The annual NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) show in Anaheim, California is one of the biggest music conferences of the year. Held ever January usually (the dates did shift in recent years due to COVID), the convention is like the Coachella of gear.
As large as the event is though, often bringing 150,000 to the Anaheim Convention Center for four days of shows, parties, panels and more, it is but one weekend of the year. And new NAMM CEO and President John Mlynczak understands that as big as the event is, and it has attracted the likes of John Mayer, Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell, Finneas, Alice Cooper and more, it is only a small part of NAMM.
So his primary mission in his new role, as he explained to me, is to make people realize is NAMM much more than a one-trick pony. That this is an organization dedicated to music year round. He spoke with me about that mission and NAMM’s major new initiatives, including putting the focus on careers in music.
Steve Baltin: Where are you from originally?
John Mlynczak: I grew up in Richmond, Virginia. And then I have lived in Louisiana. I’ve lived in Boston, and now I’ve lived in San Diego. So I have a quite interesting perspective of the country.
Baltin: I know you started as a player, and an educator, and your first NAMM was what, 10 years ago? And now you run the company.
Mlynczak: And it’s funny, even hearing you say it again, it’s an unbelievable experience. I never wanted to do anything but music. I’ve never had a question, for me, it’s music. And I never even looked at the other options. And then you get to the high school and everyone’s like, “What are you going to do in college? What are you majoring in?” I never had a choice in my mind it was, I majored in music. And I definitely didn’t go into life saying, “I want to be CEO of NAMM, or I want to be in a music industry company.” I just kept playing music and teaching music and I was lucky enough to be good enough at the trumpet for long enough to have, had a lot of fun playing it. But you realize very quickly, nobody really needs trumpet at 9:30 AM on a Tuesday. So as you teach it and you teach during the day, play during the night, play during the weekend, and you live life, and then one experience leads to another and you start talking to people in the industry. And that’s kind of how it evolves. And you keep learning. And next thing it was technology and product development and software and marketing. And you just start doing all this stuff and learn. I’ve never felt like I stopped school. And I still feel that way,. And I wake up and I’m here and it’s pretty cool.
Baltin: As you’ve started to work internally in NAMM, have there been things that have really surprised you about the way the show is put on and the way that it goes?
Mlynczak: I knew from the outside that the show was really spectacular, well done, well produced, and that NAMM has these initiatives that that help global music-making. You sort of know that stuff. And then you start working in the studio, you get into where it’s made, and you realize, first of all, the people here are so dedicated and so driven. I have to kick people out of the building at seven o’clock, they just don’t stop. They love it. It’s like the NAMM show all the time. It’s like passionate pushing because it’s all for the right reasons. And then the amount of association work that NAMM does, everyone knows this for the show. And the show’s amazing. In addition, we have so much global work we’re doing; there’s several lobby firms and lawyers we have in DC making sure we’re at the top of all the funding issues and all the trade issues, global trade, we’re just always working for members. And I say internally now a lot, we are really good at doing good, and we’re really bad at telling our members about it.
Baltin: How do you tell people about it more?
Mlynczak Well, one part of it is get out there and tell the story. I think this type of conversation with you is really important ’cause we tend to tell our story through the industry trades, like, “Hey, MMR, here’s a press release about something.” And that’s, that’s all good. But at the same time, we have to be telling our story in bigger areas because what NAMM does impacts music-making globally, and impacts artists. It impacts the entire music-making community ’cause we are the products, we are the trade and the products, the growth of the products. It’s having these conversations, we are enhancing the way we market and communicate. We’re taking over more of a direct to consumer marketing approach, just like our businesses. The big businesses right now, they understand that they have to sell their brand direct to consumer. If the product moves to retail, that’s great, but the brand has to be sold direct to consumer and NAMM. I think like a lot of large music industry retailers has got into a groove of everything feels very B2B and transactional. We have a digital media team and we’re making new hires, we’re going to be going after people, PPC, Google, we’re going to create this NAMM brand in a bigger way, and we have to take responsibility for that.
Baltin: So as you start bringing people in, what are you looking for in the people that you bring in?
