Skip navigation
After a long day on the show floor, musicians take the stage before crowds packed into the lobbies of hotels near the Anaheim Convention Center. (photo courtesy of NAMM)

Case Study: Between Rock and a Hard Place

For the National Association of Music Merchants’ annual show—a.k.a. “the rock and roll convention”—its unique planning challenges have been amplified in the post-pandemic environment. But the show-operations team has gotten creative to keep things humming.

The last week of January 2020 was a golden moment for the National Association of Music Merchants. The association’s annual show had just wrapped, bringing more than 110,000 attendees and 2,200 exhibitors to the Anaheim Convention Center—unprecedented numbers for NAMM.

Six weeks later, the Covid pandemic struck, forcing NAMM 2021 to be held virtually. For 2022, the association was able to secure June dates in Anaheim to host the show with less than half of 2020’s attendance. Then the 2023 version took place in April, and the 2024 show returned to its traditional January slot in Anaheim with 62,000 attendees and 1,600 exhibitors across nearly 400,000 square feet.

At that point, Cindy Sample, NAMM’s director of trade show operations, and her team of four had planned three annual shows over just 18 months “and we did not scale things down with any of them—all of the show elements were there,” which taxed the team both physically and mentally. Now, they are happy to have a bit of time to recover before starting on NAMM 2025, she says.

NAMMeducSessionGuitars.pngAlthough known informally as “the rock and roll convention” for its appeal to professional musicians who want to sample new instruments and equipment, network with manufacturers and retailers, and hang around with each other, the NAMM show actually has a much broader reach. From music educators (in photo, learning how to give lessons) to school-band leaders and church-music directors to DJs, live-audio engineers, and lighting technicians, NAMM “is the advocate for music education globally,” says Sample, an 11-year veteran at the association. “Our mission is to create more music and entertainment makers, and this gathering is designed to allow education and commerce to happen that moves the music industry forward.”

A Glorious Cacophony—to a Point
AM0324nammCindySample.jpgThe show floor at NAMM is like a music store on steroids, with most brands displaying instruments for attendees to sample alongside musicians hired to perform in booths as small as 200 square feet. As a result, Sample (in photo) says that “our biggest challenge on the show floor is keeping ambient sound at each booth from exceeding 85 decibels. We have a lot of staff walking around with decibel meters, and with the show floor expanding again post-pandemic we have to police that really well to maintain the right environment for people to interact.” Add in the sound and light shows from exhibitors selling DJ and production equipment, and the task of minimizing sensory overload on the show floor becomes daunting.

Sample notes that the exhibitor footprint is expanding again after the pandemic interruption, “especially among the live-sound companies whose businesses disappeared when live events weren’t happening.” For the 2020 show, NAMM’s exhibit-sales team brought in exhibitors from more than 120 countries; now, the team has redoubled its international efforts partly to offset the loss of notable U.S.-based brands such as Gibson and Fender plus Switzerland-based Paiste—firms that came out of the pandemic preferring to host their own customer events rather than exhibit at industry shows. In particular, China and Japan had sizable contingents showing their instruments and equipment at the 2024 show.

Interestingly, many NAMM exhibitors are using meeting space as their exhibit area. One example is Yamaha, which secured a 6,000-square-foot mini-ballroom plus its prefunction space to create a walk-through product showcase. Highlights of the experience included a purple Yamaha piano used by Prince in his recording studio, where attendees could take photos alongside the piano and a life-sized image of Prince; and a 25-foot-wide stage with full production and lighting elements, where Yamaha-endorsed musicians performed while attendees perused the various instrument pavilions along the room’s perimeter (see photos below).

Another example: Electric-guitar maker ESP and acoustic-guitar maker Takamine combined their exhibit presence by using a 1,600-square-foot breakout room for a walk-through experience featuring their instruments under specialized lighting, along with company reps to explain product features and answer questions.

Expanded Exhibits Affect Education, Networking
NAMMlobbysession.jpegWith exhibitors taking a lot of the convention center’s meeting space out of play, Sample and her team have had to improvise space for educational sessions. One idea that works at NAMM is a semi-circular “Idea Center” stage and seating area set in the lobby of the convention center—a space that many shows might not have considered before. In the Idea Center (in photo), as many as 200 people can sit for sessions that take place throughout the day. Well-positioned speakers and the acoustics of the lobby’s four-story-high ceiling create a space where attendees don’t need headsets and presenters can work with lapel or hand-held microphones.

