A Composition Journey: Part I

Dave Cracked Up (Blog), Creating

Lately, I guess I’ve gotten this odd urge to document my personal artistic endeavours. I have no idea why.

Rest assured, I’m not writing a memoir. In addition to my recently expressed plans to release an EP, I’ve been writing music to be played by a stand alone ensemble – NOT film music.

My “Own Stuff”

I get asked quite regularly if I write a lot of my “own stuff” to which I answer:

“No, not really.”

NOT that I don’t want to… It’s hard to explain, but after spending hours per day in the studio working on film scores, sound designing, recording and/or mixing for others, it can be a tedious chore to produce yet more creative stuff for yourself.

Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely LOVE what I do. But, much like working on a client project, working on a personal project requires an investment of creative time and creative energy. Finding either of those in adequate supply is a challenge to my EP and this particular project.

Without getting too much ahead of myself, the music director at my sons’ school and I have aligned planets to get this project off the ground. At the last Christmas concert, we made it official by announcing the premiere of the piece in the spring.

We’ve joked for almost four years about me having one of my compositions played by the senior band at St. George’s School here in Vancouver but never really getting serious about it. I started writing something applicable over the summer and come fall, I had an orchestral mock-up of what I am calling “Morning Routine” that I shared with him:

We got to chatting about adapting it to concert band and over the fall, after some heads-down work in Sibelius, I had an arrangement of the score that looked like it could work.

In The Beginning

So, let’s back up a bit. I’m getting ahead of myself as the original intention of this post was to be the first chapter documenting how I wrote “Morning Routine”.

I think anyone who’s labeled themselves a composer has had visions of writing a spectacular epic that gets performed by 50+ musicians in a grand hall to an adoring audience just itching to jump out of their seats to shower you with heaps of applause. There are undoubtedly variations on this fantasy for pretty well any artistic or athletic endeavour out there.

To set your expectations, that’s not my intention with this piece. Writing for an ensemble of musicians is a monstrous task in of itself. I’ve written for ensembles (real and virtual), but this is one of the first that I’ve done as the “alpha creative”. In other words, I started with a true blank slate. I didn’t embark on this project with any illusions that I was going to climb Everest after exploring a few of the local mountain hiking trails.

The goals I set out for myself were to create a modest composition – somewhere in the 5-minute range – and create it in such a way that the vast majority of the audience were still awake by the time the piece finished.

The first thing I had to do was get a starting point and a structure.

Storyboard of “Morning Routine” (click to enlarge)

Where to Start?

I started by pulling all my composition and creative books from my bookshelf. A lot of the music composition books talked about traditional forms and structures – Strophic, Variation, Sonata-Allegro, Rondo… – yeah, I fell asleep too.

I needed something that was going to be … well … not boring.

Musical forms have evolved to provide guidelines and structure to music. Without them, music would be a rambling mess resulting in a trail of bored and disinterested listeners. Seeing as none of the traditional forms seemed to spark excitement, I decided to create my own. It actually was one of those face-palm “duh!” moments. I’ve been creating and manipulating themes that support stories and narratives throughout my stint as a film composer.

Why not do the same for this? – Create a story and use THAT as the structure for my piece. “Brilliant” I think I yelled. …but what story?

Some of the theme sketches for “Morning Routine” (click to enlarge)

I was inspired by – if you haven’t guessed it already – some of the happenings (real and imagined) of a family’s morning routine. I chose to base my composition around the perspective of an adolescent who stumbles through their (a-)typical AM drill. With a piece of paper and a pen, I sketched out an over-the-top slice of life (from waking up through to arriving at school.

After a few rounds of trying out ideas at the piano and adjusting the story, I had more than enough material to create a piece of music that could accompany the storyboard-turned-visuals that was now playing in my mind.

As I continued to try out, assemble and re-assemble ideas in my Digital Audio Workstation, the structure started to materialize and all the little details started to fall into place.

… but more on that in the next installment!

My First Week in EP-Land

Dave Cracked Up (Blog), Creating, Engineering, Uncategorised Leave a Comment

That actually wasn’t so bad.

