R.I.P. Pono, Neil Young Kills Off His Digital Player - Noise11.com
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R.I.P. Pono, Neil Young Kills Off His Digital Player

by Roger Wink, VVN Music on April 23, 2017

in News,Noise Pro

Everyone who shelled out big bucks for Neil Young’s high-resolution Pono audio player appears to have a new Toblerone-shaped paper weight.

The player, which Young promised would allow artists to sell their music in a form in which it was meant to be heard, really never made it far out of the gate. Announced five years ago, music lovers didn’t adapt very quickly and, in July of 2016, the store that sold the downloadable music suddenly went into an “under construction” mode.

Yesterday, Young posted a long note explaining what had happened to the product. The first problem was the high cost of the music which Neil says was forced by the record companies who thought consumers should pay more for a better quality product.

Then, the company that was running the store, Omnifone, was purchased by Apple and almost immediately shut down. Young and company tried to develop their own storefront but the costs got too large and they had to abandon the effort.

He finally confirmed what everyone had been suspected for some time, the store was not coming back and the product was dead: “sadly with Pono gone…”

Young, though, had not given up on bringing high-resolution music to the people but, this time, he is focusing on streaming. He is working with Orastream, a company in Singapore, to create Xstream, “the next generation in streaming”.

He is also working with the record companies to try and convince them that this is the way the music should be heard and that charging a premium for it is not the way to bring in consumers. “Good sounding music is not a premium. All songs should cost the same, regardless of digital resolution.”

It sounds like Young is truly dedicated to bringing high-resolution music to the masses but we do feel he has a long, uphill, battle against the ingrained money machine in the music industry.

Young’s full statement:

It’s time to talk about Pono and the initiative we all started. As you know, together we’ve been fighting a battle to bring high quality music back to the world that’s become used to mediocre, hollowed-out files. The cause seemed to be a win-win for everyone. The artists would allow their fans to hear what they hear in the studios, and the music lovers would hear the music the best it could be. This cause has been something I’ve written and talked about for over 20 years. I cared and I assumed that most of the world would care.

It’s been almost five years since we kicked off the campaign at SXSW to offer a player and download content that could fulfill my dream of bringing to you a music experience unlike any other for the cost. Thanks to our supporters on Kickstarter, the follow-on customers and some very good friends that supported the effort, we delivered on that promise. Our player won best digital portable product of the year from Stereophile Magazine, and we offered some of the best high resolution content to be found anywhere. We sold tens of thousands of players, every unit that we made. Thanks for that!

But, despite that success, I was not satisfied. I had to put up with lots of criticism for the high cost of music delivered in the way all music should be provided, at full resolution and not hollowed out. I had no control over the pricing, but I was the one that felt the criticism, because I was the face of it. And I pretty much agreed with the criticism. Music should not be priced this way.

Last year when Omnifone, our download store partner, was bought and shut down with no notice by Apple, we began work with another company to build the same download store. But the more we worked on it, the more we realized how difficult it would be to recreate what we had and how costly it was to run it: to deliver the Pono promise, meaning you’d never have to buy the same album again if was released at a higher quality; the ability to access just high res music, and not the same performances at lower quality, and the ability to do special sales. Each of these features was expensive to implement.

I also realized that just bringing back the store was not enough. While there was a dedicated audience, I could not in good conscience continue to justify the higher costs. When it comes to high res, the record industry is still broken. The industry was such that even when I wanted to remaster some of the great performances from my artist friends at high res, Pono had to pay thousands of dollars for each recording, with little expectation of getting the money back. Record companies believe they should charge a premium for high res recordings and conversely, I believe all music should cost the same, regardless of the technology used.

As you might imagine, I found it difficult to raise more money for this model: delivering quality music at a premium price to a limited audience that felt they were being taken advantage of with the high costs.

So now, sadly with Pono gone, for more than eight months I’ve been working with our small team to look for alternatives. Finding a way to deliver the quality music without the expense and to bring it to a larger audience has been our goal.

That effort has led to a technology developed by Orastream, a small company in Singapore that we’ve been working with. Together we created Xstream, the next generation of streaming, an adaptive streaming service that changes with available bandwidth. It is absolutely amazing because it is capable of complete high resolution playback. Unlike all other streaming services that are limited to playing at a single low or moderate resolution, Xstream plays at the highest quality your network condition allows at that moment and adapts as the network conditions change. It’s a single high resolution bit-perfect file that essentially compresses as needed to never stop playing. As a result, it always sounds better than the other streaming services and it never stops or buffers like other higher res services. When you play it at home with WiFi it can play all established low and high resolutions, including the highest, and thousands more levels of resolution in between. When you are in your car with poor cellular it might play better than an existing low res service, but at a location where robust wifi is available Xstream supports high resolution listening. Xstream is one file, streaming for all with 15,000 seamlessly changing levels of playback quality.

So, this is what we’ve been working on. But one of my conditions is that it should not have a premium price. I’ve insisted that there be no premium price for this service. Pono tried that with downloads and it’s not a good model for customers. And I’ve told the labels it’s not a good model for them to charge a premium for music the way it was meant to be heard. I firmly believe that music is in trouble because you can’t hear it the way it is created unless you pay a premium. No one gets to hear the real deal, so the magic of music is compromised by limited technology.

Good sounding music is not a premium. All songs should cost the same, regardless of digital resolution. Let the people decide what they want to listen to without charging them more for true quality. That way quality is not an elitist thing. If high resolution costs more, listeners will just choose the cheaper option and never hear the quality. Record companies will ultimately lose more money by not exposing the true beauty of their music to the masses. Remember, all music is created to sound great and the record labels are the one’s deciding to not offer that at the normal price. The magic of music should be presented by the stewards of that music at a normal price. Let listeners decide on the quality they want to purchase without pricing constraints.

I’ve been meeting with and speaking with the labels, potential partners such as the carriers, and other potential investors. For many it’s a difficult sell. There are already streaming services, some doing well and others not. While there’s nothing as good as Xstream, or as flexible and adaptive, it’s still proven a difficult sell for companies to invest in.

So, in my experience, today’s broken music industry continues to make major mistakes, but we are still trying. Bringing back the magic of great sound matters to the music of the world.

Thank you all very much for supporting Pono and quality audio. Thanks to everyone who is or was associated with Pono, especially the customers who supported us. Thanks to Charlie Hansen and Ayre Acoustics for the great PonoPlayer. It has been a labor of love. I want you to know that I’m still trying to make the case for bringing you the best music possible, at a reasonable price, the same message we brought to you five years ago. I don’t know whether we will succeed, but it’s still as important to us as it ever was.

Thankfully, for those of my audience who care and want to hear all the music, every recording I have ever released will soon be available in Xstream high-resolution quality at my complete online archive. Check it out. We will be announcing it very soon.

Neil Young

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