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Searching For Direction At PASIC

...in a broad, four-day celebration of their craft, manufacturers and retailers pondered how to keep the party going. The annual Percussive Arts Society International Convention is the largest percussion event in the world. Held November 19-22 in the PAS’s hometown of Indianapolis, PASIC 2014 featured more than 120 concerts, clinics, master classes, labs, workshops, panels, and presentations.

Official attendance numbers weren’t available at press time, but numerous exhibitors at the show’s International Drum and Percussion Expo quietly expressed their disappointment. Veteran exhibitors accept the ebb and flow of consumers, who alternately flock to revered players’ performances and then filter back to the Expo show floor to spend some of that inspiration on a new cymbal, snare drum, or accessory. This year, the lulls seemed longer, the swarms more modest.

Unlike recent shows in Indy, PASIC 2014 didn’t coincide with the annual Bands of America festival, held a stone’s throw from the convention center at Lucas Oil Stadium, home of the NFL’s Colts. Gasoline is cheap, but flights and hotels are not, so presumably few non-local families could afford to attend both shows. Numerous Expo exhibitors cited the absence of young BoA contestants, many still in their band uniforms, perusing the PASIC Expo aisles.

Scheduling misfortunes aside, PASIC’s Expo has shrunk in recent years, not dramatically, but unmistakably. KMC’s top-flight brands—Gretsch, LP, Toca, and Gibraltar—which have opted out of several recent shows but exhibited last year, were notable no-shows again in 2014. On the retail side, Sam Ash has skipped the last two shows. Over the years, some exhibitors have reduced their booth size or shared booths. There are reasons to be optimistic about near-future PASICs: The 2015 event is slated for San Antonio, and Texas shows historically have generated excellent turnouts. In 2016, it will be back in Indy—on the same week as BoA. Longer-term, PASIC might need help from regrowth of the broader drum market and drumming community.

With varying degrees of success, exhibitors made the best of the show. Several manufacturers reported excellent onsite sales, either at their own booths or at partner retail exhibitors, despite sporadic and often lackluster traffic. Jeff Huffman of Chops Percussion described strong sales of cajones, djembes, darbukas, and frame drums, noting that the Chops booth displayed a better selection of these items than is typically found in music stores.

Aside from a few cymbal companies displaying prototype models, PASIC exhibitors tend to hold fire on new product introductions for a couple of months until the winter NAMM show. Just the same, Expo attendees are transformed into “kids in a candy store” by the sheer scope of the goods displayed—and the implied invitation to test-drive all of them at full volume.

For the young drummers and percussionists attending the show, PASIC 2014 had no “asterisk”; the thrill of witnessing their craft’s best perform and illuminate was as inspiring as could be. In the music category that is arguably the most multifaceted and diverse, every year PASIC provides ample highlights for every specialization and taste. Carl Allen appeared with his “Art of Elvin” tribute group with a nod to the late, great Elvin Jones. Will Kennedy, best known for his decades with the multi-Grammy-winning Yellowjackets, led a highly interactive clinic, inviting audience members to accompany audio tracks and helping them fine-tune their groove choices to better serve the song. Marimba virtuosa, composer, author, and Northwestern University Director of Percussion Studies She-e Wu probed beyond technique to the more nuanced elements of artistry such as dynamics, phrasing, and imagery. Weather Report alum Alex Acuña paired with Venezuelan phenom Lusito Quintero (Santana, Rolling Stones, Chick Corea) for an hour of brilliant rhythmic interplay on drumset and a wide variety of hand percussion instruments. An International Showcase presented mallet and multi-percussionists from all corners of the globe in works that ranged from lyrical to avant-garde. And jazz fusion pioneer Billy Cobham shared personal revelations of his early days with the Mahavishnu Orchestra, his philosophy of developing an artistic identity, along with his signature muscular drumming.

Another staple draw of the show is the PASIC Marching Percussion Festival, which includes competitions for individuals, small ensembles, marching, and standstill categories. In the convention’s second annual DrumLine Battle Champion competition, drumlines from high schools and colleges across the country competed for top honors. Delivering some real upset drama, this year’s winner was Indy’s own Ben Davis High School over even the competition’s college groups.

Next year’s PASIC will take place November 11-14 in San Antonio, Texas.

For more from PASIC, including analysis of the overall drum market and the latest on women in percussion, see the January issue of Music Trades.

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