I’ve gotten to the end of my first week working on my EP (see last week’s “announcement” post) and I’m actually feeling pretty darn good about this whole thing. I’d expressed some reservations about re-visiting my songs – especially dealing with the production choices that I’ve lived with over the years. To tell you the truth, I didn’t actually find it too hard to shelve the “baked in” ideas and re-jig the arrangements and melody.

A preview of the track with warts:

The first song that I’m tackling is one that I wrote … oh geez, it must have been in the early 2000’s. It’s called “Living the Dream” – the first embarrassment-worthy recording of it is out on Soundclick if you care to torture yourself. You (read: I) might even have called it a minor “hit” on the now podfaded podcast – the Home Made Hit Show back in the day.

The inspiration for this song came from a few discussions I had with a couple of moms I chatted with in Toronto who had kids at the same school as Chris (his grade 1 and 2 years). For me, it was the first song composition I’d been able to do where I wasn’t completely disillusioned by my lyric-writing efforts.

As and aside… of all the songwriting tasks, writing lyrics is by far, my least favourite.

The conversations we had eventually lead to them expressing a kind of regret that, although they have a comfortable life, they left careers, aspirations and dreams behind in order to do what they thought was expected of them: be moms and housewives. Production-wise, I was aiming (and still am) to juxtapose a happy-go-lucky sound with the plastic and somewhat tragic lyrics. So, here’s a clip of what the song is shaping up to sound like – at least I think it sounds miles better than the original production!  


Living the Dream Lyrics:

Verse 1:
She, she wakes at an early hour
to primp and preen after a hot shower
and drives the kids to school and daycare
where yummy-mommies all smile and compare

CHORUS:
It’s a shiny new day and the same old song
Everything’s right, nothing’s wrong
Get into the mold so you’ll belong
You’re living the dream, so you gotta be … strong

Verse 2:
She goes to the gym, does the same old workout
in the “lulu” outfit that everyone’s got
worry free with a drink in the hottub…
the nanny will get the kids from school and clubs

CHORUS

Bridge:
She sheds a tear in a glass of white wine,
’cause they all say her life is sublime.
With dreams imposed, she’s doing hard time
Conforming was her only crime…
In a race with no finish line.

CHORUS


If you happen to be the couple of people wanting to hear more, you’ll just have to wait until this entire puppy is done! I think I’ll shelve this tune to give it a break and dust off another to start tackling next week!

Doing the EP Thing

Dave Cracked Up (Blog), Creating, Personal

I’m finally going to do it.

I’m going to self-produce, self-record and self-mix an EP of my music. … At least that’s what I’m telling myself.

After seeing friends and clients go through the process over the past few years, I’ve found myself digging into the vault of “finished” and W.I.P. music and getting visions of releasing it – officially. I can’t really say where this desire or enthusiasm comes from, but I thought I should probably write about it to make it real. It’s not that a blog post will make this a water-tight, jump-off-the-cliff commitment, but the thought of sharing this announcement publicly seems to hold more incentive to accomplish this goal than a silent promise to myself.

Why?

Short answer: I have no idea. 

To tell you the truth, it feels more like a bucket-list item than anything – not saying that I have an urgent need to check things off a bucket list.

Why and EP (Extended Play Record) you ask? I don’t know if I have the time, energy or inventory for a traditional LP. (Although, in this day and age, those terms are kind of antiquated and irrelevant aren’t they?)

From what I could find, an LP (Long Playing record) is a collection of recordings that is “over 25 minutes OR more than four songs where the format does not qualify as a “Maxi” single or remix single as defined by singles eligibility.” – according to the Chart Rules via the Official Charts Company.

We’ll see. I aim to go over the 4-song threshold, but from what I’ve seen, the use of the “EP” moniker is applied very loosely in practice.

Stars in my Eyes?

I sincerely have no illusions of grandeur. I don’t really see (or want) this as a path to a string of world-wide sold-out stadium shows. I don’t have aspirations to get critical acclaim from anyone more than close friends and family.

Of course, I’m going to be obsessing over the details of the performances, arrangements and production. Pouring all my best efforts, knowledge and experience into this project are to be assumed. But, I’m quite aware of the supply glut of new artists and music vying for attention each and every day.

Oh yes, It’d be a momentous stroke of luck if some A&R rep, music supervisor or other industry big-wig “discovered” my (yet-to-be released) music and I started to stumble down the road of a new-found career of who-knows-what. However, that IS NOT plan A, B, C or any other letter of the alphabet.

