Sweetwater GearFest 2016: Full Report

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Electronic Musician readers are familiar with Sweetwater Sound, the world’s busiest online retailer for musicians and the largest music store in the United States. Every year, Sweetwater hosts GearFest, a celebration of its customers, the gear they use, and the music they make. EM sent me to Fort Wayne, Indiana, a few days ago to attend GearFest 2016. Now in its 15th year, GearFest is often compared to the NAMM Show, with at least one critical difference: NAMM is open only to musical instrument industry insiders, but GearFest is open to the general public, free of charge. Everyone has a chance to meet with manufacturer representatives and get their hands on all the gear you’d hope to find in a well-stocked music store at often-unbeatable prices.

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This year’s GearFest took place on Friday and Saturday, June 17–18. Located on 100 acres, Sweetwater’s campus is the perfect location to host more than 10,000 musicians in search of education and entertainment, the latest products, and the greatest bargains. Everyone who attended enjoyed two full days of musical performances, artist appearances, product demonstrations, master classes, and panel discussions. Everyone also had a shot at more than $88,000 in product giveaways, with winners announced every hour.

Under clear Indiana skies, nearly 500 companies set up booths in 18 enormous tents stretched across the Sweetwater campus and cooled by industrial-sized portable air conditioners. Tents were divided by product type—electronic production, electric and acoustic guitars, pro audio, and so on. Larger companies such as Roland, Yamaha, Gibson, and inMusic each had its own tent, and a few brought buses or trailers housing portable showrooms or mobile recording studios. Software developers like Propellerhead and Avid, synth makers like Arturia and Pittsburgh Modular, and computer peripheral manufacturers like iConnectivity and Glyph were there, too. In every booth, you could talk with reps, get your questions answered, and take advantage of deep discounts that expired when the festival ended on Saturday evening.

Every year, Sweetwater’s growth is evident by the expansion of its facilities, and this year’s addition was a beautiful new outdoor pavilion, a music venue accommodating up to 2,000 people. The big event on Friday night was the pavilion’s inaugural concert, featuring a lineup that included Sweetwater personnel and guests such as Jordan Rudess, Chad Wackerman, Larry Dunn, and Andy Timmons. Another new feature at this year’s GearFest was free overnight camping in 150 campsites.

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Most observers attribute Sweetwater’s phenomenal success to founder, president, and CEO Chuck Surack. Every Fort Wayne resident I encountered spoke of Surack in glowing terms. His contributions to the local economy, his philanthropy and generous support for his community, the trust he’s earned from his customers, and the values he instills in his employees have all made a profound impression on that city. Those values were obvious during my time at GearFest, where hundreds of Sweetwater employees were hard at work making the event exciting and enjoyable for all who attended. GearFest is Surack’s thank-you gift to his customers and suppliers, and along with everyone else who was there, I definitely look forward to returning again next year.