Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Why I Hope Pono Takes Off and My Unsolicited Advice for Neil Young

Names are more important than you think for products and services to do well.  It’s a big reason why Bandcamp and Soundcloud are cool.  The word wiki is cool, especially when you figure out what they do and that the word means quick in Hawaiian.  Which brings me Pono, another Hawaiian word meaning righteousness or maybe just righteous.  I know as little about the word as the new music service it’s named after.  What I do know is that Neil Young is spearheading a company to make higher-quality music available to everyone.  He showed the device on Letterman – an unusually large and oddly-shaped orange thing that kids won’t think is as cool as their new smartwatch music player for sure.  Kids only know low-quality compressed MP3 and iPods. 

To them, vinyl records are things hip-hop DJs scratch, and otherwise, are uncool, old-fashioned, grandparent things and not even used by their parents who listen to CDs.  Kids these days – there might be pockets of them who have record players and buy something from Jack White, but that’s a really small market.  So Neil’s initial market will be his fanbase which includes me, then he’ll have to hope it catches on with the kids.  If it does a little bit, Sony and Apple and Amazon and Google will follow suit and improve their quality, and then Neil will have another achievement to add to his legacy for kick-starting this long-overdue thing.  This itself is somewhat of a contradiction on a few levels.  Neil isn’t known for perfect and pristine music-making like Pink Floyd or Boston that would really shine in high def.  If you read up on Neil, he gets on kicks.  He supposedly got on a kick about digital being the thing of the future back in the 80s and invested in it, then changed his mind and went back to analog. 

If you are a Neil fan, you like the fact that he does what he wants and gets away with it – there’s just something about the guy that is appealing.  He can sell stuff, no problem, especially if it’s music-related.  He’s sold toy trains and electric cars, or maybe if he hasn’t really sold many, he’s tried to make a difference in the world in his own way that makes sense to him.  Willie Nelson sells bio diesel, or at least his bus runs on it.  These guys try to make a difference, and it’s admirable.  Neil’s got connections, he’s influential, likable.  He changes styles a lot, and you like that.  If you read about him, he’s one of many people in the music business who believe records should be made live in the studio, with few overdubs, real instruments, on all-analog equipment, then converted from some type of tape to high-quality digital. 

Many argue the digital-from scratch recording equipment and software like ProTools produces better-sounding, higher-quality music than Neil’s current older-school approach.  You can google music engineer forums and read all kinds of arguments for and against this approach.  You read about what the human ear can and can’t hear, frequency-wise, and learn about hertz and bits and stuff you don’t care about so much.  We all want the highest quality music we can get, and we are willing to pay extra for it, that’s the bottom line.  We care about quality, and we know MP3s don’t sound as good as our records did under the needle when they were new, even if we had cheap stereo turntables. 

CDs are pretty good quality, but are inconvenient.  We all carry around phones with us everywhere now, so there’s got to be an easy way to get high-quality music on them that’s low-hassle.  Neil needs to make something that can be a part of your phone, not some weird-shaped orange deal that is an extra thing you’ve got to carry around in addition to your phone.  The Googles and Amazons of the world have had trouble getting all the “major” record companies on board to compete with Apple’s iTunes, so that’s obviously a hurdle, as is the streaming digital locker in the cloud concept, which is here to stay.  It’s going to take more bandwidth and space, which costs more, but we’re getting there. 

The technology exists for high quality music, and with cheaper cloud storage and faster internet connections, there’s got to be a way to buy and organize your music collection on a website, and listen to it on your mobile phone, and have it be 24-bit/196hz or 1 bit or DSD or SACD or FLAC or OggVorbis or whatever the higher-quality standard is going to be.  We all agree on this, so Neil needs an app with online store/storage/download/sync//radio/streaming service to get it on people’s phones somehow, not the weird orange thing.  I’ll buy the weird orange thing myself, and put up with the hassle of carrying around an extra gadget in addition to my phone, and other Neil fans will too, but eventually, I’m going to want the whole shebang on my phone. 

Another thing is, iTunes won’t let the non-major independent artist to distribute unless they go through an aggregator.  Totally annoying.  There are tons of us out there who can go direct on Amazon, direct on Google, direct on Bandcamp, but have to go through Tunecore or CDBaby to get on iTunes.  If Neil only goes after the major label artists or the next step down from major, that will suck, just as MP3s suck.  Neil should start by letting in independent artists who are DIY’ers without a record deal with an established record company first.  It should be a slow-building, grassroots thing from the ground up.  His approach we’ve read about so far was to first get the majors on board, just like Google and Spotify did.  That’s backwards thinking, in my opinion, and it would really build momentum if something were in place for independent artists to distribute their high-quality recordings at service launch time, along with the major label artists. 

Of course, Neil is himself a major label artist, and might not fully recognize or appreciate the huge audience of independent artists out there in the world who would love to distribute to Pono directly right away.  Affordable home recording equipment and digital technology has made it possible for millions to get their music out into the world without getting lucky with a major label contract first.  He shouldn’t blow us off. 

So, to sum up my advice for Neil:  1) ditch the orange thing and make it work on everyone’s phones, or better yet - make the orange thing be a smartphone as well, and 2) let in the independent artists for direct DIY distribution at launch time.  It has great potential and I hope it works, if for no other reason than to force the big players in the music service game to up the quality.