The Tough Bit

I see this as being a project that would live in the pop/rock/alternative realm of styles. I could probably release a few LP albums of the film score music I’ve composed, but I wanted to go through the process of recording “my own” contemporary-styled music.

I’ve probably have enough songs that are complete enough to record. There are a couple in the pile that are lyric-less but depending upon motivation and the muse striking perfectly, I may opt to fall back on previously “finished” material.

I italicize and quote the term “finished” simply because I find digging up and listening to my past performances of these songs to be quite painful (you can listen to them and judge for yourself … don’t say I didn’t warn you). My recollection of the production and how I sounded far surpasses what emanates from my speakers.

In short, they’re all going to have to be re-done from scratch. That’s not necessarily going to be the toughest part. It will be tedious, yes, but not hard. All of these songs have been realized and those productions have been cemented – so to speak – in my head for a long time. It’d be easy to emulate and re-record with updated (hopefully better) performances, recordings and mixing, but one of my goals here is to bring all of my experience to date to the table.

I want to review, re-assess and re-consider all of the songs. I think the toughest part will be forcing myself to be objective and re-evaluating creative decisions I previously made – sometimes from over a decade ago.

All I can say to myself right now is: Good luck sucker…

“Mastering” your Film Score Cues? Please Don’t

Dave Cracked Up (Blog), Music/Audio, Opinions, Ramblings

Every now and again, I come across posts by aspiring film composers asking about “mastering” their cues:

“What should I use in my mastering processing chain?”
“How much compression and limiting should I use?”
“What do people normalize their tracks to?”

Please, just … don’t.

Unless you are delivering your music to a production library or for release as a stand-alone product, I’d strongly recommend that you do not apply any “mastering” to your music cues.

A film score cue is just ONE of the many elements to go into the final sound landscape of a films complete soundtrack. Along with the music, there are ambience/environment tracks, sound design/sound effects tracks and of course, dialogue. Except for a few instances (credits, montages, etc.), a composers music is going to be mixed with many other audio elements and, more likely than not, will have to be manipulated by the re-recording / mixing engineer quite a bit in order to fit into the overall mix. Just to give you an idea, here’s a screenshot of the music score tracks from a recent short film that I mixed:

 

On the music score track alone, compression, equalization, mid-side, stereo-width and reverb processing is being applied and adjusted throughout the run of the films soundtrack.

It’s not to say that NO finalization efforts should be made to your music, but try to refrain from applying any overall dynamics or drastic equalization processing. I’ve had the opportunity to wear a lot of different hats in the audio post-production realm – including mixing. As a final mixer, I look for and appreciate the score cues to be delivered with a balanced EQ curve and with as much retained dynamics as possible.

As a composer, one needs to recognize that, yes, music is a crucial emotional element in a film, but it is just one of the audio ingredients that needs to be combined to create the soundtrack. Applying “mastering” processes may enhance the sound of the music – as a standalone entity. But, you must keep in mind that music in a film is rarely presented without other audio elements. Finalization processing limits decisions for a mixing engineer and more likely than not, if you’ve “mastered’ your delivered cues, they will be kicked back to have that processing removed.

The Anatomy of a Remix (that I did)

Dave Cracked Up (Blog), Creating, Engineering

Jody Quine’s latest album: Stand Up

If you haven’t checked it out, my remix of Jody Quine‘s “From the Heart” was included on her latest album Stand UpCheck out the two versions below:

The Two Versions

The original version of
From the Heart:

JodyGrammyDaveNAMM

Photobombed selfie on WestJet headed from YVR to LAX

I’ve received a couple of technical and artistic questions about my remix of Jody Quine’s “From the Heart”, so I thought I may as well write a post or two about the journey.

Jody is a wonderful singer-songwriter from Vancouver who always seems to have a positive thing to say about life and others. I am honoured to have the remix I did of her song “From the Heart” included on the album.

I met Jody almost three years ago online in a CBC-run songwriting contest. We coincidently were on the same flight to LA in February of 2014. She was on her way to the Grammy’s and I was on my way to NAMM. We shared a couple of photo-bombed selfie opportunities during the flight and have been friends ever since. I rib her about, what seems to be, her pension for taking selfies and so far, she hasn’t unfriended me. So I think I’m still treading on solid ground.

