Neil Young is uncompromising when it comes to his passions. Since the ’90s, he’s been angry about music standards, particularly the way songs are distilled and compressed into MP3 and CD formats, and that frustration has led to “Pono,” his innovative higher-fidelity service.
Pono, Hawaiian for “righteous,” isn’t just a musician’s plaything, it’s a better quality standard, so fans can listen to songs as it should be heard. The format has strong industry backing, but its success — and that of its music players — will ultimately depend on whether sound quality wins out, or if consumers will stick to the cheap, easy-to-download tracks they’ve grown accustomed to.
Pono converts analog music to extremely high-definition master files, giving the highest-quality sound possible, just like when it was recorded, before being compressed down into CD and MP3 formats. Since traditional devices don’t recognize Pono files, a special player, which doesn’t look like anything else, is required. Instead of a flat, thin device, like the iPod, the Pono player is about the size of a candy bar, with a pyramid-shaped back, to sit on a table and fit the hand.
Pono isn’t about being portable, since it doesn’t fit comfortably into pockets. It’s about the music. For years, Young has been on the crusade for better-sounding audio. In the ’90s, he complained that CDs ruined music, and more recently, at a tech conference, he lashed out against digital audio compression.
“My goal is to try to rescue the art form that I’ve been practicing for the past 50 years. We live in the digital age and, unfortunately, it’s degrading our music, not improving it,” Young said. “It’s not that digital is bad or inferior, it’s that the way it’s being used isn’t doing justice to the art. The MP3 only has five percent of the data present in the original recording. The convenience of the digital age has forced people to choose between quality and convenience, but they shouldn’t have to make that choice.”
He has always been, if nothing else, a master showman, and his promotions for Pono are no different. He drives a specially-equipped Cadillac Eldorado to music shows, inviting famous musicians to listen to the improved sound, and filming their reactions. And insiders couldn’t be more excited. According to Rolling Stone, when Young flipped on Pono for Anthony Kiedis and Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, they raved over the sound.
“It’s not like some vague thing that you need dogs’ ears to hear,” Flea said. “It’s a drastic difference.” But some stars are cautious. “I think that’s somewhere that he has to be careful,” said Jim James, My Morning Jacket front man. “I’ve already bought Aretha Franklin’s ‘Respect’ a lot of times. Do I have to buy it again?”
Unlike digital encoding, which “rounds off” sounds using a process called quantization, Pono leaves more of the original analog signal intact, for a fuller standard that’s gaining the ear of the Big Three record labels — Warner Music group, Universal Music Group and Sony Music.
According to Craig Kallman, Atlantic Records’ chairman and CEO, Warner Music, which represents stars like the Black Keys, Common and Muse, converted its massive library of 8,000 album titles to the high-resolution 192-kilohertz, 24-bit standard. Kallman, which joined Young in 2011, assembled a Pono team that includes representatives from audio giants Dolby and Meridian. Once Warner signed on, the team approached UMG and Sony to remaster their catalogs, as well. Neither company has acknowledged the conversations, but Kallman said they’re talking with labels because it’s not about competition — it’s about the music.
“This has to be an industry-wide solution. This is not about competing — this is about us being proactive,” Kallman said. “This is all about purely the opportunity to bring the technology to the table.”
Insiders hope Pono will bring renewed competition with Apple, the dominant player in the digital music space. And Young’s memoir, called “Waging Heavy Peace,” references the looming audio wars been Pono and MP3s — and in particular, with iTunes.
“We’ll force iTunes to be better and to improve quality at a faster pace,” Young said, adding that he wants “to save the sound of music.” But Apple isn’t biting — at least not anymore. “I have consistently reached out to try to assist Apple with true audio quality, and I have even shared my high-resolution masters with them,” Young wrote, saying he even communicated with Steve Jobs — a huge rock and roll fan himself — about Pono before Jobs’ death.
But the collaboration came to a grinding halt when Jobs died last October. Apple didn’t say whether it reached a deal, or even if it was in discussions, but Young said Apple stopped returning his calls.
