I went to the NARM Convention...

...and all I got was this stupid bear

When I was back in Nam, er, NARM Slithering onto the motorized party trolley, the man in the rust-colored leather jacket made a quick survey of the women aboard, produced a mild leer, and headed for the free tequila. Behind him, a twentysomething dude in a gray sweat shirt and Vagina Monologues pin thrust his clenched fists into the air and let out a whoop of "Spring break!" The NARM Convention was officially under way.

Most people wouldn't know NARM from a swift kick in the rear. The painful-sounding acronym stands for National Association of Recording Merchandisers, a not-for-profit trade outfit that represents the purveyors of prerecorded music in the U.S. According to its Web site, www.narm.com, the organization has been "the voice of music retailing" for over 40 years. (That tag line has been in effect for only six months; previously, the organization was known as "that thing that lots of people belong to but no one knows what it does.") Throughout the year, NARM tracks industry data, passes along music news, and pesters politicians to do what it wants. At the annual convention, NARM gives out awards for advertising (Best Magazine Ad, Best Radio Spot, Best Dog-Sweater Ad), merchandising (cute CD carrying cases and such), and retailing (this year's hit record store is called Electric Fetus). The event also features numerous paint-peelingly boring seminars with names like "Meet the Mythical Consumer" and "The Seduction of Digital Music: When to Say Yes & When to Say No." Truthfully, however, the NARM fete is just an excuse for low-end industry wonks to network, cop some free swag, and get wasted.

Which brings us back to the trolley. I don't know how you feel about these party buses, but frankly they make me cringe -- unless, of course, I'm on one. If that's the case, it suddenly becomes really easy and fun to make complete strangers cheer as you go by. You feel like you're conning them, and they think you're an idiot: It's the perfect symbiotic entertainment. With people like Darren -- the Vagina Monologues- watching publicity dude, who works for L.A. punk label Hopeless Records -- you can't lose.

"Spring break!" I'm not sure how many times Darren yelled this or whether he was serious, but I like to think that he was doing his part to subvert the industry from within. He certainly tried his best to convince random pedestrians to join the biz bus, and when I told him that I really didn't think much of his label, he shrugged and said, "Dude, I don't care." Take note, publicists: Reverse psychology works wonders.

When we slipped into the top-secret Sony party back at the Marriott, it was obvious that a dose of Darren was sorely needed. A few balding guys with ponytails seemed to have plastered themselves to the furniture with Stickum, and the only rock star in evidence was some guy named BP whom no one would've recognized as such if he weren't wearing glitter and lipstick. As for the music, it was background R&B crap. When my cohorts and I tried to take over the CD player, we got 45 seconds of the Clash and two hip hop songs by the X-ecutioners on before we were shown the door.

Downstairs in the hotel lobby, the music business' general racism reared its head. The only people left milling around were several African-Americans in hip hop gear. No one seemed to have told them about the white-bread party upstairs, so we passed along the address. It seemed only fair.

The last three days of the convention could best be described as anticlimactic. A walk through the trade show yielded few surprises, although it's nice to know that you can sing karaoke while strumming along on a plastic tennis racquet thanks to the Music Playground interactive system. Also, I never knew that longtime norteño band Los Tigres del Norte had so many gold records or that a CD storage tower could be filled with liquid. Then there were the live performances at the quaintly named Club NARM: It doesn't get more cutting edge than John Tesh or Christian rock act Jars of Clay. This is, after all, the place where Whitney Houston, 'N Sync, and, uh, Charlotte Church had their debuts. Be sure to watch out for Vanessa Carlton, Sheila Nicholls, and Josh Groban in the near future -- although with names like that, they might need to change monikers first.

As the final strains -- and I do mean strains-- of the Counting Crows' convention-closing set warbled through the ballroom, I sifted through my goody bag. Besides the usual dull samplers and stationery pads, there was a plush purple bear in a dinner jacket, a shot-glass necklace, and a CD of Gregorian-chant covers of heavenly themed pop tunes by U2, R.E.M., and Eric Clapton. Now, that'sthe epitome of hip.

Erratum In last week's issue, we gave Max Mathews ("Sound and Vision") one too many T's in his name. We regret the error.

 
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