According to the great Scottish economist, Adam Smith: 'People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.' Then again, as the great American philosopher Ira Gershwin said: It ain't necessarily so. And if it's exceptions to Smith's conspiracy theory of trade get-togethers that you're looking for, how about NAMM? As an example of a trade association acting in a way that is entirely benevolent to both its members and their customers, it's pretty hard to beat. The 8,000 plus members get one of the world's best music trade exhibitions and numerous other services, while the public gets to play more music.
Created in 1901, as The National Association of Piano Dealers of America, in 1919 the organisation renamed itself The National Association of Music Merchants, chosen because it better reflected the wider range of instruments then being sold by its members. But though it is still called NAMM, that is no longer an acronym, as the organisation's official title was, quite recently, changed to the International Music Products Association - but more of that later.
Say NAMM to most Brits and their eyes light-up at the prospect of a well-earned, post-Christmas holiday in sunny California. Pitched at precisely that point in the year when the winter seems endless, flights are cheap, business isn't exactly brisk and prices are low, you start wondering why someone from the UK wouldn't be going. And this year, with the dollar nearing two to the Pound, it's a pretty safe bet that the aisles of Anaheim are going to be ringing to Paul Revere's alarm, "The British are coming". You bet they are!
Which will be good news to Joe Lamond, NAMM's President and CEO, who has been at the forefront of the organisation's promotions since he joined, in 1998, as Director of Market Development. It was he who instigated the Weekend Warriors programme, designed to lure affluent middle aged baby-boomers back to music making and which he brought with him from his previous job in MI retail. If that were Mr Lamond's sole contribution to NAMM's recent glories it would be impressive, but the association has launched a stream of highly successful initiatives, including the Sesame Street Music Works, the "Einstein Advocacy Kit", which gives communities trying to save local music programmes information on music and intelligence research and the 2003 "NAMM Concert Honoring Sir Elton John: A Benefit For Music Education," in conjunction with Yamaha, which raised $330,000 for music education. The list of NAMM's programmes under Mr Lamond's presidency is impressive.
Having already had a successful pre-NAMM career in MI retail, Joe Lamond is a persuasive and fluent talker - a natural salesman. And wasn't there talk of him having also been a professional musician? 'Yes, I went into retail from having been a musician - it was the parent thing, "you must have a day job" - though I think the words they actually used was "something to fall back on," he laughs. 'But actually in college I was a forestry major. There were two paths: one was the outdoors, with the plan of being a forestry ranger sitting in a fire tower somewhere, while the other was Rock and Roll drummer with girls screaming and... well, you can see which path won-out!'
Any bands we might have heard of?
'I was a drummer who had brushes with success - you know how that goes. I was in a band that had one hit - Tommy Tutone, who had a pretty big hit with one of those phone number songs - 8675309. I joined probably after he'd had his heyday and the tours started to get smaller, the money got smaller and I became the production manager and the tour manager. I'd been in retail parallel to this, working as a bookkeeper and salesman and the stores were really good, letting me go for a month or two to tour. So I had this little bit of business background and I realised that the business guys on those tours make more than the drummers do, so that's how I later became a production manager for Todd Rundgren, who was one of my idols. I was with Todd for about six years and it was also about that time that I started working with Skip Maggiora, of Skip's Music in Sacramento - two key guys who became my mentors.
'The two worked parallel for a while, then Skip said I had to get serious with one or the other and at that point I decided to stay with the retail side of things and, as my parents would say, "get a real job".
'Skip was one of the really progressive market-building retailers. He understood, being in a medium sized market like Sacramento, that he had to do more than just harvest the crop of customers. He had to go out and create new customers and the Weekend Warrior programme was an offshoot of kids programmes that we had. It was working really well for us, getting a lot of new people in and making a lot of money from that new demographic. About that time, NAMM saw what we were doing and came to Skip's Music, asking if they could license the programme from us to let other retailers do it. We said sure, did a deal and basically templated our programme so that other dealers could use it.'
During that time, he got to know the team an NAMM and when VH-1 recruited NAMM's market development man to start its Save The Music campaign, Joe Lamond seemed the ideal person to fill his shoes.
