“To Feel the Music” by Neil Young and Phil Baker

I love the meeting point between music, technology and business. And I also have a soft spot for people and companies that pursue quality. So “To Feel the Music” by Neil Young and Phil Baker brilliantly checks off many of my reading interests. The book takes you on a somewhat out of control odyssey primarily detailing the creation and eventual demise of the high resolution audio player Pono. But the genesis of the device and the core of the book is what matters most.

For Neil Young, Phil Baker and the Pono team sound quality was the philosophical and business driver. It’s what informed the entire project and it’s also what ultimately drove the company out of business. The challenge for Pono was three fold. First there was educating the consumer as to what high resolution audio is and why they would want it. Second, the technical hurdle of building not only a physical player but also a distribution system in the form of a dedicated website. And third, convincing record companies that the pricing of high resolution audio should be similar or equal to the cost of compressed audio formats. None of these elements are what one would call a breeze to achieve.

I probably should add another massive mountain that Pono had to climb. Money. As the book details, product development is not cheap and at pretty much every step Pono was hunting for capital. To say it was an uphill battle would be an understatement. Just about every setback you could think of, they encountered — from personnel to engineering to finally losing their dedicated distribution website. All of these setbacks were costly and in the end lead to the demise of Pono.

Was it a worthwhile effort? On the business side, Pono burned through a whole bunch of cash and are no longer in business, which obviously isn’t a good thing. But from a purely audio quality and art perspective, I would say absolutely Pono did what they set out to do. Recordings should sound the best they possibly can and compressed audio doesn’t do that. There’s the argument that the consumer simply wants more songs and not better sounding songs, but why can’t they have both? Computing horsepower and bandwidth are not the limiting factor they were even in the recent past. If you can stream high definition video you certainly can stream high resolution audio. And that’s exactly what the Neil Young Archives are doing right now. My hope is that the large labels and streaming companies will follow in Pono and Neil Young’s footsteps and give listeners a chance “To Feel the Music”.

Economist Paul Krugman on How to Fix the Music Industry (and Why Not Much Has Changed in the Last 150 Years) – (Billboard)

Economist Paul Krugman on How to Fix the Music Industry (and Why Not Much Has Changed in the Last 150 Years) – (Billboard)

Interesting short interview with Paul Krugman.  His analysis of the incomes of past music “stars” is telling.  From his research, past and current stars are very similar in terms of their income and that the majority of that income comes from live performance.  My takeaway from the interview: Music was and is a tough business.

Same Old, Same Old: PwC’s Forecast Shows a Shrinking Music Industry through 2019

Same Old, Same Old: PwC’s Forecast Shows a Shrinking Music Industry through 2019 (Paste)

So many “ifs” in this PwC music industry study. But still, the gist of the study seem reasonable: Live music is where it’s at, recorded music not so much.

HOW TO REVOLUTIONISE THE MUSIC BUSINESS: RIP IT UP AND START AGAIN (Music Business Worldwide)

HOW TO REVOLUTIONISE THE MUSIC BUSINESS: RIP IT UP AND START AGAIN (Music Business Worldwide)

One of the best music business interviews I’ve read. Some impressively creative, forward thinking approaches to the music industry.

Safe harbour

Very interesting article on CNET today. Never knew about safe harbour and how it relates to YouTube. Has to be particularly tough for streaming companies that are paying out royalties when YouTube is basically getting their content for free.

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‘We tell Spotify no, YouTube does it anyway’: The music industry’s love-hate relationship with YouTube

Quote from CNET:

How does YouTube get away with not paying out royalties? “There’s an inequality in the marketplace where we have a piece of the legislative framework called safe harbour”, explained Mulligan. Safe harbour rules are designed to give legal protection to companies such as, for example, Internet service providers in case their users do something dodgy using the service they provide. YouTube claims it’s covered by this law because the service is only a conduit for people to post content. As a result, said Mulligan, “YouTube has got a far bigger catalogue than any other music service will ever have under the current framework, and it does so because it doesn’t have to license it on a work-by-work basis.”

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Backing Tracks

Don’t know what to think about Rihanna’s SNL performance last night. Even if you’re going to lip sync or sing along with the tracks, what is the point of starting a line and then letting the track finish it? Is that to acknowledge that the audience knows you’re singing to tracks or lip syncing? Maybe this is the latest cool thing and I’m even more out of touch than I thought I was…

20 Feet From Stardom

Watched 20 Feet From Stardom last night. I don’t want to be one of those “spoilers”, so for those of you who haven’t seen the documentary, I’m going to be somewhat vague in this post.

First off, it’s a really good documentary. Lots of insights into the world of professional background singing and the music industry in general. And probably more importantly, the film looks deeply into the human, emotional challenges of playing a supporting role. There’s also some thoughtful comments from established artists like Sting, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger and Bette Midler.

Many of the background singers showcased in this documentary have strong ties to gospel music. Their early musical training in the church clearly worked wonders as many of the singers could (and can) move easily between a wide variety of genres. What was interesting in the documentary was how many of the background singers had not only the ability sing in a supporting role, but could just as easily step out and take the lead.

And this is what 20 Feet From Stardom is really all about. Why does one artist become a “star” and another ends up cleaning houses for a living. Or teaching Spanish. Or singing background. The film touches on a variety of reasons and I think they’re mostly spot on. Some singers get sideswiped by business. It’s no secret that the music industry has its fair share of weasels. Some singers don’t have that centre of attention, look at me thing. And some singers don’t have a distinct point of view. They like blending with other singers and a band and are happy in that role.

20 Feet From Stardom is a good film. Go and check it out!