sound, lighting and staging equipment has plummeted. And while online sales have surged, in-person purchases have tanked because of pandemic-fueled store shutdowns in most states.

Guitar Center, the nation’s biggest chain with 300 stores, filed for for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in November, in part because former and potential customers are staying at home. Moreover, a number of national leaders in the concert industry have told the Union-Tribune that the live music events are unlikely to return until this fall or next year in any meaningful way.

“Some NAMM members had record sales in 2020, while others are barely holding on,” Lamond said.

“The 2008 recession was felt evenly by our members. The pandemic has been felt unevenly — and devastatingly so. We have parts of the industry that are thriving and whose only issue is: ‘How do we get more inventory to sell?’ At the same time, live events have been shut down completely — they went to zero — and those companies are on verge of bankruptcy and barely holding on, as is the case for some school-music instrument manufacturers. So, you had such a strange year that saw some companies thrive, some do okay and some that were horrible devastated.

“I think the pandemic has set up trends and that the shift to online (sales) was important, especially at a time of quarantine. Each NAMM member’s situation is unique. And I would chalk those situations up to market forces at play, which are perhaps less caused by the pandemic directly but maybe accelerated by the pandemic. I can’t wait to see live music safely return…”

Eager to help NAMM members rebound, Lamond and his staff of 63 are working to hold the 2021 summer NAMM Show in July in Nashville as an in-person event. His staff has retained its full, pre-pandemic size, thanks to the careful business practices to which NAMM adheres.

By any standard, the fact Believe in Music is taking place at all is a victory.

Most other major trade shows were postponed or canceled in 2020. Their fate in 2021 is unclear. Events that fell through last year include the Musikmesse in Frankfurt, Germany, and the NAMM Musikmesse Russia in Moscow, which has been rescheduled for September. Other annual confabs, such as last week’s Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas, moved online as paid ticketed events, but in scaled-down form.

“I would never call Believe in Music a NAMM Show,” Lamond stressed. “A NAMM Show covers all 1.6 million square feet of the Anaheim Convention Center and more space beyond. … This is a substitute for the NAMM Show, a parallel event, but in no way is it a replacement.”

Perhaps not. But a creative stop-gap measure? Absolutely.

Believe in Music will air online Monday through Friday on On Thursday and Friday, three additional online TV channels will provide hundreds of hours of specially created new content. The main channel, Believe TV, will air a variety of predominantly livestreamed programs hosted online by Lamond.

Artist TV will feature performances and interviews with such guests as Jackson Browne, singer Cherie Curie of The Runaways and bass great (and UC San Diego and Crawford High alum) Nathan East. Gear TV will showcase new products, all virtually.

It’s a far cry from just one year ago, as Lamond readily attested.

“The 2020 NAMM Show had record attendance and exhibiting revenues, the weather was great, and everything worked,” he said. “It was a truly glorious gathering of love, peace and music. It just could not have been any better. I should have retired right after that. Dang it!”

NAMM’s Believe in Music Week

When: Monday through Friday (times vary daily)

Tickets: Free for all who sign up online

Online registration: