Above the Fold

A digital 'zine by Original Fuzz about creativity and making stuff.

★  Jul 22, 2024  ★

Neil Young Launches Doomed Tech Startup, Pono

Neil Young discusses Pono at SXSW 2014

Neil Young has waged a war against the MP3. Or, as he would call it, heavy peace. Claiming that you only hear 5% of the music when you listen to an MP3, he's launched a startup to fix the problem. It's called Pono, and I'm afraid it's about eight years too late.

Perhaps there is some niche potential for hi-res music in your pocket. But I'm a huge music fan, and I won't be buying a Pono player. I prefer the convenience of streaming my iTunes collection when I'm on the go, and vinyl when I'm at home. I think this is the reason vinyl sales have been steadily rising in recent years. Music fans still want to own a hi-res collection (vinyl), but they also want the convenience of streaming services on their phone. They don't want to carry around an extra device just for their music when the one they have, their phone, is already good enough.

I'm sure it drives Neil crazy to hear his music on an iPhone. He knows what he put into each mix and he can tell what's missing. But most people are not going to care enough to carry around two devices.

The pono music player comes in yellow and blackPlus, I don't think we've truly lost anything. Sure there is literally information loss when you compress the music down to an MP3. But this is just the natural evolution of music. Music has always been influenced by the evolution of technology. I think that MP3s hark back to the early days of rock and roll, when bands like the Rolling Stones, CCR, and Neil himself had to make an impact over low resolution radio. The performance had to overcome the technical limitations of the medium. I think you can enjoy "Satisfaction" without a Pono player.

Still, this project is going gangbusters on Kickstarter. Neil has already raised $2.4 million and counting. $1.4 million of that came in on the first day.

But, as the founder of Pono, Neil is taking on the tech giants in hardware and software design. He not only needs to deliver a good audio experience, he also has to design an entire ecosystem for music. He's got to make a device that's a joy to use and that fits in with other devices in your digital lifestyle. That's a tall order.

The bar is high. His bet is that the high-resolution music, not convenience, will carry this device to niche-success. Call me jaded, but Pono doesn't seem like a viable option for the future. When I'm on the go I'd prefer to sacrifice a little quality to be able to stream my entire music collection from the cloud. I don't want to swap out SD cards on my Pono player.

I'd be thrilled if I'm wrong. Neil's a dreamer, and that's why he's great. So more power to him for making this idea a reality. I really respect that. Good luck, Pono.

Yes Neil, you have written about it in your book, and your song "Driftin Back":

Dreaming about the way things sound now
Write about them in my book
Worry that you can't hear me now
And feel the time I took

To help you feel this feeling
Let you ride along
Dreaming about the way you feel now
When you hear my song

Don't want my MP3
Don't want my MP3
I'm driftin' back
I'm driftin' back
I'm driftin' back
I'm driftin' back

When you hear my song now
You only get five percent
You used to get it all
You used to get it all