Neil Young’s Pono Music Service Relies on Outdated Model That Trades on Fame

Neil Young's Pono Music Service Relies
Lester Cohen/WireImage

My inbox has been filling up with critics saying gotcha, implying my endorsement of the hi-res streaming service Wimp is a belated acknowledgement of the superiority and inevitability of Pono.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Wimp is a new technology service that will probably be plowed under as its competitors embrace hi-fi streaming. Pono is merch. Never has something so minor received such outsized publicity.

Yes, 18,220 people pledged Pono. If an album sold that many copies, you never would have heard of it.

But in our money-focused culture, he who can dazzle us with a figure — in this case, six-odd-million dollars — gets all the press, and an ignorant public blindly accepts it, just like they believe Miley Cyrus is a desirable star, even though she can’t sell out arenas.

So what Neil Young has done is demonstrate that star power can get lemmings to donate, sight unseen. This is even better than selling platinum tickets to shows. In this case, people are putting up their money and may not get anything. Then again, what they may get is not what they expect, just like at a Neil Young concert, wherein the master is famous for delivering the unexpected, and often
the unwanted.

That’s right, Neil Young is selling a high-priced souvenir, and has gotten some of his buddies to sell their names too. What you’re buying here is a high-priced paperweight. Because it sure won’t be comfortable in your pocket.

And then comes the issue of the recordings …

Neil is selling files while Apple is cringing, its iTunes Music Store suddenly faltering, with people moving to streaming. But once again, the same people embracing files are pooh-poohing streaming revenue, when the truth is that some acts are doing quite well, and the more people embrace the format, the more money will be generated, just like the mobile phone business. But the public, and especially the music press, embraces the future after the unwashed masses anoint it. CDs were gonna endure until your grandma started trading on Napster. MySpace made Tila Tequila a star, and then the service was overrun by Facebook, but Justin Timberlake was gonna bring MySpace back! As if JT knows anything about tech. But he is a star, so his efforts get press; without him, no story.

And without Neil Young’s Kickstarter consultant, his effort on the site would not have been so successful. Yup, he hired somebody who made sure his offering popped.

Yes, the world is manipulated. But the truth is Neil Young is gonna sell files, which are dying, at old CD prices — more than $10 — and you think this is big business?

Then you’re probably opening a record store!

And where is he going to get these high-res files? The labels don’t have them; they just have the CD masters. Is he going to get every act in creation to go back to Pro Tools and EQ them and deliver them? And who is going to pay for them to service the not even 20,000 people who pledged, who may not even buy them? And can you even hear the difference? Many experts believe you can’t. That CD quality is good enough, that it’s all in the mastering.

But that’s not the point. Neil Young is demonstrating nothing other than star power here. If there are artifacts to be heard at better than CD quality, they’ll eventually be streamed. Not because Neil did this Pono Kickstarter, but because increased bandwidth will allow it.

Meanwhile, the public keeps streaming on the world’s music service, YouTube, which pays even less than Spotify, et al. But you don’t see musicians bitching about that. And as a result, their fans are not complaining about it either.

If only these stars used their power for good.

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  1. Vollin says:

    Sounds like Lefsetz (autocorrected to: ale fartz) is one angry and out of touch old guy. I’d get a more cohesive assessment from my ol’ drunk codger uncle.

  2. Rob Timm says:

    Well, here I sit listening to my Pono, having just read the words on a guy who just doesn’t get it. I haven’t blindly accepted anything. I’m listening very critically, and I like what I’m hearing.

    Streaming? Yeah, go ahead, Mr. Tin Ear. The quality of the audio I’m listening to as I write this blows away any stream I’ve ever heard. Apparently you haven’t noticed that even the highest quality stream available to is today sounds pretty damned flat.
    Will the masses embrace Pono? I don’t know, and I don’t particularly care. What I do know is that Pono will at least change the market for the better, and in the mean time I will benefit.
    There is no doubt that we now sadly have a generation (or two, actually) who have accepted crap audio quality as the norm. I for one am willing to embrace and applaud those efforts to offer something better, through whatever format or technology. Although I have a helluva lot more hair on head than you, I’ve also been a life-long vinyl listener. After 6 years of double digit sales increase in vinyl sales, last year they jumped a whopping 50% according to today’s Wall Street Journal. Yes, vinyl sales are still a very small slice of the pie, but oh! what a delicious slice we’re enjoying.
    Playing through my 55 year old McIntosh amps the Pono sounds gorgeous. Stunning, even. But I have the feeling that if you got your hands on one you would just plug in your Beats or your Bose or whatever other piece-of-crap-with-good-marketing is handy and wonder what the big deal is.