That’s not to say Apple, with its hugely successful iTunes, has rest on its laurels. Last year, Apple launched its “Mastered for iTunes” program, requiring engineers to provide audio quality based on a listener’s environment, such as in a car or club, or on a flight. For more than a year, Apple has been pushing record labels to offer higher-quality music.
But critics say the AAC format only represents a fraction of what Pono promises to deliver, underscoring the challenges Apple may have if the standard gains momentum.
The devices will play existing digital purchases, so if you’ve already bought a song, you won’t be forced to buy it based on the new format. Young, though, points out his service “will force iTunes to be better and improve quality at a faster pace.” But if you buy the higher-resolution songs, you won’t be able to hear them except on a Pono device.
In the end, however, Pono remains a passion project for Young, and profit comes second to advancing art. “His reasons are so not based in commerce, and based in just the desire for people to really feel the uplifting spirit of music,” Flea said. “MP3s suck. It’s just a shadow of the music.”
He and other musicians who have listened to the tracks have noted they hear everything — every horn, every guitar strum — much of which is missing in a MP3 format.
You wouldn’t think Young would be interested in technology, but when he’s not on stage, the man has dedicated much of his life to experimenting with innovation. Long a fan in model trains, for example, he had two real railroad cars frame his model-train barn at his rural New York home — a layout that encompasses over 3,000 square feet of track and trains.
But beyond a passion for playing with trains, he likes to tinker with them, too. As an investor and board member of Lionel Trains, he invented and lost a lot of money on “Train Master Command,” a device that can run multiple trains at once, as well as RailSounds, which provides realistic railroad audio.
In addition, he’s been working with a team of investors to design and manufacture the LincVolt, an electric car. The zero-emissions vehicle aims eliminate the need for fuel stops. It’s not on the roads yet, but Young said he plans to drive it to the White House and make a movie about the car.
“I am the Wizard of Oz in here,” he said. “I can make anything happen because I know how it all works. Music is math.”
Insiders say there is a world of difference in quality between Pono files and MP3s versions of the same songs, but critics claim there is so little difference, most listeners won’t rush out to buy Pono versions of the music they already own. And that spells trouble for Young’s project. He’s not only trying to push a new audio format, but a new player, which is a hard sale in a market already saturated with gadgets. These days, consumers don’t want to buy devices that do just one thing. Even Apple’s iPods, except for the Touch, aren’t selling like they used to, because digital convergence is bringing everything together. For example, smartphones are perfectly capable of playing MP3s, and that will continue to work for the casual listener.
Of course, had Young’s talks with Jobs extended to a partnership, Apple would have added Pono to its devices, making the iPhone, iPad and iPod even bigger sellers. But it didn’t happen. And another platform, such as Windows or Android, could just as easily snap it up and use the higher-quality format to fuel competition with Apple.
In addition, free music streaming services like Spotify may give Pono trouble even before it gets a good start. The quality is worse, but it’s free — and that’s a powerful incentive. The online service lets listeners hear many of the newest albums as soon as they hit the stores, without having to pay. Plus, its premium service — which does have a cost, but much less than the price of downloading each track — can be used on a smartphone, providing a powerful lure for people who want a flat rate.
Whether or not Pono resonates with customers, Young himself insists he’s not in this for the money, but to keep his first love — the music. And he won’t back down easily. But to gain support from other device makers — like Apple — Young and his team will need to prove that Pono can indeed turn a profit, which is a difficult road ahead.
Young’s novel catalogs the disappointments he has had with himself and people around him, but he still says, “I work for the muse.” When he swerved into techno and country after Geffen Records signed him in the early 1980s, Young was accused of making “unrepresentative” music. He responded by taking a $500,000 pay cut for each of his next three albums.
“I’m not here to sell things — that’s what other people do. I’m creating them. If it doesn’t work out, I’m sorry,” he told the New York Times. “I’m just doing what I do. You hired me to do what I do, not what you do. As long as people don’t tell me what to do, there will be no problem.”
Pono, with its connection to the music world, is Young’s ultimate pride and joy. Even if he doesn’t make a penny on it, he’s found a way to present the sounds he loves in the format he believes is best — wide, open and uncompressed — just like the rocker himself. ♦