Choosing From the Heart

Me, Jody and (grammy winner) Jennifer Gasoi

Me, Jody and (grammy winner) Jennifer Gasoi

I’d like to be all dramatic and proclaim that “From the Heart” was the song that leapt out at me from the album and my muse ran into overdrive as a result. But that’s not what happened.

After chatting about a possible remix, leaving for and coming back from a long vacation and thinking I’d missed her deadline, I sent Jody a shortlist of four songs that I liked. She let me know that all of my choices except for From the Heart were spoken for by other remixers.

Yes, I agree, it’s not a glamorous story, but that’s how it happened.

Planning

I wasn’t intending to do a club-style remix of the song. From the Heart had a lot of ebbs and flows to it and there were a lot of perfect opportunities to do bass-drops, breakdowns, builds and the stereotypical boom-chick-boom-chick thing. For one reason or another, I didn’t feel that From the Heart would benefit from that.

It’s not a typical song structure in that it’s not modeled after songs one may be used to with verses, choruses and a bridge. It seems as though Jody wrote the song in a more strophic form where each ‘stanza’ completes with a refrain of “from the heart” or “for the heart”. There are four separate stanzas to the song and a bridge/solo section between the third and fourth (final) one.

Personally, I heard a conflicted reminiscence and justification of a past choice – between commitment to music or a lover – in the song. For me, each stanza seemed to represent unique points in the singer’s life with respect to looking back and evaluating the choice. I pictured a flashback sequence in a film where the audience is brought through a series of key moments in the main characters’ past.

That’s when I decided to approach the remix with a film-scoring slant in mind: Each stanza (or scene) would have its’ own stylistic twist and personality and the music would attempt to reflect the contour and emotion of the narrative.

Screen Shot 2016-05-06 at 1.11.53 PMThe Starting Line

I received four tracks of vocals from Jody.

  • A final unprocessed composite of the lead vocal track takes that made it on the final mix of the song.
  • Two unprocessed backing harmony tracks
  • A mixed lead and backing vocal track (which I didn’t use in the remix)

The vocal recordings were fantastic and I was very happy to be able to leave them alone. The next step was to pop them in Logic and figure out the tempo.

The entire song is in a compound time signature – 6/8 or 12/8 depending on how you view the phrases. I tried to tease the tempo out of the original track and the vocal tracks, but eventually had to resort actually asking Jody. It turns out that they recorded the track at eighths = 96.5 bpm (or at sixteenths at 193).

So, now that the tempo was locked in and the vocal tracks were all set up in the project, the act of remixing was set to begin.

Let the Mangling Begin!

So instead of boring you with a bunch of text, screenshots and audio examples, I thought a little home-movie of what I did might be more appropriate. For your viewing pleasure:

 

Los Angeles, CA – May 16

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The Troubadour
Doors 7pm
Set 11pm
DJ set by The Narrator

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Philadelphia, PA – May 21

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Johnny Brendas
Doors 7pm
Set 9pm
Special Guests Kiss Me Deadly

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Brooklyn, NY – June 11

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Music Hall of Williamsburg
Doors 8pm
Set 10pm
Special Guests The End of the World

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Music Streaming vs Radio Royalties – Numbers on a Napkin

Dave Business, Cracked Up (Blog), Opinions, Ramblings Leave a Comment

napkin

Okay, it’s perhaps unpopular at the moment, but I’ll say it right up front: Apples-to-Apples, on a per listener basis, streaming pays songwriters much better than traditional broadcast royalties. 

Even the suggestion of discussing music streaming with a bunch of songwriters and musicians is a good way to polarize a group. In the grand scheme of things – music industry-wise – there’s been nothing like digital streaming services like Pandora or Spotify.

Streaming services are in some nebulous intersection of a Venn diagram where there’s music programming/curation, downloads, rentals, social media and concert promotion. The services assume pieces of each of these models, but not enough to be able to draw direct parallels.  

Inspiration

This post was inspired by an “old” article (December 2014), but surfaced on my Facebook feed a couple of days ago. The Business Insider published a post entitled Pharrell Made Only $2,700 In Songwriter Royalties From 43 Million Plays Of ‘Happy’ On Pandora. The title of the article implying that Pharrell is getting an extremely bad deal.

