For years, Neil Young has poured his time and energy into a project he's passionate about: Making today's digital music sound just as good as the recordings he grew up with.
"Rescuing an art form is not a high consideration to many in the investment community," groused the Canadian rock legend at the SXSW interactive, music and film festival in Austin, Texas.
"And there is a need for something to happen."
Young attributed the music industry's post-millennial collapse to the rise of MP3s -- no, not the file-sharing of them but their inferior sound quality. As for the something he says needs to happen, he says he's got that covered with Pono, his new digital music store and player named after the Hawaiian word for "righteous."
"They're not getting what we got," Young said about the kids today compared to his own vinyl youth.
"There's nothing there for them -- they're buying wallpaper, they're buying xeroxes of the Mona Lisa. It's music preserved as a tiny little piece of crap with less than 5 percent of the data of the original digital recording."
He noted that movie, TV and camera quality all went up in the digital age, but "music went down, music went to the bottom."
Young's years-in-the-works solution is a format and player that will play back the music at the resolution it was recorded, which can mean as much as 30 times the data of an MP3 or stream.
In other words, he's hoping his Toblerone-shaped Pono player will do to audio what HD TVs did to video.
"Every part of my body is getting hit with this. My soul is feeling it. I am doing what I use to do -- I'm listening, I'm feeling and experiencing. I am living the music," he said.
"It can make your stereo system sound like God."
Then Young played a video of testimonials from his superstar friends:
Eddie Vedder: "I got my drug of choice."
Tom Petty: "This gives it to you as good as you can get it."
Jack White: "There’s a huge leap of information on paper and a huge leap in quality that you’re going to hear."
Mike D: "I haven't heard a sound like that since vinyl."
Bruce Springsteen: "It's got a very warm analogue sound, a closeness and an intimacy that digital recordings lose."
Sarah McLachlan: "Warmer and fatter and yummier."
One problem these music millionaires fail to mention, of course, is that it would require everyone to buy -- yet again -- the same songs they may already own on vinyl, CD and MP3. The 128GB Pono players will also cost $399 and albums will range from $14.99 to $24.99.
Oh, and there was an awkward moment during Young's talk at SXSW when the corporate half of the Pono equation, CEO John Hamm, declined to answer an audience member's question as to how much of a cut Pono will take from each sale. (Apple takes 30 per cent from each iTunes sale.)
Don't expect Pono to sell singles, either. Earlier in the talk, Young railed against selling songs à la carte: "I love making records, I love every song on the record, I love every note of every song on the record, they meant something to me, they were a family of songs telling a story of how I was feeling."
Not that cost slowed down the adoption of HD, but this seems like much more of an audiophile device, especially for a generation raised on listening to MP3s through earbuds.
Or maybe not. Young also launched a Kickstarter to help take his Pono player into the marketplace. He asked for $800,000 and surpassed that in about ten hours.
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