In 2005, a well-respected tech journalist confidently told me, “No one does DIY anymore. Why should they?” His point was that, unlike the late ’70s and early ’80s when studio gear was too expensive for the average musician, anything you need now is immediately available at an affordable price. Why would anyone waste time building it?
Clearly, he was wrong. But the same DIY spirit extends beyond consumers: The reach of the Internet has changed how manufacturers and distributors do business, with many of them taking what could be called a do-it-yourself approach to selling and marketing. Just look at the success of Sweetwater’s GearFest, which combines an exhibition with workshops and concerts, attracting thousands of people to Fort Wayne, Indiana each summer. And theirs is not an isolated example.
About 15 years ago, German distributor SchneidersLaden began referring to its floor space at Frankfurt Musikmesse as Superbooth, because it was divided up between the brands he carried, from well-known manufacturers such as Doepfer to up-and-comers with only one product. Moreover, the distributor’s owner, Andreas Schneider, possesses a theatrical flair and gave each iteration of Superbooth a theme, making it a fun destination for visitors, whether synth-savvy or not.
Mirroring the explosion of interest in hardware synths, Superbooth continued to grow until it was clear to Schneider that he could branch out on his own: In 2016, Superbooth16—subtitled “A Fair and Festival for Electronic SoundCulture”—was held in a former radio station, Berlin’s historically fabulous Funkhaus. As a standalone event, it was a success.
By all accounts, Superbooth17 (April 20-22, 2017) was even bigger: More than 150 exhibitors filled the various rooms and hallways at Berlin’s FEZ (a sort of hands-on space-and-science center on the outskirts of the city), giving attendees a chance not only to try out products but to talk directly with the designers.
But Superbooth17 wasn’t about selling gear: You couldn’t buy things off the show floor. Rather, it was about educating the attendees. To this end, the event included lectures, maker-style workshops, concerts, and roundtable discussions. The location also suggested interesting ways to introduce music technology to a new generation, as in the “Kids playing on Modulars” event and the Singing Kitchen’s “Feeding Concert” performance by Kasia Justka, which combined the sounds of cooking with real-time electronic music making, culminating in trays of snacks for the audience.
The idea of combining a gear exhibition with learning and entertainment for a specific audience has become an international trend that shows no signs of slowing. Some are manufacturer-driven (Moogfest being the biggest), while others grow more from within the synth community, itself (Knobcon in the U.S., Tokyo Festival of Modular, and Soundmit in Turin, Italy, for example). As if to drive home the increased relevance of these so-called niche events, a number of major brands were on hand at Superbooth17—Ableton, Arturia, Avid, Behringer, Bitwig, Eventide, Korg, Kurzweil, Moog Music, Nord, Novation, Propellerhead, PreSonus, RME, Roland, Steinberg, u-he, Yamaha, and Zoom—in addition to scores of smaller companies.
Everyone I spoke with agreed: The ability for the exhibitors to interact directly with potential customers was a major factor in attending this show; in many cases instead of Messe and NAMM. More and more companies—large and small—feel that the mainstream tradeshows are a waste of time and money. In addition to the high costs of booth space and travel/lodging, the company reps spend their time answering the same basic questions from musicians with no knowledge of or interest in electronic music gear. At events such as this one, visitors know what they’re in for. For this reason, a number of companies even waited until Superbooth17 to announce new products because of the focused attention they would receive.
But what really struck me was how the entire event was designed to be enjoyable—for everyone. And there is a unique camaraderie between the men and women making gear today, which was clearly evident at Superbooth17 where I noticed this generation’s genius designers sharing ideas with each other in a casual (albeit, busy) setting, just as one could imagine Moog, Oberheim, Smith, and Linn doing decades earlier.
For me, such congeniality is not only inspiring, it gives me hope for the future of our industry.