Neil Young's new company Pono Music promises a lot — but can it deliver?
At the South By Southwest event in Austin, Texas, Neil Young officially unveiled Pono, his high-resolution music player. The introduction came in the form of a characteristically rambling monologue by Young, joined on stage by Pono's CEO, the more to-the-point-type John Hamm. A 10-minute video of endorsements by artists such as Eddie Vedder, Tom Petty, Jack White, Bruce Springsteen and Mumford & Sons testified to Young's central premise: that compressed digital formats have eviscerated the sonic quality of music and, by extension, erected a wall between artistic intent and what music consumers actually end up hearing.
First, some nuts and bolts. Pono is a piece of hardware, a triangular-shaped (some have compared its form factor to a Toblerone bar), hand-sized hunk of what appears to be plastic, with 128GB of flash memory (expandable through memory cards) and an LCD touchscreen. It'll set you back $400, or $300 if you subscribe to its Kickstarter page, which apparently passed its goal of $800,000 not long after Young stepped off the stage. Pono also comes as part of a larger package, with an online music store (but, mercifully, no headphones — yet). But what is putatively its core appeal is that it's capable of storing and playing back tracks up to 192kHz and 24 bits on FLAC files.
While he may have rustled up nearly $1 million in funding that day, Young was also careful to leave himself an out, stating that even if Pono failed, it will have succeeded in bringing attention to the issue of the sonic quality of music, and that that would be success enough for him.
Good, because it's going to fail. It has to. A hardware-based player, one that doesn't even have wireless connectivity built in, is simply backwards. When it comes to media, the primacy of convenience over quality is long established, starting with the Compact Disc: the then-primitive D-A converters rendered a lot of early discs nearly unlistenable, but that didn't deter anyone from loving true random access to tracks. The transition from physical media to download files further entrenched that ethos. Now, as music moves deeper by the day into the streaming environment, where consumers no longer even have to store music in any form, the lid has been nailed shut. All the vinyl and lacquer in the world isn't going to change that outcome.
But Young's fundamental premise remains valid even if his product is fatally flawed: some people appear to want better-sounding music, and even if it's just lip service, $800,000 in a couple of hours suggests they're willing to put some money where their mouths are. Of course, some of them -— barely 2000 of them, that day, when you do the maths — may have experienced buyer's remorse the next morning after realising that $300 could also have bought them two-and-a-half years of Spotify's premium service.
But Pono has another problem, one typical of the kind of post-Soviet landscape that the music business finds itself in these days, as ancient models crumble and moguls old and new scramble for opaque advantages. When asked by an audience member how much Pono would keep of music sales revenues and how much would go to artists, Hamm cut Young off and bluntly changed the subject. Even at 24-bit/192kHz, things get dodgy when the dollar signs come out.
What Pono reminds us is that the die has largely been cast. In a mobile, wireless world, one in which hoarders are pitied on reality TV shows and the ideal has become an unfettered life with a cloud-based storage locker, music has become a virtual commodity, yet remains a critically necessary one. What music production has to do, and slowly but surely is doing, is adapt to that new reality. Records (even the term seems antiquated now) need to be optimised for the distribution channels most people want them in. Apple, whose iTunes Store, at 80 percent of the market, owns the download sector, has made digital tools and best practices available to maximise the sonic capabilities of its 256kbps AAC file format. AAC is quirky, to say the least, and sonic outcomes can differ widely based on material. And 'Mastered For iTunes', the toolset's official moniker, has been scorched online by various well-known mastering engineers. But for the much larger cohort of mixing and mastering professionals out there it's a big step up. Likewise, music streaming services also provide higher-resolution content, and adaptive streaming rates and improved broadband make it widely available. Spotify, for instance, uses the Ogg Vorbis format in three speeds: 96, 160 and 320 kbps, the last being their premium product. Beats hits the same delivery numbers for its premium version. Apple iTunes Radio plugs along at 256kbps. HDTracks asserts a whopping 921kbps rate of uncompressed 24-bit data, at either 96 or 192 kHz.
Streamed music is always going to be a moving target for mixing and mastering; outcomes will depend on the connection speeds of each individual listener, and those can vary literally from hour to hour as area broadband loads ebb and flow. All this points to the need for multiple versions of finished masters, tailored to the necessities of various delivery channels. It's an additional workload, for sure, and one that doesn't necessarily have an immediate ROI. Long-term, however, artists and their technology teams, who make the effort to accommodate the new realities of how music is consumed, will benefit. Everyone experiences listening fatigue, it's just that we know what it is and most consumers don't. There will be those who, even if they can't quite put their finger on why, will realise that listening to certain recordings is simply a more pleasant experience than listening to others. Neil Young, brilliant artist and technical adventurer that he is, has already established his historical credentials. Pono, like other hardware solutions in a cloud universe, is simply history.