Neil Young launched his high quality digital Pono music player and service yesterday (March 11) at SXSW in Austin, Texas, saying of the player “once you hear this, you can’t go back.”
Young spoke at the Austin Convention Centre and announced his plans for Pono, which yesterday also launched its Kickstarter campaign. At the end of the event, Young revealed that the campaign had already raised over half its target funds of $800,000 in just four hours, “which is pretty cool” he commented. He also explained that ‘Pono’ is the Hawaiian word for ‘righteousness’.
Pono will consist of a digital music service (PonoMusic) and 128GB portable device (PonoPlayer) capable of storing 1-2,000 high resolution songs. The PonoPlayer is described in a press release as a “purpose-built, portable, high-resolution digital-music player designed and engineered in a “no-compromise” fashion to allow consumers to experience studio master-quality digital music at the highest audio fidelity possible, bringing the true emotion and detail of the music, the way the artist recorded it, to life.”
Speaking without notes and pacing back and forth on the large stage, Young explained his reasons for launching Pono, which has been two and half years in the making, and he also explained that he had support from all the major record labels, commenting: “They’re all with us, all the record companies”.
Criticising the rise of MP3 quality sound and explaining that was the reason behind making his own player, Young said: “I’m a fan of listening loud – I love to listen loud… I like to take whatever it is to the limit.” He stated that this was not possible with MP3 and said the music industry also began to slump after its introduction. “Everything started to die – it was because of the MP3 and the cheapening of the quality to where it was practically unrecognisable,” he commented, lamenting albums which were perceived to have been made with ‘filler’ tracks. “The album had no value – only the individual tracks had value,” he stated.
He added: “As a guy who’d been making records for many years at that point, I was pissed off – I love every note, on every song, on every record…. They weren’t just filler.” He then said that the sound of MP3 was ‘shit’: “We were selling shit, but people were still buying it because they like music [but] they were buying Xeroxes of the Mona Lisa.”
Young went on to explain that music adapted to the constraints of MP3. “Instead of being soulful – which it still is – music adapted, it became beat heavy, it became smart, it became tricky. But for me, it was like ‘woah, I don’t want to do that!’… I started thinking it might be a good idea to do something about it”.
He then showed a short film, which saw a host of music world stars commenting on Pono, after listening to the player, including Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Patti Smith, Mumford and Sons, Dave Grohl, Elvis Costello, Mike D of the Beastie Boys and Jack White. Click above to watch the video. “This gives it to you as good as you can get it,” says Tom Petty, whilst Springsteen comments that it has “a closeness and intimacy that digital recordings can lose very quickly.” Elton John says: “I haven’t heard a sound like that since vinyl”.
“Pono plays back whatever the artist decided to do,” added Young. “My body is getting washed, I’m getting hit with something great. It’s not ice cubes, it’s water – I’m listening. I’m feeling.” Pono’s CEO John Hamm also spoke during the session and talked about the triangular shape of the Pono device. “The electronics that fit inside wouldn’t fit in a flat package,” he explained. “It’s a small piece of audio gear, not a mobile device.”
Waging Heavy Peace, released in 2012, Young explained how Pono will help to “save the sound of music”. Young claims in the book that he had emailed Steve Jobs about Pono before his death: “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,” he wrote, before stating that his service will “force iTunes to be better and to improve quality at a faster pace”.