- Courtesy of Father John Misty’s Facebook page
- Father John Misty
Father John Misty, the nom de troll of Joshua Tillman (formerly of Fleet Foxes), has streamed his new album I Love You, Honeybear a full two weeks ahead of its scheduled release. Sort of. The songwriter announced a “new music platform” called SAP that’s all about hearing music on demand at no cost to either the listener or the artist. Slicked over with deeply sarcastic jargon and stock photos of young people listening to earbuds in the sun, SAP’s homepage contains a single album stream: I Love You, Honeybear. Well, not really—the album’s been stripped down to canned instrument patches and synthesized vocal sounds.
It’s a pretty good joke. SAP promises “freedoming, discoverness, and sharehood,” neologisms too absurd to appear in a music start-up’s first press release, but only slightly. It also takes aim at a real music service that just launched, Neil Young’s Pono, which allows users to purchase high-quality audio files at prices more expensive than an MP3 download but a little cheaper than a vinyl LP. “SAP files sound incredible on PONO,” tweeted Father John Misty on Tuesday as he rolled out the gag.
Pono’s website also boasts photos of beautiful people lounging outdoors with high-quality music streaming into their headphones. And Pono’s jargon, though intended to be serious, has raised some eyebrows among those who actually study trends in audiophilia. The service’s music files contain resolutions that match or exceed the quality of CDs, but listen to them through earbuds and whatever latent details you might have paid for will be lost in translation. As Mark Richardson explained for Pitchfork, the quality of your source file matters less than the quality of your equipment when you’re spinning music engineered to sound great.
But if SAP mocks Pono, it also seems to mock those who have been mocking Pono as well. “We all know the drill: music is expensive to buy, and, well, we don’t always end up liking what we hear,” reads a statement on the satirical promo page. “However, thanks to amazing technological innovations like streaming music we no longer have to pay for music we might not like.”
Many of Pono’s initial detractors decried the service’s high prices. Instead of a $10 download, Neil Young and company were asking users to pay $20, $30, even $40 for full albums in extrahigh audio resolution. Pono offered itself as an alternative to services like Spotify, which is free with ads and offers paid subscriptions for $10 a month. Spotify’s albums are capped at either 160 kbps (kilobytes per second) for the free service or 320 kbps for the paid one—relatively poor audio quality compared to CDs, which play back at about 1,400 kbps, the low end of Pono’s available resolutions.
“How do we find a way of extending the joy of free to the artist as well as the fans?” asks SAP’s website. “Is there a way to prevent anyone from spending money ever?” SAP mimics Pono’s aesthetics, but its satire might be pointed more sharply at Spotify and YouTube, services that have replaced music libraries for many casual listeners. If you want to pay nothing, Tillman implies, you should actually get what you pay for: a downloadable batch of slim files that sound more like MIDIs than CDs.
Tillman is a competent satirist, a trait which also runs through his music to a degree (he’s performed live inside a giant cutout of an iPhone). But I’m not entirely sure what he wants from us. By laying a heavy hand to all music start-ups—paid, unpaid, semipaid—he seems to be rallying for a not-too-distant past when listeners paid a set price for a single album. He’s not the only one: artists as high-profile as Thom Yorke have lashed out against Spotify and attempted to get fans to buy, not stream, their albums. But the floodgates are open—as much as he might mock it, Father John Misty has all of his music available on Spotify. Most artists aren’t in a position to abstain from the service, where they might reach new fans.
The conceit of SAP is that listeners can determine whether an album is structurally worth spending money on before they purchase it. “The consumer can decide quickly and efficiently whether they like a musical composition, based strictly on its formal attributes,” writes Tillman. The tracks themselves sound hilarious and bad—obviously, nothing useful comes through here. Father John Misty skillfully taps into the fatigue around the uncountable start-ups that claim to “reinvent” the listening experience. But beyond the facile, snide commentary, he isn’t offering any solutions—besides turning back the clock 20 years.