  3. Aron Yoffe says:

    You wrote ” If there are artifacts to be heard at better than CD quality, they’ll eventually be streamed. Not because Neil did this Pono Kickstarter, but because increased bandwidth will allow it.”

    Streamed music is a different market, directed towards those those that favor convenience over sound quality. Given this, it seems unlikely that the streamed music market will offer music in high res. As bandwidth increases, the market pressure will be to use it to offer more channels, not higher resolution. I thus expect the only way to get high resolution will be through downloads (or physical copies).

    What we’re now seeing in video supports this. There’s no question that the quality of a movie on Blu Ray is noticeably higher than that offered by the compressed feed over HD cable. Yet the cable companies haven’t used their bandwidth to increase resolution and improve quality — they use it to offer more channels.

    • I’m sorry to disagree Aron but we truly see both. Yes, cable may tend to add more channels, but streaming video companies are beginning to offer higher and higher resolution. Netflix, still the company with the most streaming content, presented their own “House of Cards” series in 4K resolution and Breaking bad will be available in 4K come June of this year. They have also pledged to add more 4K as time goes on and this is way before 4K capable sets are even close to being mainstream. I’m sure you’ll see Amazon Prime start offering some their new HBO content in 4K when it’s practical to do so just to counter Netflix.

      As the pipes to people’s homes become capable of handling faster and faster download speeds, customers will demand higher increases in their music and video streams. I’m at 120 Mbps download speed at home right now and have little desire to be tied to MP3 compression.

      • Aron Yoffe says:

        Hi Royce. Thanks for your comment. Aren’t Netflix’s 4K offerings more of a marketing tactic than a serious attempt to improve picture quality? After all, their data rate for these is 16 Mbps, which is less than half that for 1080p Blu-Ray, indicating they’re using very heavy compression. I’ve seen Netflix’s regular HD stream, and the quality is typically quite mediocre — on average, worse than what I get on cable. If Netflix were truly concerned about maximizing PQ (translation: if they thought the streaming market really wanted PQ), wouldn’t they be addressing the latter instead of rolling out heavily-compressed 4k? So, at least on the face of it, what Netflix is doing seems to reinforce my argument that the market forces needed to drive maximization of AQ or PQ aren’t present in the streaming arena. I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

  4. Jefenc says:

    Pono is only one piece of a 3-piece puzzle to getting better sound. Isn’t that the point? That the music sounds better? If you go buy a Pono and plug it in your car expecting it to sound AWESOME you’ll be disappointed because you forgot you have a crappy speaker system, which is the 2nd piece of the puzzle. The final piece is the music itself. Pono will play my old mp3 formats and I paid A LOT of money to get the 10,000 tracks stored on my computer. To make those songs sound better, I have to buy them all over again! Neil Young is one of my favorite artists, but his ideas have always been loftier than life. He lives in the clouds, and that is why he can make incredible music, but it doesn’t work in real-world business. Unless I win the lottery, I can’t afford the quality music NY wants me to have.

  5. I am one of the “gullible” people who purchased Pono sight unseen via Kickstarter. Let me tell you why. First, I prefer to purchase physical CDs and rip the music to FLAC files. I upload my music to the Google cloud, and it automatically converts them to 320 kbps MP3 files, which are fine when I’m streaming them in the car. When I listen at home I listen to the FLAC files, and yes, I can tell the difference.

    I purchased the Pono player because it is designed from the ground up for FLAC storage, and it has a very generous amount of storage for a portable player. Most of the time it will sit in my car, plugged into the AUX port, so the triangular shape is OK with me.

    I enjoy Neil Young’s music, but that wouldn’t have sold me. I don’t think of many musicians as sounds experts. Sure, every so often there is a musician like Tom Scholz who has strong technical knowledge about sound, but that isn’t a requirement to be a great musician. The ability to get the most out of your instrument doesn’t really on understanding how the circuitry works.

    The player itself looked like a vary nice piece of technology for $300. I think I paid around that amount for my iPod classic years ago and it uses a miniature disc drive for storage instead of solid-state storage.

    As for the “people are putting up their money and may not get anything” comment, that says more about Kickstarter than Pono. Being in at the beginning of a project is always risky, but it’s part of Kickstarter’s allure. I’m proud to do a small part to make the fantasy of Pono a reality. I would sat the same thing about my Robo 3-D printer, which I also purchased sight unseen and is now sitting in the corner of my loft.

    As fantastic as streaming is, there are enough times I can’t stream to make a portable music library a sound choice, and of all the players out there, I fully expect Pono to be among the best.