Before the pandemic, NAMM had its “education campus” inside the Hilton Anaheim, which is adjacent to the convention center along with the Anaheim Marriott and the Westin Anaheim. As exhibitor demand comes back over time, “we might have to move at least some of the education back to the Hilton,” Sample notes.

NAMMfoodtrucks.jpegFood-and-beverage services also require a modified approach because of space constraints inside the center. Sample worked with Aramark, the center’s F&B supplier, to bring in about two dozen food trucks and umbrella-covered tables to the outdoor plazas between the center and each of the three hotels (in photo). Given the noisy atmosphere on the show floor, these F&B spaces are critical for attendee networking.

In that same vein, “we find spaces inside and outside the center to have a reception or awards show for almost every type of attendee group you can imagine,” says Sample. Among others, there is a group called Women of NAMM as well as a group for industry podcasters and other social-media influencers. “They are audio-content creators, many of whom happen to cover the music industry,” she notes. “The exhibitors love that we get hundreds of these people to the show.” There’s also a group for college students looking for work in the music industry. Further, NAMM co-locates with other recognition events, including the Parnelli Awards, which calls itself “the Oscars of the live-event industry,” and the annual Metal Hall of Fame Gala for hard-rock musicians.

The Show Must Go On, and On
One of the signature features of the NAMM show is the sheer number of musical performances that happen across the wider “convention campus” area. With the 5,000-seat arena connected to the center, the two outdoor plaza stages between the center and the hotels, and a stage inside each hotel adjacent to the center—set squarely in the middle of each lobby, no less—more than 150 sets are performed over four days. Shows start in early afternoon in the plazas and continue until 1 a.m. in the hotels.

Even with all else they must do, Sample and her event team also help coordinate that entertainment. “Through a program called Bands at NAMM, we reach out first to our membership and ask them to submit a band request through a portal on our website,” she says. “We like to get artists from every genre that are endorsed by our member companies, and we try to make sure it’s something people will want to listen to even if they never heard it before.”

NAMM has a committee that listens to roughly 1,000 artist submissions and whittles it down to 125. “The other 25 sets are ones we save for the major sponsors,” Sample notes. “For instance, the big stage in the plaza between the Hilton and the Marriott is sponsored by Yamaha, so they bring in their endorsed musicians and handle that event production each day. But we lease the stage and audience spaces, so we have to make sure everything runs perfectly because it reflects on the show.

NAMMhiltonShow.pngAs for the nightly shows in the hotel lobbies, the experiences range from folk and pop music at the Marriott to funk and hard rock at the Hilton (see photo), making for a memorable scene. Given that these hotels have large ballrooms, why are the stages set in the middle of the lobby? “The point is to keep people networking, and standing in a ballroom is not conducive to that,” says Sample. With each hotel occupied exclusively by NAMM attendees and exhibitors, there are no complaints about people sitting in every nook and cranny of the ground-floor public space, including on the carpets and tile floors with their backs against the walls.

Even for the most well-known professional musicians, this scene has great appeal. “Many stars come to NAMM to ‘nerd out’ on the instruments in the exhibit hall, and we have an artist-relations and security team to keep them safe and comfortable as they move through,” Sample says. “They’re not there to be an entertainer, but sometimes they let their guard down and it just happens.”

“At the Marriott a few years back, Stevie Wonder walked through just as someone was performing a song of his,” Sample recalls. “Stevie went up on stage and sang with him. Can you imagine? But that happens a lot at this show—magical moments that can’t be planned and become a life-long memory.”

Below are a few other photos from NAMM’s 2024 show

Musicians performing in an exhibit booth featuring a 3D digital wall:

DJ and lighting companies brought energy to the show floor:

A drum circle outside the convention center (photo by Danica Tormohlen):
NAMMdrum circleDanica.png
A band plays in a breakout-room exhibit for Trace Elliott amplifiers:

The Yamaha plaza stage between the HQ hotels (photo courtesy of NAMM):


Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.