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Showing Out

Another winter, another spate of musical instrument shows. They mean a lot for business, but what do they mean to music as a whole?

AS I WRITE this, a jumbo jet is about to whisk me away from the frozen wastes of England, and toward the relative warmth of Los Angeles. Not because I'm going on holiday (though that might be an idea), but because there's an international exhibition going on in California that needs covering.

As I look down on snow-covered Britain, there'll be plenty of food for thought - particularly as the music industry is now entering a critical phase in its development, a phase which both sides of that industry (instruments and records, for want of a better distinction) will have to deal with in close collaboration with each other.

It's showtime again. The NAMM Winter Market, which takes place every January in Anaheim, LA, has been growing in importance over the last few years, to the extent that it now threatens the summer NAMM show as the supreme event in the American music industry calendar.

It's a big show, and there should be plenty of big things to see. Like Yamaha's long-awaited replacement for the DX7, Casio's new range of sampling keyboards (see this month's Mission Impossible competition), and the full public unveiling of three instruments reviewed comprehensively in the magazine you're now holding: the Stepp DG1 guitar, the Oberheim DPX1 sample replay module, and the Sequential Studio 440 drum machine/sampler/sequencer.

After the sun of Anaheim, of course, comes the wintry grey gloom of Frankfurt. Now, I happen rather to like the Frankfurt Musikmesse, partly because it's better organised than any American show, and partly because its added length (five days as opposed to Anaheim's paltry three) means you get a bit longer to survey what's going on around you and place it all in context.

But whatever the personal preferences of an English journalist, the fact is that Anaheim and Frankfurt are business shows first and foremost. They're about "product", "units", "market share" and "budget". The subject of music hardly intrudes at all.

Wandering around one of these shows with a Press badge on is like walking round a Conservative party conference with a red rose in your buttonhole. Few people want to talk to you, and fewer still want to lose valuable selling time as you casually discuss the state of modern music, take the odd snapshot which you probably won't have space to print, and steal as much free drink as you can lay your hands on.

This attitude (theirs, not mine) is perfectly understandable. Few exhibitors go to a show like Anaheim or Frankfurt without sales figures at the front of their minds, and it would be foolish to expect them to behave otherwise.

In fact, it's a relatively simple matter to separate commercial considerations from technical and musical ones at trade shows like the two I've just been describing. Of course the manufacturers want to sell more instruments, and so do the retailers. But ultimately, the better instruments become, the more people will start to make music. And the more people start to make music, the better the business will do.

What is more serious is the result of applying the same commercial thinking to the matter of music itself. At a time when modern popular music has reached what I can only describe as a state of stale mediocrity, it's disheartening to see events like the New Music Seminar (a sort of record industry equivalent of Frankfurt or Anaheim) degenerate into little more than a glorified yearly market, where people come to buy, sell, and possibly listen to a minute or two of music.

So, while it may not be too dangerous for the trade to treat musical instruments as "product", doing the same to artists' creativity is something much more sinister - and potentially damaging.

Because if pop music gets duller and duller, fewer people will want to take up playing it. And then the musical instrument side of the industry will have to take a long, hard look at itself, and wonder what it's done wrong.

Food for thought, like I say.

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Music Technology - Copyright: Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.


Music Technology - Feb 1987

Editorial by Dan Goldstein

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