  6. Jane Gutherie says:

    Excuse me, but the group I “joined” is for and about Stephen Stills…why now are we discussing Neil Young? I know it’s always been about him throughout all these years, but enough already.. it’s Stephen Stills please…

  7. Michael says:

    This article is just negativity from a non music fan who just wants convenient streaming. It’s like someone arguing back in the day radio/tape quality is good enough and he doesn’t need to buy expensive non free vinyl. 2 years back i read an article saying record labels were converting most their back catalog to hi-res (can’t find the link now) and nearly every new album is recorded in 24/96 or at least 24/44 (which is still better than CD quality – check, they have a lot of this stuff available) before being downsampled to 16/44 for CD/Digital. PONO has better audio components in it than anybody’s smartphone, tablet, mp3 player or tacky music player dock they use for home stereos these days. For music fans this is a god send. MP3’s sound awful, Streaming sounds awful…. and “HD” streaming will never happen or be lame like when iTunes launched iTunes HD in 2008… you could update (for a fee) your 128 AAC files to 256AAC files (WHOAAA HD LOSSY MAN!!). PONO will take off, because record labels make next to nothing in royalties with the bulk subscription model used by streaming and so do artists. Nobody who could make millions is going to settle for getting paid 0.1cents a stream. Right now nobody is saying anything because labels are scared of looking stupid after the Napster fiasco and not embracing digital fast enough. They also still make the majority of their revenue through CD/Vinyl/Digital sales so there’s no cause for concern …. yet. Enjoy lossy streaming when you don’t have an internet connection. Us Pono backers will raise our PONO player to you and enjoy hearing the full song without ads and all the sonic details intact. Cheers.

  8. Nice effort, but many many others have posted even more crap-wittedly ignorant opinion pieces about the Pono project than you.

    Try harder! I believe there’s a prize or something. An iPrize, probably…

    Even if you believe those who claim that CD is as good as you can hear, he’s at least offering CD-quality as an option, which hasn’t been widely available before. It also seems to have goaded Apple into promising something similar, albeit probably in their own proprietary format.

    Who says the labels don’t have better quality masters? The guys who work in the studios are used to handling 24/96 digital files, so that’s a fallacy for a start. Oh, and not all recordings are created in ProTools, by the way.

    Do I think Pono will succeed? It’d be nic, but I doubt it. But it will, I hope, spark some interest in those who might begin to think that maybe the worst is not “good enough”. The herd, on the other hand, will move onwards and downwards.

  9. Keith says:

    This is an ad hominem attack.

    Really uncalled for.

    Don’t want Pono? Don’t buy it.

    Young’s motives are clearly honorable.

  10. Rusty Latch says:

    Jeeze it sure sounds like someone’s got an axe to grind. A lot of people claiming to be all-knowing about the future of music these days as … “All you critics sit alone, you’re no better for what you’ve shown”…

  11. ED says:

    As a so-called lemming i am happy to see that the critic here is not commenting on something he has heard but rather writing this to fill space, quite similar to what Itunes does with music. Keep it up while us music-lovers will enjoy the music again.

  12. BM says:

    Did an actual music fan write this or did Steve Jobs’ ghost ectoplasm all over the keyboard while listening to REO Speedwagon? This article failed to address that Ponos 18,000 backers was the 3rd most successful kickstarter ever, and Neil Youngs “buddies” who agree with him consist of some the most successful musicians of all time. I don’t understand how anybody in the field of both sound and music cannot hold their trust within the creators that produce absolute best.
    Even if the the Pono files dont live up to what Neil Young promises the hardware alone is undeniably better, check out reviews on digital to analog converters on Amazon. Check out the prices of Astell and Kerns hd music players while your there.
    All this skepticism over whether or not the humans can actually distinguish the difference between these files and CDs existed before Neil even started the project. He’s a smart dude, he knows this project doesnt have much of a chance but he belives in it and I and many others belive in him.

  13. Jeff Yablon says:

    Right on, Bob. I said this weeks ago ( Pono is an oddity, destined for the same dusty corner (YIKES; actually, a worse one!) than Zune

  14. David Duran says:

    Some of us in the world would like to hear music the way humans are designed to hear music. For the past 30 some years we have been sold on the idea of “digital” sound. There is no such thing as “digital” sound! Humans don’t hear in digital. There is only analog sound. Neil Young and Pono are giving people the opportunity to have digital files that convert to very high quality analog sound. Streaming will never be able to acomplish that without unreal amounts of bandwidth.

  15. Brad says:

    What we are really saying is that the public has gradually exchanged the convenience of streaming for the quality of files or CD’s. That is really what it comes down to.

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