Is Neil Young's new invention hurting record stores and up and coming musicians?
Recently, the Pono Kickstarter campaign crossed the finish line with $6.23 million in contributions, blowing past its $800,000 goal to become the third most successful Kickstarter ever. It's time to stop laughing at Neil Young and his ridiculously-named, Toblerone bar-shaped portable music player and start taking it seriously.
So, Neil Young, in all seriousness: please stop. Your gadget is not just silly looking, but useless, redundant, and — worst of all — hurtful toward record stores, and up and coming musicians.
Let's put aside the problem of a famous and wealthy artist like Neil Young using Kickstarter in the first place. We all know he could have gotten his $800,000 from private investors, or his personal checking account, and that this was likely just a publicity stunt.
The Pono website says, "PonoMusic takes all the music goodness of an artist's studio master recordings and liberates it right into your soul. Nothing is lost, but everything is gained." Actually, here's what was lost: $6.23 million. That money could've gone into the pockets of artists through existing distribution channels that already offer lossless and high quality audio for portable devices and stereos that support the formats that PONO so proudly champions. While Young promises a "revolution in music listening" that will fix years of declining audio quality, the Pono addresses none of the problems real music fans face.
The greatest trick the music industry ever pulled was making consumers think they need to buy the same classic rock records over and over again. Think about the number of opportunities we've had to repurchase, The Beatles' discography. There were the original records, The Beatles Collection vinyl box set, The Beatles Box Set on CD, then the remastered stereo and mono box sets on CD and vinyl, then on iTunes. Same goes for The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen — name a classic artist, and their albums have been repackaged and re-released again and again. Each time, the shiny new package comes with marketing campaign making you think the copies you already own have to be replaced by the new ones, which are better and cleaner sounding, bringing you closer and closer to the artist's original vision.
This is how 1% of artists make 77% of the income generated by the music industry today. If you think the Big Three major record labels (Sony, Universal, and Warner) are banking on finding a hot new indie band around the corner, then you're wrong. They're banking on reselling the back catalogue of their top earners over and over again, in new formats that consumers don't really need.
Take a look at this press photo for the Pono and see which songs it displays on the screen: "Heart of Gold" by Young, "Watermelon Man" by Herbie Hancock, "Blowing in the Wind" by Bob Dylan, and "Born in the USA" by Bruce Springsteen. Young and the Pono team are sending consumers a clear message: the Pono will give you an opportunity to buy better versions of the music you already own, have owned for a long time, and have probably bought several times over. These are not just big artists, but the highest of the highest earning musicians in the world. They don't need your money.
On the other hand, the slowly dying major record labels who own the rights to their music need you to think that you need new and improved versions of their albums. And hey, there's nothing wrong with higher audio quality, and and nothing wrong with Young trying to advocate for it. The problem is that the PonoPlayer will not sound better than anything already available, and the Pono Store will not offer a new distribution channel for better audio.
The Pono Player plays songs in FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec), which reproduces an exact copy of the original audio source – i.e., an album's master tapes. This is in contrast to the iPod, which uses compressed (or “lossy”) formats that cause degradation in sound quality. While that might seem like an exciting idea, most audio experts say that the difference is minuscule to unnoticeable, especially on a portable audio player with average consumer grade headphones.
Audio engineer Jacob McMorrow says that, “Overall, the system and the store do sound better than mp3s and mp3 players, but in most cases the difference seems insignificant. Especially if you're listening on your commute with a pair of cheap headphones. You could probably only really get the most out of the system with headphones above a cost.”
To top it all off, the iPod already supports other high quality audio formats, like WAV and AAC, and you can always turn up the bit rate on your MP3s anyway. According to Max Cotter of the Access Fabrik Laboratory at Ryerson University, “High quality songs can be stored on your iPod and played back just fine. There's no point in buying another device to play files that you could already play on something else,” saying that FLAC on a portable device “doesn't sound any better or worse than a WAV.”
“Also,” he adds, “It's still using a 3.5mm jack for headphones. If they wanted to really step up the audio game on Pono, make it even clunkier than it is in its Toblerone form and give it a nice stereo 5-pin balanced XLR connection to minimize interference.” So why bother making a new portable device when existing ones already do the job?
If all Young cared about was improving audio quality, he would champion the numerous distribution channels already available for selling high quality and lossless audio. Bandcamp already supports FLAC downloads, as well as ALAC (Apple Lossless), AAC, and Ogg Vorbis. Soundcloud supports even more formats, FLAC included. There are also online stores such as Rhino, HDtracks, and Bleep.com that have been selling albums in FLAC for a while. This is all in addition to artists, from Tom Petty to Nine Inch Nails to your buddy's indie band, who have simply chosen to make their music available in FLAC and other high quality formats on their websites.
And yet, part of the “Pono Promise” is that the device will not only sound better, but that it will come supported by the online Pono store, which will will finally make music available in lossless format. Albums will cost $14.95-24.95, well above the prices set by iTunes, Amazon, and most other online distributors.
During his keynote speech at SXSW Interactive, Young and Pono CEO John Hamm (not Donald Draper) got flustered and left the stage when someone int he audience asked a simple question: “What's your cut?” "That's a delicate question, isn't it?," Neil Young responded, before Hamm cut off the discussion.
It's not a delicate question, but it's a question of pure math. And, hey, maybe they forgot to prepare for their presentation — SXSW is pretty crazy, and the conference was really early in the morning (actually, it was at 5pm). But do they even have a royalty strategy in mind? A general commitment to supporting artists, or something similarly vague and nice sounding? The FAQ section on the Pono website includes hard hitting questions like "Why do so many musicians support PonoMusic?," and "What's the Pono promise?," but nothing about where the sales royalties will go. It seems as if Young simply hasn't thought about it at all.
Meanwhile, most up and coming artists are less concerned with selling higher quality recordings than selling any records at all. And most independent record stores are just trying to stay in business. None of this would matter if the Pono had been some weird idea that never took off, but the success of its Kickstarter campaign proves that Young means business. This is really happening. The Pono will come into existence. You might even see someone using one on the street.
The question now is: how much money will it soak up from the record-buying public before it inevitably gets discontinued? Another $6 million? $20 million? $100 million? However much it rakes in, every penny could have gone to supporting artists who actually need the money and record stores who already sell the same or better products.
Don't let Neil Young, his team of marketers, and his major label partners fool you into thinking you need this. You won't just look like an idiot with a Toblerone-shaped Pono boner in your jeans (can we make #ponoboner a thing?), but you'll be giving the middle finger to artists and record stores everywhere.
Greg Bouchard is a writer in Toronto who got rid of his #ponoboner.
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