ANAHEIM, Calif. - The popularity of music apps and new devices that connect your smartphones and tablets to electric guitars has helped to revitalize the musical instrument industry.
Some 100,000 music store staffers and musical instrument vendors will gather here Thursday for the National Association of Music Merchants convention to see the latest take on musical instruments, many of which have a digital twist.
On display will be many new devices that connect to apps and traditional instruments, says Joe Lamond, CEO of NAMM.
"Tech is driving a lot of our growth," he adds.
Sales for 2012 were up 1%, at $6.8 billion. "It's not quite back to peak, but we're climbing back," says Lamond. Sales fell from $7.1 billion in 2008 to $5.9 billion when the recession hit in 2009.
He attributes the music industry's comeback to an unlikely ally: YouTube.
The Google-owned website is the most popular place in the world to watch music videos and to learn how to play songs. Many musicians - including stars such as James Taylor, Robben Ford and Steve Vai - offer guitar lessons on YouTube, or simply show you the chords needed to play most popular songs.
There are also tons of lessons for instruments such as the piano, bass and even the ukulele. "I searched for how to play the uke, learned how to strum some chords, and did it on my terms and my time," says Lamond.
Music merchants benefit from the online instruction because it gets people excited about playing music, perhaps leading them into a store for live lessons. "The tech is a good start, but there's nothing like live interaction with a teacher," Lamond adds.
Apps are another area where music stores can't participate. Music-playing apps such as developer Smule's virtual instruments (Magic Piano and others), and Apple's GarageBand have given folks low-cost ways to perform digital music on their smartphones and tablets. Music stores don't get to participate, because the sales are made electronically.
Still, the "apps give the stores other things to sell to the consumer," including accessory cords, music books and the like. "The app is a start to get people interested in music," he says. "From there, there's an insatiable desire to have more."
Here's a look at some of the new products:
• A USB ukulele. Lanikai's UkeSB plugs into a computer, smartphone or tablet and lets the uke player record directly into the unit. It will start at $399 and will be available in May.
Hohner, which owns uke maker Lanikai, says it launched the UkeSB in response to a 100% sales jump for ukuleles over the last three years. Hohner product manager Scott Emmerman attributes the uke craze to musicians making ukulele videos on YouTube, which have attracted millions of views.
"We wanted to make it easier for uke players to make YouTube videos without having to worry about microphones and amps," says Emmerman.
The UkeSB comes with the Camera Connector cable, which enables consumers to use USB with the iPad.
• Wireless guitar amp. IK Multimedia's iLoud eliminates the age-old musician frustration with wires. It is a Bluetooth speaker but also has an input for connecting your electric guitar, bass or piano, eliminating the need for traveling with a practice amplifier.
IK, which makes various connections to plug instruments into smartphones and tablets, says the 40-watt speaker is several times louder than other speakers its size. It will sell for $299 when it ships in the second quarter.
• Orbit. DJs can run shows from the audience with this $99 wireless DJ controller, which will be available in May. The various buttons can be programmed at home to play songs, fast-forward and rewind or change volume. And the built-in accelerometer can add in effects.
• A musical ball. The AlphaSphere is a ball with 48 pads and colored lights. Sure, you can throw the $800 ball around the park if you desire, but it's really built to make digital music. Adam Place, the 26-year-old inventor from the United Kingdom, says he was looking for a new way to make electronic music beyond just using a keyboard.
With AlphaSphere, hitting the various pads produces "notes, rhythms, samples - you name it."
Place has taken 300 orders for the ball so far, mostly from the U.K. and Japan. "I see bands taking this on stage and playing many of them," he says. "It's a great visual."
By Jefferson Graham