'It's time to talk about Pono,' Neil Young says of dormant online music store
'I'm still trying to make the case for bringing you the best music possible, at a reasonable price'
Neil Young appears to be shifting his digital music gears away from his high-fidelity Pono project towards a form of high-resolution streaming.
"It's time to talk about Pono," the Canadian singer, musician and activist wrote in a lengthy missive that seemed to indicate an end to the online storefront — which has been offline since July 2016 — and posted to the Pono community website Thursday evening.
"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."
In his post, Young praised supporters of both the prism-shaped Pono hi-fi digital music player (which plays FLAC audio files) and noted its success since the project was first introduced at the 2014 South by Southwest music festival and via a massively successful Kickstarter campaign, which raised more than $6.2 million US.
"Our player won best digital portable product of the year from Stereophile Magazine, and we offered some of the best high-resolution content to be found anywhere. We sold tens of thousands of players, every unit that we made," he said.
However, the longtime critic of highly compressed, "mediocre" digital audio files also noted that he received much criticism at the high cost of the Pono site's high-fidelity download offerings — criticism that he agreed with despite having no control over pricing.
In 2016, upon the demise of Pono music store partner Omnifone, "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," Young wrote.
"I also realized that just bringing back the store was not enough. While there was a dedicated audience, I could not in good conscience continue to justify the higher costs. When it comes to high-res, the record industry is still broken," he said, explaining that record companies charge a premium for the sale of high-res recordings.
"I believe all music should cost the same, regardless of the technology used."
Move towards streaming
In December, during a wide-ranging interview with Rolling Stone, Young expressed plans to shift the Pono initiative towards a quality form of high-resolution streaming.
He shared more details in his post, revealing that he's teamed up with Singapore firm Orastream to create "an adaptive streaming service that changes with available bandwidth" for "complete high-resolution playback." They've dubbed the service Xstream.
"For more than eight months, I've been working with our small team to look for alternatives. Finding a way to deliver the quality music without the expense and to bring it to a larger audience has been our goal," Young said.
"Xstream plays at the highest quality your network condition allows at that moment and adapts as the network conditions change. It's a single high-resolution bit-perfect file that essentially compresses as needed to never stop playing."
Young added that "every recording I have ever released will soon be available in Xstream high-resolution quality at my complete online archive."
Some critics blasted had Pono as niche and elitist, arguing that relatively few people would actually discern any difference in audio quality and pay for the expensive offering. The basic player itself was $399 US and music files cost up to double that of rival digital stores like iTunes: albums cost about $20-30 US and individual tracks, when available, from $1.99 to $2.99 US.
What Young realized from his Pono experience is that "good sounding music is not a premium," he said.
"All songs should cost the same, regardless of digital resolution. Let the people decide what they want to listen to without charging them more for true quality. That way quality is not an elitist thing. If high-resolution costs more, listeners will just choose the cheaper option and never hear the quality."
While this adaptive streaming service has proven "a difficult sell" for investors so far, Young said he's still committed to this particular labour of love.