Perfect Sound Forever


Neil at SXSW 2014, photo by Jason Gross

Can It Change the Music Biz?
by Jason Gross
(June 2014)

While the music and tech world is yapping about Apple buying Beats and why they made this deal and how Dr. Dre is gonna be hip hop's first billionaire (in your face, Diddy), another important music biz story that could affect the whole future of the industry was getting sidelined. As someone who loves music not just as fan but as a hardcore nut that wants music to be great quality not just in terms of good songs but also good sound quality, I was heartened to hear about Neil Young's Pono project but now I'm skeptical about it.

For SXSW, which combines music with tech and movies and more now, Pono found a good launching pad this past March. Developed as a way for fans to hear music in a high-quality sound format, Young wisely created a Kickstarter campaign to get fan funding for the project and raise awareness for it. The SXSW launch was a hotly anticipated item- indeed, I jumped off the plane and caught a taxi to my Austin hotel to register quickly and get there in time for Young's presentation. I made it but I was sorry that I did.

Look, I love Young. I have piles and piles of albums, CD's and even some cassettes and a few bootlegs of his music (not some of the bizarre 80s stuff though- I have my limits) and have seen him solo and with Crazy Horse several times (twice in 2012 alone). But I wasn't prepared for a rambling intro speech where he paced the stage and told stories about L.A.'s famed Gold Star Studio even if there were all sorts of inspirational and funny quotes.

“We were selling shit… they were buying wallpaper." (referring to how digital music was marketed)

“An album is a family of songs."

“The MP3 brought collateral damage… people were making music at home" (also mentioned that it hurt sound quality)

“Music now is fifty percent of what it could be… This is a format to give you what the artist did."

“Become part of a revolution to preserve music."

“This is America- this is freedom of choice… I'm running for President… No, no, I'm Canadian."

“If this succeeds, music wins."

This was followed by a 10 minute video where his famous musical friends like Tom Petty, Sting, Bruce Springsteen, Jack White, Rick Rubin, Eddie Vedder, Flea, James Taylor, Elvis Costello and others all boost Pono (see video below), followed by a Q&A where he talked and talked about Pono more. The problem is that he didn't play any music the whole time. I didn't expect him to whip out a guitar and do “Down By The River" or “Heart of Gold" but I did expect him to play some of the goddamn Pono tracks to actually show how cool and great it was. But he didn't. After an hour of his jawing about the system, I couldn't take it and just walked out as a much more satisfying treat of Texas BBQ beckoned.

True, he was funny at times and self-deprecating, and he actually said that if some other company would come along and make high quality music files and could do it better and cheaper than Pono, he was fine with that. And during the course of his SXSW presentation, he had already raised about $400,000, which was about half the money that he originally intended on Kickstarter. As of now when the campaign ended, Pono has raised over $6 million, making it one of the best-funded campaigns ever on Kickstarter.

That's all good and well but then there's the fine print. First off, the donations came from about 18,000 people, donating an average of $341 each. The six million figure is impressive and surely Neil himself has plenty that he could kick in himself but when you're talking about 18,000 people, that's not what you call a revolution or a mass movement. A middling indie band's sales would be about 18,000, which ought to worry anyone who thinks that Pono is going to take over the music world.

Basically, Young is fighting the good fight, trying to raise the standards that were lowered by CD's, which were supposed to supply high quality pristine audio (you know, ‘perfect sound forever') but haven't and audio files (i.e. MP3) which also cut out the highs and lows that you could enjoy on a stereo system through well mastered vinyl records. Then there was the ‘loudness wars' where albums were purposely engineered at a higher volume to make them sound like ideal pop fodder but actually degraded the quality of the sound.

The problem is that a product like Pono is made for a niche audience- audiophiles who care about the quality of the music they hear. These music nuts still buy stereos, high quality turntables and 180-gram vinyl reissues for the best audio quality. But this crowd isn't a huge audience- vinyl sales jumped 33% last year but they're still a tiny fraction of CD and digital sales now. The majority of music consumers, which includes not just people still buying CD's and MP3 files but also the post-millennium generation that downloads songs for no cost, don't particularly care about audio quality- they just want their music and hi-fi be damned.

The person who helped to perpetuate the lower quality audio revolution was none other than Steve Jobs who made the portable MP3 player iPod the ultimate audio device of the past decade along with iTunes, the digital music service that offered up convenient 99 cents songs to fill up these little devices. The songs were not made in high quality audio but that didn't matter since you were listening on the small iPod speakers which couldn't deliver high quality audio, not to mention your home computer system which had speakers that didn't deliver good quality sound either. In this kind of audio/tech environment, sound quality was beside the point- it was all about convenience. Though headphones like Beats came along to provide a cooler listening experience and sold well despite being pricey enough to make them seem like status items, they were marketed in savvy enough a way to become mainstream purchases even though many audiophiles noted that the sound quality they provide isn't top notch (note that the Apple buy-up of Beats is speculated to be related more towards branding potential, getting the services of Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine or its streaming service rather than the headphone market). Also, with the tech action shifting to phones and away from MP3 players, the same problem of crappy audio and tiny speakers means that music fans still don't get good sound quality and as seen in each of the new lines of phones that come out, the manufacturers don't seem to think that consumers need or care about this. Ditto for tablet devices, though some do offer wireless and plug-in speakers to improve things a bit.

This is what Young and his Pono system is fighting against and it's daunting. The cell and tablet market dwarf the high-end audio market and that's not likely to change anytime soon- people still want convenience and ease of use. If you tell them that they can listen to music with much more body and heft to it, they'll be fine with it as long as it just comes along with the phone/tablet they have or the one they're planning to buy. And even Apple has given up innovating the iPod (whose sales dropped by more than 50% last year), putting its energies into phones instead so that the portable music player market, as the Verge pointed out, is coming to an end. Young is a great artist and a good marketer but he's no Jobs and it's not likely that Pono is going to bring back the portable player market, much less make a competitor try to do the same as he hoped. Indeed, when Business Week attended the same SXSW presentation that Young did, they were also skeptical about the prospects of Pono.

Yet another uphill battle that Pono is going to have to fight now is that purchases, both physical and digital are dropping now. For consumers, streaming music seems like a better deal than owning music. This means that the idea of buying digital tracks, even in a nifty new high quality format, is an idea that's getting trounced, which also spells trouble for Pono.

And yet, even with all my disbelief and apprehension over Pono, I'd still like to see it succeed, even if I realistically don't see rosy prospects for it. The company already has plans to hire more people and get more funding. The major labels have promised to support Pono too but nowadays, their M.O. is to play it safe and preserve what they have left, which means that their commitment may not be rock solid.

As a music fan, I'd like to hear tunes that aren't compressed and grinded down into mush. Listen to your favorite music on a good stereo system or even a good pair of speakers and you'll be amazed about not just how much better it sounds but also how you've cheated yourself for years, not really hearing your favorite music the way it really sounds. It's a startling and breathtaking experience but it can also be embarrassing, seeing how you've short-changed yourself. Pono can be one way to change that but whether anyone but audiophiles will get the word about it is another question.

And with Neil being Neil, his life and his work always provides some kind of ironic punchline. His now-latest album is a collection of cover songs called A Letter Home which he put together in a recording booth at Jack White's Third Man Records locale. It's lo-fi enough that it sounds like came out in the pre-LP era, on some old 78 RPM. For all his hemming and hawing about sound quality and what's lost, he willfully puts out a record that snubs its nose at the whole notion of hi-fi. Even on Pono, it's not likely to sound great and I doubt that he cares. You gotta hand it to the guy- he's always a perverse mother.

Also see our product review of the released PONO player

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