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Can Neil Young's CD-Priced Audio Files Turn Kids Into Audiophiles?

Old man takes a look at audio formats, there's a lot going unheard.
March 13, 2014, 7:49pm
Image: DFree/Shutterstock.com

The smart money in music formats has been skewing towards convenience since…forever I guess. Recorded music itself is more convenient than either hiring someone to play that song you want to hear or learning to play it yourself, even if–especially at the beginning there—it doesn't sound as good. From this perspective, the move from wax cylinders to records—which went from 78 rpm to 33 rpm—to tapes to CDs to Mp3s to streaming doesn’t just make sense, it feels almost inevitable.

But at the same time, the history of recorded music has a drive towards quality—recorded music means getting to someone play it better than that you or that guy you hired could play it. This fidelity to fidelity has killed lesser formats like 8-track, drove records from shellac to lower-surface noise vinyl, revived vinyl, and—in mere hours—reaped a huge crowdfunding harvest for Neil Young’s hi-resolution digital store and player.

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Pono, which Young says is Hawaiian for “righteous,” is “a complete digital music ecosystem.” You buy lossless FLAC files from the PonoMusic store that take up a lot more hard drive space than mp3s, but promise to deliver fuller recordings, because unlike “lossy” mp3s, which jettison frequencies you can’t hear, FLAC files are lossless but huge. Once downloaded—at prices that will take you back to CD days—you can play those files on the pocket-unfriendly PonoMusic player, which has 64 gigs of space on board and a slot for an SD Card (remember those?).

It sounds boutique, or like it was based on an already dated feeling iTunes model (even if the files are DRM-free), but Pono’s crowdfunding campaign was a runaway success. Bolstered by a well-timed Neil Young pitch at South By Southwest and a cameo-heavy video (with, brilliantly, no soundtrack), the Kickstarter doubled its $800,000 goal in 24 hours. Today, it's triple, and there's still more than a month to go.

Even if Young is now an elder statesman of rock, he's more than just the pretty face on the project. He's been complaining about mp3s and working on this problem for years. Paired with his love of electric cars, Neil Young's pet projects are pretty endearing. Young and Pono seem to be positioning themselves not as reactionary, but rather as taking advantage of the opportunities that the march of technology offers.

Download speeds are faster, hard drives are getting cheaper—it’s time to get some files that play back at 9,216 kbps, and leave 192 kbps behind with the 8 tracks. Young has called the hi-fidelity in your pocket project, the "iPod of the 21st century," which is such a nice backhanded burn.

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But even Pono admits that just having the largest possible file may not lead to the best possible listening experience. Just as Phil Spector mixed his singles to be heard in cars, music now is optimized to heard on phone through a pair of giant headphones branded by a famous hip hop producer. While some music is recorded in a room, and has to be digitized, some music is born on a computer to be played on computers. While you could get a sense of the music sounding more like it sounds when it's mastered, can you miss what was never there?

At his sxsw talk, Young said that Pono opened the door for you to bring back "all those big things that you had to give away or put in the garage." It might also be time to bring back "all those stereo stores that had to close because there's no reason for big speakers anymore because people listen to little things that look like lozenges," he said.

The truth is, Pono is swimming against the grain, just like the salmon narrator in Neil's song "Will To Love." Most people in their twenties or younger lack both garages and big stereos. Sound hasn't been a priority for a long time; instant access to music, be it through Internet radio, Spotify, or YouTube, is [the most important thing for young people](http://fact that teens listen to music through Youtube: http://www.nielsen.com/us/en/press-room/2012/music-discovery-still-dominated-by-radio--says-nielsen-music-360.html). The lengthy Kickstarter video, full of aging musicians weighing in on how much they like that Pono sound, is certainly convincing to people who care about sound (and who like seeing aging musicians talking to Neil Young's iPhone camera). The looming question is, can Young convince young people, the people who buy and listen to most of the music, to care?

And while those artists in the video endorse Pono's sound, thus far Pono hasn’t really explained how the PonoMusic store addresses artists’ main gripe with Spotify and its ilk—namely that it doesn’t pay them jack. Albums at PonoMusic.com “are expected to cost between $14.99-$24.99,” so one hopes that some of that gets back to the artist. Seems like something Neil Young would have a personal stake in.

At any rate, artist-branded "signature PonoMusic players"—rewards to people who gave $400 or more to the Kickstarter—certainly helped Pono's cause. Tripling your Kickstarter in 72 hours certainly demonstrates to any investors—whom Young described as reluctant to contribute—that there's a public demand for what you're offering. But in the slipstream of Internet music, we'll see how much interest there is after this goldrush ends, and once people start trying to put music on their new things.