When Neil Young tells you that there's something out of whack with the way you're listening to music, then you can't help but listen, which is what those of us who had assembled in the main hall of the Austin Convention Center were doing on Tuesday afternoon as the legendary rocker paced the stage, eerily resembling Steve Jobs during one of the Apple guru's famed keynotes.
"There was really something wrong," Young said, recounting the period in the '80s when the industry crossed over from analog to digital. "And it was that we were selling shit. And people were still buying it because they liked music – but they were buying wallpaper, they were buying background sounds, they were buying Xeroxes of the Mona Lisa."
Therein lies the sales pitch for Young's new music service, Pono: For years now, thanks to the advent first of digital recording, then MP3s, then — heaven forbid — streaming, we music fans have been missing out on 95 percent of the information contained in an analog recording. Choosing the convenience of digital over the quality of analog, consumers have been systematically and, to hear Neil tell it, somewhat conspiratorially denied access to the soul of music. Not only has this destroyed the experience of listening to music, it's wrought havoc on the entire industry.
"This vibrant, creative culture started to go away," Young explained, describing an entire class of musicians, studio employees, clerical workers, even deliverymen whose careers were impacted. "And it was because of the MP3, and the cheapening of the quality to a point where it was practically unrecognizable."
And so, enter Pono, which is both an iTunes-like music store that sells hi-res audio files as well as a Toblerone-shaped compatible device designed to play them. Neil's appearance at SXSW Tuesday afternoon was to celebrate the arrival of the service/device/concept on Kickstarter that same day, and before the day's end, Pono already surpassed its fundraising goal of $800,000. Donors who contributed $300 or more can expect to receive their brand new, music-industry-saving Pono device in…October, at which point one presumes Pono will do a launch event, which this oddly wasn't. What it was instead was n awkwardly choreographed product announcement (for a product that's been announced/gestating for years), which would explain Young's Jobs-ian pacing, not to mention CEO John Hamm's lack of preparation when the final Q&A participant of the night asked what Pono's cut of its MP3 sales would be, referring to the 30 percent surcharge Apple slaps its suppliers with.
"It surprises most people that everyone who buys music from the record labels pays exactly the same amount," Hamm responded, raising way more questions than he answered and probably drawing the ire of the same majors Pono's boasting about having deals with (the majors do not like their business being aired in public).
Hamm tried to call a time out at that point – "We can end it," he said, gesturing to the moderator – and in the confusion he got one, the lights going up before anyone had a chance to clarify what he meant. It was a strange note to end on.
But hey, like I said: When Neil Young tells you there's something wrong with the way you listen to music, you listen. He's undoubtedly correct that audio quality has taken a nosedive with the advent of MP3s, that something is missing and it needs to be replaced. Whether or not Pono is the service to replace it remains to be seen. After all, Apple already offers "Mastered for iTunes" versions of many new recordings, and pretty much every streaming service is working on high-bit rate streaming, a problem that seems perfectly tractable as bandwidth and storage continues to improve. Neil, for his part, claims to not be especially concerned with whether or not Pono succeeds at all (which might explain why it "struck out with the investor capitalists"), as long as it changes the conversation.
"If we fail, and we come out and we try to do this," he explained toward the end of his address, "we've made enough noise so people know something's wrong. If some big huge company comes along and kicks our ass with millions and millions of dollars, that's great for music."