NAMM 2019: Where’s the innovation?

I’ve just returned home from my annual trek to the Winter NAMM Show. For those not in the know, NAMM (the National Association of Music Merchants) has put-on this industry event since 1901, one ostensibly held for the benefit of the music retailers. For media folk and musicians like me, however, it’s rather like an annual opening of the doors to the Willy Wonka factory, an endless fix of dopamine blended from everything music. From DJ gear to lighting to sheet music to band instruments to drums to guitars (lots and lots and lots of guitars), if you cover music gear or tech, it’s a must-do thing to go to Anaheim each year. In 2018, I and 115,000 or so others went; this year’s numbers aren’t out yet, but I’m guessing it was even bigger this year.

I probably saw it coming even last year, but this year’s show in particular was, in sum, a let-down. Whether it’s the fact that we’re clearly between technology innovation cycles at the moment (and have been for awhile), or the fact that I’ve become a bit jaded (likely), I found myself sort of shrugging my shoulders this year.

My main reason for attending NAMM is in association with a gig separate from this blog, and my focus is always on DJ and studio gear and tech. I make the rounds over the course of three of the show’s four rather long days, looking at PA, DJ controllers, media decks, audio interfaces, DAWs, and so on.

When I first started attending NAMM, the DJ world was in the midst of a major shift from performing music played from CDs using CDJs (DJ-specific CD players), to various digital performance systems. At that time, so-called DVS approaches were already in-play, but native digital DJ controllers of the kind so incredibly prevalent today were still getting established. Today? There are hundreds and hundreds of them, competing with still-prevalent DVS, and even some CDJs and conventional vinyl turntables (although the latter two are in fact generally used mostly for DVS these days).

Moreover, nobody’s really doing anything different. Every DJ controller on the market is a variation on the same old thing. The jacks on the back for inputs or outputs might vary. The number of channels might vary. There might be lots of effects controls, or none at all. But almost every one of them follows a formula that’s starting to get a little tiresome:

  • Two rotary encoders / platters;
  • Channel faders in the middle, with EQ knobs above them, and gain knobs above those;
  • A crossfader in the middle;
  • A two row grid of soft rubber squares under the platters that do different things on different controllers, but (nearly) every controller has them;
  • Pitch sliders on the sides;
  • Effects controls up to above the platters (usually); and,
  • A few knobs or buttons elsewhere with supposedly unique capabilities.

Higher-end (more expensive) controllers have LCD or OLED displays of some type of another. Really fancy ones have touch screens even. Most require DJ software and computer; high-end ones don’t. Otherwise? They are: All. The. Same.

With DJ software, no real innovation is happening there either. Blurring the lines between performing other peoples’ music and creating music (or remixing) on-the-fly is part of most in some way or another.

On the studio technology side of the house, yes, DAW makers are tweaking this thing or that, and hardware makers are “innovating” with things like a switch to USB-C, but nobody’s pushing the envelope technologically, or doing much to lower price points (which in any other industry happens pretty much automatically as technology matures).

I’m starting to feel like the guitar guys must certainly feel. You can upgrade the pickups, you can shape the body differently or stain the wood a new shade, but at the end of the day, it’s strings and a neck and a body and pickups available in 100,000 variations from 1,000 different manufacturers (or more).

Even software, where people could let imagination run wild, just isn’t doing anything revolutionary at the moment. I winced every time a vendor showed me yet another reverb plugin and claims they’re doing something different. The world must certainly already have somewhere close to a million reverb plugins with every conceivable acoustic model or variation, and at the end of the day, they still do one single thing: add reverb, and they pretty much all do it the same way.

If you think about it, tech innovation arises out of very, very scary places that not many people, or companies, are confident enough to operate from. They are scary places from which the ideas that form carry enormous potential returns — and outsized risks. Add to this the fact that innovation and vision don’t come easily to most people; it’s the reason Steve Jobs is so revered. (Whether he deserves all the credit he gets is a separate debate.)

And speaking of, this is the same conundrum that must certainly be facing tech stalwarts like Apple. If you innovate too far, you run the risk of alienating your base (and pissing off your shareholders when your failures are spectacular and visible, as they would be with Apple in particular). In the music industry, the potential costs of developing, say, an entirely new concept in DJ controllers with as-yet unseen approaches and innovations would be quite high, and a failure in the market would be considerably higher still — probably enough to put any of the companies in this space into bankruptcy.

This alone is the likely reason why I’ve not seen anything truly new, truly innovative, truly revolutionary at NAMM in years. (I exaggerate here, but only slightly.) And it’s why, while I will travel to NAMM 2020 next January, I don’t expect to see a single thing that makes me go, “Wow!” Instead, I’m confident I’ll see more DJ controllers that do more of the same. Audio interfaces that… Well, interface audio. And reverb plugins that… Add reverb.

And oh yeah, thousands and thousands of guitars with strings, a neck, a body, and pickups — in infinite varieties of shades and finishes.

NAMM is dead. Long live NAMM.