image As the May 1 sale date approaches, US distributor Keyfax is taking pre-orders of the Yamaha Tenori-On. The only way to order it will be (oddly) via the Tenori-On tour site:

Keyfax explains:

So that everyone has an equal purchasing opportunity, pre-sale orders are being taken via Tenori-on Registration on a first-come first-served basis.

As shipments arrive, KEYFAX NewMedia will personally contact those registered; your order will be processed, and your unit shipped.

I’m not entirely convinced Keyfax and/or Yamaha understand Web communities. Aside from a clunky website design, they’re asking for people to manually send them MP3 links and videos "for review and consideration." (That’s a bit odd coming from a hardware distribution company; if that site is supposed to be a "community," why the tough content policy?) There is some sparse but useful discussion on their forum.

So, anyone with cool tracks on Tenori-On, feel free to send CDM links. We’re happy to look, too.

But all of this makes me wonder — how much longer will Yamaha treat Tenori-On’s launch as an "experiment"?

It’s been six years in development, publicly discussed by Yamaha for over a year, and on the market since September, yet we’re still told that Yamaha can only make Tenori-On units in "limited quantities" via exclusive distribution. Everything — even this forum — has a temporary feel, with various apologies posted around about how the product is still "early" in its development. At about 100 units per month maximum (both for the UK launch and now the US), the reality is that the device is shipping a volume more in line with DIY projects and boutique music electronics, not Yamaha-branded, robot-manufactured gear. Yet Yamaha keeps talking about popularizing music to non-musicians, even though the device’s price and limited availability means the only people buying it are hard-core musicians with cash to spare.

And mostly what we’re getting is mixed messages. So, for instance, hundreds of people fill a packed, hyped "launch" event here in New York. But then someone asks about price or availability, and suddenly the conversation turns awkward, as if Yamaha didn’t expect you to actually buy it. That’s not really a criticism, just confusion. And I know it’s not just my confusion, either, because I’m in touch with other press who covered the launch events. They’re baffled. The hyped-up launch campaign doesn’t seem to jive with the almost apologetic stance on sales and production.

One possibility is that Yamaha is planning a very big launch for a consumer device, or at least thinking about it. That’d make the tenuous position now a little more logical. But then, the device itself feels like a complete experience. Could it really be translated to something else — either at the low- or high-end? What would happen to musicians who spend $1300 on this if a $400 version showed up at Best Buy? Or, more to the point, what does Yamaha think about this and how it relates to the other stuff they make? We’ve heard lots from Toshio Iwai, and quite frankly, his descriptions have been artful and elegant. Now we’re just waiting to hear something coherent from Yamaha. Curiously, that message so far has been "look at this new gadget for people who don’t play instruments," followed by "now listen to experienced musicians playing it, since they’re the ones we’re selling it to."

And, hey, Yamaha, I do hope you don’t take this the wrong way. Welcome to the blogosphere — now you get to know what we’re thinking.

That said, in the musician community the limited availability is having the effect of separating the smaller group of people who want and can afford Tenori-On from everyone else. Those who want it are working hard to get it, and everyone we’ve heard from who’s got one has been really happy with it.

Whatever marketing and distribution may be doing, I still see the product itself as a separate story. Yamaha confirms one is on its way to me, so I look forward to sharing some hands-on time with the device. I still think the design itself is fascinating, not only in terms of what it says about Tenori-On itself, but what it says about the possibility of music instrument design.

Stay tuned for our hands-on.