Now, I’ll admit, 43,000,000 plays of a song certainly is impressive! But $2,700 for 43 Million plays is just fractions upon fractions of a penny per play (roughly $0.0000628 per play)??? The knee-jerk outcry from those following the story on the Internet was predictable: Artists should be fairly compensated for their work!” 

Screen Shot 2015-03-04 at 2.10.05 PMIt seems to be almost fashionable to speak out against streaming services especially since a few big name artists (Taylor Swift and Björk for example) have recently denounced streaming services and removed their music from the on-line catalogues.

Are the rates unfair and is the artist being gouged? I don’t know. As I mentioned above, the music streaming model is unique and new ground to be broken.

Streaming is not the same as buying a CD or digital download – you don’t own a copy of the music (or more accurately, the licence to that music). I’ve heard streaming be compared to a rental service, but there again, in the midst of some similarities, there are differences that stem from the purely digital format of the product.

The third parallel I see drawn is between streaming and radio. This is evident in the number of articles (in addition to the Pharrell piece above) that quote the per-stream rate that songwriters and publishers get paid on their statements.  The minuscule rates that streaming services pay are typically put up against broadcast rates that performance rights organizations (PRO’s) such as SOCAN, BMI, ASCAP and others pay. The PRO rates usually come out as amounts that can be calculated with just two decimal places – as opposed the eight or nine decimal places required for per-play streaming royalty rates.

Kumquat-0245Apples and Kumquats

That’s really not the end of the story.

The number of listeners that a single radio spin hits is magnitudes more than a single play on a streaming service. Spotify and Pandora are typically consumed by individuals with each streamed play being received by one person. The intent of a song being played on the radio is to be broadcast and heard by literally thousands of people at the same time.

Screen Shot 2015-03-05 at 1.13.26 PM

Radio Spins vs. Stream audiences

A quick google search of US pop radio audience revealed that 56 million people listen to commercial pop-music radio per day. I posted the BI article on my Facebook page with the anecdote that 43 million streams of “Happy” equates to roughly less than one spin of the song on terrestrial commercial pop radio.

To paraphrase the question in my post:

What is the PRO rate broken down to a per-listener level so that streaming and radio rates can be compared
on a more equal (apples to apples) level?

bugselmerThe Rabbit Hole

Needless to say, finding royalty statements and figures on radio audiences is not an easy task. I’ll freely admit that there are an abundance of caveats to my calculations and assumptions. I tried to be as conservative as I could as I was dealing with information that was private and non-transparent.

My first task was to find some royalty statements where a song has been played on traditional radio and streaming services over the same time period.

Screen Shot 2015-03-05 at 1.21.57 PMLo and behold, a songwriter by the name of David Lowrey (Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker) did just that. I found a post of his that included his royalty statements where he shows how much he got paid for plays of his song “Low” (performed by Cracker) by various radio and streaming services. Seeing as his statement was the only publicly available example I could find that showed a full set of royalty data for a song, his earnings are going to be the straw fodder for the straw-man that I’m about to build.

The song “Low” was streamed over 1,000,000 times on Pandora and netted him less than $17. Granted his songwriters share of the song is 40%, so in reality, the 1 million streams netted the songwriters just over $42. Over the same period of time, “Low” was played 18,797 times over terrestrial radio resulting in a total songwriter payout of $3,434.45.

$42 for almost 1.16 million streams versus $3,434.45 for 18,797 spins on radio? The numbers seem to illustrate that streaming services are ripping off the artist: allowing listeners to listen to music with virtually no compensation to the artist.

Or is it?

A single play on radio reaches literally thousands of people while a single stream generally reaches one person at a time. It really begged the question: What was the actual audience size that heard those 18,797 radio plays? And furthermore, how does that $3,434.45 translate to a per-listener rate?

Radio Jungle

This is where it kind of gets “fun”. Actual and accurate audience numbers of radio audiences are either closely guarded secrets or not really known to any level of accuracy. I suspect a bit of both.

I found a couple of sites (1, 2) that shed some light on radio station rankings and audience numbers for Vancouver. I settled on numbers that represent Vancouver (where I live) as a reference-point. The population of Vancouver is just over 600,000 (Greater Vancouver came in just shy of 2.5 million people) in 2013. In the grand scheme of things, when compared to cities in the US, Vancouver’s size would result in it just making it to the top-30 biggest cities by population in the US – a decent “average” city.

