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Pono: “What’s Your Cut?”

If you’ve watched The Good Wife, you know about witness prep. It’s where attorneys run a mini-mock trial with their witness on the imaginary stand, and ask questions…then cross-examine. It’s the best way to see how poised the witness is, and prepare him or her for the best way to bat away curveballs from the opposing side.

After Neil Young’s SXSW keynote* yesterday, Pono CEO John Hamm joined him onstage. During the Q&A, an audience member bluntly asked “What’s your cut?” He was referring to the service end of Pono where customers will be able to buy and download high-resolution albums and tracks. The query referred to the payback ratio offered to labels and artists by Pono.

Hamm didn’t anticipate the question. He also wasn’t too hot at coming up with a gracious, spontaneous answer, and Young tried to finesse the stammering, with limited success:

Hamm, after a flustered moment, responded: “It surprises most people that everyone who buys music from the record labels pays exactly the same amount.” To which several audience members shouted, “What?!”

“That’s a delicate question, isn’t it?” Young asked. After which Hamm turned to the moderator, slightly flushed at this point, and said, “We can end it.” “You can answer the question if you like,” Snider said. Hamm shook his head slightly before Snider closed the discussion.

The deer-in-headlights thing isn’t going to cut it. 75% of the people at panels like this are thumbing Twitter messages during the event, and everything said will be examined, analyzed, deconstructed, broadcast (and, often, scorned) before the speaker has taken another breath.

I wasn’t there, so I have the benefit of not only distance but hindsight. Here’s some things he could have said:

– “Contracts are still being hammered out and it wouldn’t be fair to comment at this time.”

– “From a contract standpoint, we work with artists and labels on a confidential basis – it’s the industry standard.”

– “Indies and majors are on a level playing field when it comes to payments. Further discussion of this would be premature.”

– “If you’re an artist or represent a label, we’d be happy to discuss this further. Come up after the panel and I’ll give you my card.”

Hopefully Hamm will benefit from some “witness prep” before his next public appearance. Along with Young, he’s the PR face for the project. A little confidence and poise will go a long way.

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* Note that the streaming audio on NPR’s site only includes Neil Young’s keynote, not the Q&A following.