Neil Young has been spending a lot of his time battling against what he perceives as the general abysmal quality, from a technical standpoint, of recorded music (he’s largely correct). One of the salvos fired by the Godfather Of Grunge was the Pono music player and its associated ecosystem, which was pretty much doomed on arrival — and he says we can blame its demise on the machinations of the record labels.
After raising $6.2 million on Kickstarter, Pono was unveiled in 2014, composed of the portable digital media playback hardware, digital-to-analog conversion technology, and a download service featuring high resolution audio files. After complaints that it was too “niche”, the whole thing shut down barely two years later — and Young points the finger of blame squarely at the record labels.
“The record labels killed it. They killed it by insisting on charging two to three times as much for the high-res files as for MP3s,” he said during a Tribune chat. “Why would anybody pay three times as much? It’s my feeling that all music should cost the same. The [high-resolution] file doesn’t cost any more to transfer. And today with streaming, you don’t have the problem [of unauthorized file sharing]. Who wants to copy something if you can stream it?
“The record companies, by charging three times as much for hi-res music as they charge for regular music, they’ve killed hi-res music,” he said. “It’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen.”
Young tried reviving the site last year, under the brand XStream; that system adjusts parameters in realtime according to the available bandwidth, and is the technology being used to stream Young’s entire musical archive at no charge until June. And as far as Pono-like initiatives go, he may be down, but he’s not necessarily out: “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. 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,” he says.
He’s not overflowing with faith in the current system, though, saying that just reviving the store was not enough, and although there was a dedicated audience for Pono, he couldn’t justify the excessive costs. “When it comes to high-res, the record industry is still broken”, he says.