Wander the convention floor at the recent NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) trade show, and you might feel like you're being jerked through some bizarre space/time continuum. One booth has virtual reality goggles and promises the future of music making will be entirely digital; the next booth displays banjos. Vinyl record manufacturers sit side by side with wireless MIDI controllers; guitars promoted by classic rock legends bump up against sophisticated production software. While the overall effect is somewhat jarring, it's also refreshing and comforting -- rather than fighting, old-school and new-school music makers are finding ways to peaceably co-exist. And though there weren't any virtual reality ukulele programs this year, that doesn't mean that there might not be in the future.
The trend at NAMM mirrors a trend we're seeing among younger consumers -- the ability to enjoy old and new technology without feeling limited by or tied to either. Hip stores offer records to an audience that still consumes music digitally; a label powered by social media influencers and their communities called Heard Well does a brisk business in physical and download sales. Father John Misty or Mumford and Sons play the same festivals as Skrillex and Diplo.
Of course, the banjo and vinyl boom is partly driven by nostalgia -- millennials aren't old enough to remember these things the first time around, so it still seems new and clever. This is part of the reason we haven't seen the same fetishization of the compact disc and are just now starting to see twee cassette labels pop up. But more than perhaps any other generation, young consumers and music makers are able to code-switch between the old and the new relatively seamlessly.
All of this is also indicative of a larger trend among young consumers -- they don't really care about the format as long as the story is good. If a song is best played on a banjo, great; if it's best recorded through a series of samples and whale sounds run through a computer program, that's great as well, and the two can in fact co-exist on the same playlist. We see millennials consume more YouTube content that seems amateurish and overly short, or too long for traditional broadcasts, without realizing that they only care about the story being told, not necessarily the format used to tell it. Rather than dividing things into genres and keeping creativity in boxes, teens and twenty-somethings just want things that are good, and it doesn't matter whether the delivery method was created a hundred years ago or yesterday.
So what does this all mean for music makers? One, it frees them up to focus on creating great content, whether that's on a John Lennon-inspired guitar or a hacked together MIDI controller (or both). Two, it frees them from the digital versus physical divide -- it's totally fine to record on a classic piano and then loop it through a program. And three, it means that there are more opportunities to experiment with a wider array of tools than ever before, even if they seem diametrically opposed to begin with. NAMM showed off a huge range of products, and now it's up to artists to start fitting them together.