Asked whether he can put any figures on the results of the various programmes NAMM has run in recent years, he admits it's difficult. 'It's hard to measure which one programme worked. Whether it's Weekend Warriors, or Sesame, that reached 10 million kids a week teaching them and their parents how to make music, or the music/brain research, which was always in the media. Actually, that was the important bit: it appeared as a news story. This wasn't coming from a trade association saying it's good for you because it helps us to make more money, it was appearing as a series of good news stories. Though it's hard to say which one of those things worked, overall we've seen a steady growth in the demand for music products and a high per capita spend on music products compared to other countries. We believe having an association that day in and day out is creating programmes and pushing that to the media has a direct impact on per capita spending and demand.'
Moving on to the nature of NAMM, it seems that what was once an American organisation, primarily there to serve an American membership, has begun to reach beyond national borders under Mr Lamond's direction. There are the regular "Global Economic Summits" of which there have so far been five and there is the international growth of the NAMM shows themselves, notably the Winter Anaheim event, which has become a worldwide magnet. Then there was the significant change of name, in 1995. What had precipitated that, in particular and what is NAMM up to?
'I think the change of name came about as a result of the growth in the percentage of membership that resided outside the United States - it's about 20 per cent now.'
So what is it that overseas members get from membership - just the shows?
'I think that's it, ultimately. We've made some good strides in sharing some of the market development programmes and we have professional development programmes that can be taken over the Internet, so I think there's a growing portfolio of benefits for retailers outside the US, but primarily the reason to join NAMM from outside is the show and I understand that.'
But does NAMM have ambitions beyond its own natural boundaries - witnessed by its "Summits"?
'I think the Summits have been effective on a couple of fronts. One, is just relationship-building. They're not very big - just 100 key industry leaders - but those 100 influence the majority of the business around the world, so for them to have the friendships that have developed has helped them with their businesses. But the sharing of ideas - the sharing of challenges - has been the second most important thing out of the summit. On the table now is the combined wisdom of where they think the industry ought to go.
'But one of the most important things that I've learned over the past few years is that what works in one country won't necessarily be applicable to another country unless it's customised for their own market. We have to respect that there are differences, and I am hypersensitive on that point, given the way some people view America at the moment. Luckily, our theme is music, which crosses a lot of borders, but if we are going to fulfil our mission of having more people pay music, what works in America will have to be really customised to work in, say, China. Similarly, the things we learn from you guys in the UK or from other countries have to be customised to work in the American market.'
So NAMM isn't set on world domination, then.
'One of the things I've tried to do in the four years I've been here is try to define what NAMM is. Jack Welch at GE said if you couldn't explain what you did in two floors of an elevator ride, it's too complicated, so I've been trying to define exactly what NAMM is and it's an organisation that produces trade shows that provide good return on investment for the exhibitors and attendees. And then we take the revenues from those shows and re-invest them back to promote the industry and increase our members' competitive advantage. That's it - that's what we do and we've been doing for 104 years. Basically, I look at NAMM as a 104 year old start-up. Every single day we've got to earn the ability to stay in business. I think one of the most dangerous things for something as old as NAMM is complacency and you have to fight that daily.
'I look on our staff as if we were an eBay, or an Amazon - everyone's out there hustling, trying to figure out how to stay competitive, to look at the market in new ways and that's part of the reason that I spend so much time out in the field. You can't learn this from behind a desk. You have to get out there, to tour the Chinese factories and see the amazing things that are happening there, or do what I did this summer, which was to tour Germany with Gotthold Meyer. We got in his old Mercedes and we drove for eight days and he showed me Germany through his eyes, from the old, old manufacturing in Markneukirchen, to the newest - like what Heinz Thomann has done. We have to have that knowledge, that understanding.'
Having had that invaluable insight from the seventy-something perspective of the man who, arguably, is the single most important figure in the German music industry since the 1950s, did it lead him to any conclusions about differences between retailing in different countries?
