The world has lost a great man. Dr. Sidney Harman was most well known in Washington in recent years for his great philanthropy and his investment in the revitalization of Newsweek through its partnership with The Daily Beast. But I knew and counted on a different part of his amazing career.
I met the wonderful Rep. Jane Harman in 1992 when I took a leave of absence from my job at the Recording Industry Association Association of America (RIAA) to manage newly elected Senator Dianne Feinstein's transition. Also newly elected, Jane and Dianne quickly started working together on behalf of California. But when I learned that Jane was married to Sidney Harman the founder of Harman Kardon, I begged for an introduction. She laughed. Usually people in Washington were begging to meet newly elected members of Congress, not their spouses. But I was a music junkie. And if you loved music, your goal in life was to be able to afford the best Harmon Kardon audio equipment. After my time with Senator Feinstein I went back to the RIAA and was appointed president and CEO. Over the years I consulted regularly with Sidney.
The switch from analog to digital in the music industry came with great stress and many bumps in the road for artists, producers, and music lovers. Not just for the reasons people are most familiar with—digital piracy and distribution. It was a difficult and painful transition because the technology used to deliver music digitally compressed the audio sound so drastically that for a true fan it was almost unbearable. Engineers at Harman Kardon and other places had worked tirelessly for years to get every note—high, low and in between—and importantly every space between every note—to be audible at each level of volume, adjustable with bass and tenor and flexible enough to customize any musical listening experience.
Compressing all this rich noise into a narrow bit stream so that it could be delivered with enough speed online meant sacrificing a huge amount of audio quality. Sidney knew that better than anyone. And in my most frustrating days of the digital transition he was a comforting ear.
He was also a wise ear. Technology marches on, he said. There will always be a market for quality he assured me. Consumers will demand better and better quality from digital compression and the industry will respond. In fact, quality has never been as good with digital delivery but it is getting better. But Sidney was focused on a more important lesson for me. Life goes on and you had better enjoy it. He was a role model in every sense on that score.
I remember after I left RIAA, we would talk about how much more I actually loved listening to music now that it wasn't my business anymore. He completely understood. He told me that he never looked back in his life. He went from passion to passion and deal to deal but he always had a new dream on the horizon. That impression has never left me.
Sidney Harman was one of a kind. He was a flirt who loved his wife madly, a friend who gave direct and sound advice even when it was hard to hear, a dreamer who created paths to make his dreams come true, and a true beacon for simple music lovers like me.