Sweetwater Sound’s Gearfest is not only unusual among music industry trade shows.
It is unusual among trade shows in general.
Most trade shows are designed to give retailers who sell goods to customers a chance to interact and haggle directly with vendors who sell goods to retailers.
Customers, those folks who just buy goods for themselves, aren’t usually invited to such shows.
But Gearfest is open to everyone.
“You don’t have to be a member of any organization to come,” said Bob Bailey, executive director of the Sweetwater Academy of Music and Technology. “It’s free.”
And most trade shows aren’t nearly as much fun as Gearfest.
Gearfest is a star-studded affair with concerts and food trucks.
Gearfest has a lot more in common with Disney World than it does with World of Concrete which (believe it or not) is an actual trade show devoted to commercial concrete and masonry.
This year’s Gearfest happens June 22 and 23 on the campus of Sweewater Sound.
Bailey said more than 450 music equipment and music technology brands will be represented at this year’s Gearfest.
Sweetwater expects 16,000 people from around the world to attend, he said.
“People plan their vacations around this,” Bailey said. “It has become quite the destination event.”
“Gearfest is unique in being free and open to musicians and audio enthusiasts, unlike most trade shows, which are held for manufacturers and retailers,” Sweetwater Sound President Chuck Surack said. “We’re particularly proud that Gearfest has such a reputation that it is now bringing people from literally all over the world to Sweetwater’s campus in Fort Wayne.”
Gearfest triggers an “all hands on deck” order at Sweetwater, Bailey said.
Every employee, regardless of his or her role is at Sweetwater the rest of the year, is required to work Gearfest in some event-presenting capacity.
Individual Gearfests don’t have themes. But if this year’s edition did have a theme, it would be “guitarists.”
“I’d like to say it was a strategic decision,” Bailey said. “But, in truth, it was based on artist availability.”
This year’s Gearfest lineup puts the luster in illustrious. Among the serendipitously assembled guitarists: John Scofield, Adrian Belew, Misha Mansoor, Lyle Workman, Nita Strauss, Butch Walker, Tim Pierce, Chris Broderick, Larry Carlton and Yngwie Malmsteen.
Presenters who have become famous for something other than guitar playing include drummer Peter Erskine, bassist Carlitos Del Puerto, DJ Reborn, Hamilton drummer Andrés Forero, singer-songwriter Addison Agen, drummer and producer Russ Kunkel, producer Fab Dupont and drummer Steve Ferrone, formerly of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
One of the things that separates Gearfest from a summer music festival is that the musicians don’t just perform.
Bailey said most music trade shows are heavily focused on presenting the gear.
At Gearfest, Bailey said, attendees can take part in educational breakout sessions on all aspects on performing music: from playing techniques to surviving-in-the-business techniques.
Bailey estimates that Sweetwater will offer 40 to 50 of these sessions per day.
There will be a Producer’s Panel this year, he said, featuring several Grammy-winning engineers and mixers: Michael Omartian (Johnny Cash, System of a Down and Prince), Sylvia (Tool, Johnny Cash, Prince, Tom Petty and the Red Hot Chili Peppers), Neal Pogue (Janelle Monáe, Pink, Nicki Minaj and Earth, Wind & Fire, TLC, ) and Kevin Killen (Elvis Costello, David Bowie, U2 and Peter Gabriel).
“Omartian played accordion on [Billy Joel’s] Piano Man,” Bailey said. “He also played keyboards on Steely Dan’s Aja and Katy Lied.”
Erskine and Scofield will present a clinic called “Inside the Groove,” he said.
“It talks about the interaction between musicians on stage,” Bailey said, “and how to listen and how to perform with other musicians.”
YouTube celebrities will preside over a clinic on using the video-sharing website to further one’s career, he said.
Sweetwater’s inside guitar shop and recording studios will offer clinics on guitar upgrades and repairs and on studio craft, respectively.
“[Engineers] will be talking about how they mic up certain sessions,” Bailey said, “why they select specific microphones, how to place it and how to get the best sound.”
Staging optimal live music experiences is one of Sweetwater’s fortes, as anyone knows who has attended an event that the retailer has sponsored or consulted on. So it is not surprising that there will be clinics on presenting live music.
Food this year will be provided by 24 area truck-based vendors, Bailey said, in addition to Sweetwater’s in-house restaurant.
On the Friday evening, after a Q&A with Carlton and a clinic from Belew, the Sweetwater All-Stars will perform. It is a supergroup comprised of Sweetwater employees (many of whom have won Grammys and Dove Awards) and any attending celebs that want to sit in.
“A lot of the artists who are appearing here will get up and play a song,” said Bailey, who sings and plays guitar with the band. “Last year, it ran long. We were supposed to shut it down at 9 o’ clock, and there were so many artists that wanted to get up we ran until 10:30.
“I ran into [guitarist] Eric Johnson recently and he said, ‘Man that was fun. I want to do it again,’” Bailey said. “So I can check that off my bucket list. Eric Johnson said it was fun jamming with me.”