'I was surprised by the similarities more than the differences and I would have to say that has been my experience in Japan, China and South America, too. There are more similarities than differences and what I saw is the desire to have that type of promotion and representation at a national level. For example, in Germany I heard from a lot of retailers that they wish they had that sort of representation at government level that would fight for them when there laws are being hammered-out for education, business and tax. They wish there as someone with a staff that was all day long talking with the media, pushing out stories about music programmes in schools, corporate bands - just that ongoing relentless approach to the media.'
There can't be many with Joe Lamond's hand-on market intelligence so can he tell us what he thinks is currently happening to the MI scene in the USA? After all, whatever it is, it seems likely that we in the UK will, as we so often do, follow suit.
'You have to look at our industry in various categories and in some ways some of these categories have absolutely nothing to do with one another. If you go into a piano and organ store, versus a high-end recording boutique shop or a Pro sound and light, or just a straight ahead combo Rock and Roll shop, like I worked in at Skip's - they're all catering to very different customers. In passing, I also think that's one of the strengths of the industry - that it's so diversified. But in general, on the macro issues, I think there's a lot of common ground. I think profitability is an issue for a lot of these guys, but demand seems to be strong - the popularity of the instruments is strong, possibly the strongest it's ever been - but the business issues of being profitable are there. It's hard to increase prices, the cost of employees, insurance and taxes all continue to go up, yet they're squeezed on price. The good news is that there's demand - but right now, if we had a weak demand and all those profit pressures, then I think we'd be in big trouble.'
Then again, as he says, it's easy to get current trading difficulties out of proportion. 'In the NAMM headquarters we have a museum that tries to capture and archive our history - we need to do that. And if I ever get overwhelmed by some of the problems we are facing, I just walk through that museum of our industry and see what our forefathers have faced as challenges. The invention of the car was slated to put the music business underground. They thought, why would anyone want to play a musical instrument if they could have a car? There were good times, like when the Beatles hit the US and sales went up, but before that, when the Russians launched Sputnik in the '50s, our music education in schools went down to nothing as all the energy was focused on math and science. You see these cycles - World War Two and World War One, when there were no new musical instruments as everything went into the war effort. I come back to my office and think, "You know what? This is nothing"'.
But back to the shows. For reasons that are possibly as much climatic as anything else, visitors from the UK have tended to flock to the Winter NAMM, neglecting the Summer shows which have recently been held in Nashville (not exactly the place you'd chose to be in high Summer, but there you go). This year that's changing, with a move to Indianapolis How does Mr Lamond define the difference between the two shows. And why leave Nashville?
'The summer show is a very different animal. It's about a third the size and serves more of a domestic market - though that is changing. But it really is focused on getting ready for the fall and holiday season. The industry told us that a second gathering was important - almost like the human side of the industry, getting together for one more time. A lot of education happens at that show, a lot of real good training goes on. We don't have any desire to grow it, either - it's more a thermostat for the industry. If they want it bigger, we can do that, if they want it smaller, we can do that, too.
'As for the move from Nashville, when we moved there, in 1993, the size was appropriate but since the industry has more than doubled, it really just didn't fit in that convention centre any more.'
Indianapolis, apparently, is also geographically ideal and, with typical NAMM industry, the association has persuaded a nationwide, Indianapolis-hosted 'battle of the bands' style competition to switch dates so that the two will now coincide.
Anaheim's timing, meanwhile, has historically fallen perilously close to that of the Frankfurt Messe, though they have begun to separate in recent years. Nonetheless, it's hard not to see the two as direct competitors - and even less hard to see why a British retailer might prefer the delights of sunny Anaheim, even over the (alleged) delights of the Kaiserstrasse. Does Mr Lamond see his show in competition with Frankfurt?
'In many ways our businesses follow along until the last step of the chain - what happens with the revenue. We both work our darnedest to produce great shows with good customer satisfaction, but we take the money and put it back into the industry and they take the money and do what they need to do as a business. But they have very good people, I respect them a lot. They are a worthy competitor and much like Sterling Ball can pick up the phone and talk with Jim D'Addario, I feel I can do that with the people there.'
But they are they competitors?
'Oh, absolutely and I'm sure they see it that way.'