As for satellite radio audience sizes, after much searching, I found an obscure article from 2008 (before the merger of Sirius and XM) that gave listenership for a few programs. Without anything more recent, I thought that the sound of “Low” would probably fit in the “Pulse (’90s)” show (330,700 listeners in 2008).

Scribbles on a Napkin

I’ll be the first to admit that there are probably much more accurate numbers for these calculations, but assumptions were made and documented (below).

For David’s song “Low”, as per his published royalty statements,

Screen Shot 2015-03-05 at 2.15.06 PM

The initial analysis seems to point to the fact that getting your song played on satellite radio is a freakin’ awesome deal and Spotify / YouTube / Pandora just plain suck.

However… After plugging in some (assumption ladened) audience numbers, the figures get adjusted to a play-per-listener playing field:

Assumptions

TAdduperrestrial Radio Audience Size: I chose 102.7 “The Peak” as a representative radio station in Vancouver. It plays “adult contemporary” music – programming that I felt fit with the sound of “Low”. Compared to other stations in the city, the listenership of “The Peak” lands in the bottom half of the ratings lists – which in turn give the estimate a level of conservatism. The radio stations’ site combined with 2012 PPM estimates seem to suggest that the daily listener audience is somewhere around 70,000 people. I made the assumption that at any instant when a song is played (assuming it makes prime-time rotation), there may be roughly 10,000 people listening.

SiriusXM Satellite Audience Size: Again, I chose to err on the side of conservatism – sticking with 2008 pre-merger audience numbers even though SiriusXM subscriber growth has increased steadily over the past four years (~19 Million in 2010 to ~27 Million in 2014).

Streaming Audience Size: Although most streams can be assumed to be delivered to an individual, the reality is, a portion of those devices could be connected to speaker systems where there are more than one listener in attendance. I made the assumption that 50 percent of the time, there may be at least two people listening to a stream and used 1.5 as the audience size.

Results

With the (again, assumption ladened) audience numbers inserted, in the analysis, satellite radio seems to be the worst deal for songwriter royalties, followed by terrestrial radio. Surprisingly, Spotify seems to be the highest per-listener songwriter royalty rate.

Conclusion

Other than comparing unadjusted royalty rates being a gross mis-representation of relative compensation, I don’t know if I can arrive at any solid conclusion as to whether streaming is beneficial to the songwriter or not. The numbers seem to suggest that on a per-listener basis, streaming is a better deal for songwriter performance royalties. That being said, depending on the source you reference, streaming constitutes anywhere between 10% and 15% of music consumption methods. Radio is still, by far, the dominant method of music consumption and discovery.

The question still remains though – What is streaming and is the pricing / compensation model valid?

I don’t know.

I’ve just compared streaming to radio by attempting to “equalize” the metrics. Streaming shares a lot of similarities with radio, but it is also, for the most part, controlled by the listener. So, how does the benefit of random-access control translate into prices and compensation? Are they optimal for the market or will they / should they shift?

It’s going to be interesting to see how this all shakes out.

The Pono Pretense

Dave Business, Cracked Up (Blog), Opinions, Tech 1 Comment

Neil Young and PonoFWIW, I have nothing against Neil Young nor do I dislike high-quality audio. Quite the contrary.

I’d never classify myself as a “fan” of Neil. I could take or leave his music – perhaps blasphemous to other Canadians out there, but, it is how it is. I’ve long given up paying attention to the opinions of artists. They may have achieved a certain level of success with their art, but after meeting enough of them, I realized, long ago, that none of them are infallible in their views or opinions. Neil’s a fantastic songwriter and musician.

Being an audio professional who creates and listens to audio on thousands of dollars of equipment daily, I can respect Neil’s desire to increase the fidelity of the sound we are all listening to these days. I’ll freely admit that the compromises involved in squashing down tracks of high bit-rate/sample-rate audio into a smaller package is always a bit painful. However, that compromise results in a lot of advantages that in the end, let me enjoy virtually any music I’d like to listen to … anytime … and virtually anywhere.