Mlynczak: That’s a great question. We, NAMM, from 1901 to 122 years later today, we started as an association of manufacturers and retails. And that DNA is very much still in NAMM, but the way we know our association exists today, we’ve done an analysis and we’ve come to the conclusion that we are now an association that doesn’t exist just to associate makers of things and sellers of things. We’re an association that now focuses on all the segments that benefit from musical products and the learning music. So we think about our manufacturers, we think about our retails distributors, we think about our pro audio community, the people running the audio, the recording industry, that area. We think about touring and lighting and stage. The people who do in front of house, the people doing lighting, the people doing back line, people setting, building the stage, using, connecting all these products in a powerful way. We think about the artists on stage that are performing music. We think about the media influencers that tell the story, and we think about the educators, private, public, higher ed, that are teaching the next generation to play music. So we now look at everything we do through the lens of seven segments is what we say internally. And we ask ourselves every time, “How do these seven segments connect in a powerful way at the NAMM show and year round, how do we serve the seven segments?” And in addition to our company membership, we’ve created an individual membership now where an audio recording engineer, a producer, someone on YouTube teaching people how to mix sound or play instruments, a music educator, someone doing lights or sound at the house, at their church on Sunday, whatever, that all these people that are directly working with products and using them but not an employee of a member company, they are now eligible for individual NAMM membership. We want to bring them in as new membership category because if you’re using teaching and working with the products that drive our industry, but not working directly for a member company, NAMM represents you and you can now be a member and be part of our family.
Baltin: I talk with a lot of instrument makers as well. I just did a piece with Martin. One of the things as well is that, it’s the idea of getting instruments to kids, letting them play and teaching them. And obviously you guys just started the Careers in Music Initiative. Talk about how that ties in with your growth, ’cause I think so much of it is just making people aware of the options and, the availabilities.
Mlynczak: So the Careers in Music initiative and what we do through our NAMM foundation, just backing up, the NAMM Show and NAMM as an organization, every dollar we generate is reinvested into the industry. We exist, so we take proceeds from the NAMM Show and our membership and we reinvest through the foundation, we create more music makers and that’s the message that we don’t always advertise as loudly as we should. And we looked at what the next big thing we need to do as far as a PSA and creating more music makers. And the Careers in Music was born out of just listening to members. We’ve spent many years and since the 50s, since the baby boom, NAMM started investing in getting more kids to play music, and our retail partners, we’ve done a really good job there and we have a really strong momentum of getting more students to start. The question is, they play music in school and then it’s like, “Well, if you’re not going to be a professional musician or a teacher, what are you going to do with it? You go to college, pick a real major ’cause I don’t want you on my insurance till you’re 26. You’re never going to make it as a violin player.” There are perceptions around music-making. So we’ve identified that, at the same time our retailers and our manufacturer members are begging us saying, “We cannot find good talent and retain good talent in our workforce.” Whether it’s luthiers or just rock solid marketers that know the music business, ’cause you have to know music and not from just investing in leadership, to strong salespeople that understand, the workforce with instrument repair, manufacture, all of that. And we said, “We need to start, we could actually kill two birds with one stone here.” If we really focus on careers in music and we create a worldwide public perception campaign that says music is a viable career. If you learn music or play music or play an instrument or study music or major in music or just bang around on the guitar on weekends, did you know you have all these amazing career paths in our music industry. And that’s the goal, right? That the ultimate dream goal, long term is for a high schooler to go to their parents and say, “Mom, dad, I figured out what I want to major in college.” And they say. “What?” They say, “Music.” And the parents don’t go, “Oh God, how long are you going to be on my insurance?” But instead they say, “Yes, that’s great ’cause I know that if you study music, there are countless jobs that you can do in the future.” Just like they’d say, if the kid said, “I’m studying psychology or mass communications.” We have to create that perception. So that’s the vision, the tactical now is we’re serving our members by making sure that every guidance counselor in the country has a wide “What Careers In Music Exist” brochure in their office so that students thinking about what they want to feature and know that this is a path to make sure that every high school teacher has this in their hands. So we’re actually trying to build this workforce, which also builds the music industry, supports our members, but at the same time connects that “I started playing an instrument, I know music’s great, now I’m getting to high school and college, and I have to start thinking about what’s next.” We have to break that perception that you’ve got to put the instrument down and get a real job. Music is a viable career in many ways.