And so, inevitably, to China. There is no escaping the price deflation caused by ever-cheaper imports (possibly even more of a factor in the UK, with the Chinese Yuan pegged to the US dollar). Meanwhile, it is clear that the Chinese government is not going to be content with just being the assembly plant for Western brands for very much longer. Few can fail to have noticed the recent straw in the wind purchase of IBM's PC brands by the Chinese-owned Lenovo. What is plainly on the horizon is the prospect of Chinese brands to rival the Peaveys and Yamahas. What is Joe Lamond's take on those two issues?
'It's certainly going to affect everything. As Lester Thurow, the MIT futurist who spoke at the last summit said; "Price deflation isn't a problem in the music industry. It's a problem in every industry." And to understand China... well my wife is half-Chinese, my mother in law was first generation Chinese, my father in law was an interpreter in the Korean war with US Army intelligence and I've been in martial arts for 21 years, so I have a little bit of a feel for their philosophy and one of the first and foremost things is we need to respect where they are going.
'What I am very interested in is China as a domestic market. If we look at the European and US markets, we will see steady growth, but China? I think we will see the type of growth we wish we could see in Europe and North America and so NAMM's efforts in China right now are spent on working with the retailers, sharing best practises, working with manufacturers and, most importantly, working with the Chinese educational system. We think we can help grow their domestic market by these partnerships. Whether we'd ever have a business relationship- a show in China - I don't know yet. It's on the table, but I'll be guided by what the Chinese industry decides.'
NAMM's focus on the Chinese domestic market makes sense from a manufacturer's point of view, given that much-discussed 'demographic timebomb' facing Europe and (to a lesser extent) the USA grows ever closer to detonation. But if the once seemingly endless supply of unwashed youths queuing at your door to buy fashionable musical instruments is dwindling, while a manufacturer can switch its attention to China, what does the retailer do?
'As we ride the next demographic wave we have to concentrate on the boomers. I'm 44 and I'm right in that target market. These are people who are getting to that point in their lives where they have a little extra time, they have more discretionary income than they did when they were teenagers and we want them back.'
To achieve that, NAMM is doing some intriguing things. Transpose this interview back 150 years and a musical entrepreneur might have been encouraging the development of works brass bands. Today, NAMM is doing the same with Rock music - working with Fortune magazine to find Fortune 500 companies with bands that can compete in regional heats, linked through the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in Cleveland. NAMM organises this with retailers, Fortune promotes it, the winners get to play at the Hall of Fame - it's a promotional dream.
'We can say to the Press, these are men and women working for big companies and they love the idea of being in a band with their workers. This year eBay won, which was great for us as we were taking the winners to the NAMM show, so thank God the Australian band didn't win!
'What we get is a lot of media coverage. Whether it's General Electric, or Bank of America, we get tons of press. The CEO who strapped on a guitar and played in a band with someone in the mail room - it's always a great story.'
It's almost an unfair question to ask of a man who seems to epitomise the great American "can-do" philosophy, but what does Mr Lamond think is going to be the industry's biggest potential problem over the next few years. And what can we do about overcoming it?
'The biggest challenge over the next five years will be to get people who do not think of themselves as musical to think of themselves as musical. That's what will change our industry more than anything. If we could change that one thing, that would be the biggest thing we could do.'
From a retailer's perspective, e-tailing looks like a pretty big threat, too. What is his view on that?
'Well, I go back to our museum again. In 1964 UPS really kicked-in and that was one of the first times that a store in a geographic area had to worry about another store selling to his area. That was going to be catastrophic, but they found ways to compete and this is really just an enhanced version of that. The stores that are embracing it will do well.'
He adds that even the UPS scare of 1964 had its forerunner - when the US postal service first started delivering parcels to any address. There is, as he reminds us, nothing really so new under the sun that we haven't seen at least something like it before. Faced with the sort of unquenchable optimism of Joe Lamond and his NAMM team, none of our contemporary problems seems quite so large. It may be an archetypally New World attitude - classic American optimism, but its attractions to British visitors to Anaheim seem to be growing and undeniable. It isn't just the prospect of summer sun that makes NAMM such a beacon for we Brits.