The Pono

Pono /ˈpn/ is a proposed music download-service and dedicated music player focusing on “high-quality” recorded audio.
– Wikipedia.org

Ponomusic Ecosystem

Pono classifies itself as an “ecosystem” – complete with a snazzy graphic that reminds me of something I’d see in my kids’ science textbooks.

The music being offered for sale is apparently a version of FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec).

The player is a digital storage and playback device that has been compared, in functionality, to the original iPod / MP3 players of the early 2000’s.

The store is it’s own e commerce environment.

The OhNo of Pono

I’ll re-iterate – I have no problem with the goal of better fidelity audio, in fact I strongly applaud any attempt to promote and encourage consumer demand for better sound.

PonoMusic is dedicated to restoring that ear-body connection with a new digital music system that optimizes the listening experience end-to-end.Ponomusic.com

This all sounds fantastic but the whole implementation, smacks of another attempt to get consumers to buy into a yet another record collection upgrade – to capture that heady boost to sales that the introduction of CD’s had back in the late ’80’s. CD’s got everyone buying up copies of albums they already owned. Ever since there’s been an almost cyclical attempt to peddle “upgrades” to your music collection. There were the original records, the vinyl box sets, CD’s, box sets on CD, the remastered stereo and mono box sets on CD and vinyl,  iTunes, “Mastered for iTunes”… now Pon-ified?

Albums on the Pono store will cost $14.95-24.95, well above the prices set by iTunes, Amazon, and most other online distributors.

first-edition-ponoplayer-640x0Swiss Chocolate Anyone?

File format and (yet another) online music marketplace aside, I am really puzzled with the decision to make the Pono Player itself. Why, in this day and age, would you introduce a device that’s dedicated to only playing music? It’s been labeled as an iPod stuffed in a Toblerone package – a form factor you’ll have to think twice about before stuffing in your pocket. I can just see the hashtags like “#ponoboner” already.

I can barely recall the inconvenience of carrying around a phone, a PDA (remember those?) and an MP3 player every time I left the house. Now that everyone is used to having all of those things on one device, the introduction of something that requires you to unbundle music from your phone seems counter-intuitive and backwards.

Where Are They Now?

The Guardian’s assessment of the market niche for Pono seems accurate:

The audience is a niche (people who pay for music) within a niche (people who want digital music) within a niche (people who care about the sound quality)

I couldn’t tell you whether or not pursuing this niche with the Pono model makes business sense, but I can’t see this niche being sustainable for a company attempting to establish an e-commerce marketplace, sell hardware and push a new (restrictive) format.

I applaud the desire to elevate fidelity in music, but this really seems to be an bass-ackward way of doing it. I’ll be more than happy if this somehow gets FLAC (or other lossless codec) to be adopted as a common audio file format, but tying it to a specific brand and proprietary distribution channel really smacks of pipe-dream-induced ulterior motives.

The reality is that much of music listening (recorded music) is a passive activity. High-fidelity and sound quality are trumped by convenience – convenience in the terms of quantity, variety and timeliness. True active listening these days is a rarity. The implied hypothesis that Neil and Pono make – everyone will forgo their current habits and conveniences in order to listen to higher-fidelity music – seems a bit … naive.

In addition to listening habits, the consumption of music is shifting away from purchasing music (or rather purchase a license to possess a copy of that music) – evidence by the fact that 2014 is the first year that not one artist has achieved platinum-level record sales. Streaming services such as Spotify and Pandora have gained significant footholds with more and more consumers of music. Much like on-demand video services have supplanted DVD and Blueray sales/rentals, audio streaming services appear to be gaining as a substitute for physical and digital sales of music.

A Head-Scratcher

To me, the Pono model all just doesn’t make sense. If getting the world to listen to higher fidelity was the goal, then why didn’t Neil and the Pono team just appeal to existing digital music distributors and device manufacturers. If that didn’t pan out then championing companies and channels that already offer high-fidelity audio would also make sense. Sites such as Bandcamp, Soundcloud, and HDtracks all offer audio in FLAC and other formats (such as ALAC, AAC and Ogg Vorbis).

Creating an entire distribution chain – for both hardware and digital content – seems like the most difficult and expensive route for the stated goal of Pono.

Is it ego, bad business advice, too many yes-men surrounding poor Neil? I don’t know, perhaps I’m missing something…