‘I don’t want to take music backward’: Neil Young on the launch of PonoMusic [SXSW]

Neil Young

Neil Young

“I don’t want to take music back to the old days, I want to take it forward — to the future,” says singer-songwriter Neil Young, dressed in his black hat and black leather jacket, pacing up and down the stage of the Austin Convention Centre’s Hall D. On the day that the Interactive portion wrapped up and the Music part began, Young came to SXSW to launch a new music service, one he believes will benefit listeners to hear music the way artists and producers intend it to be heard.

“This is the 21st Century. Why be stuck with inferior quality?” he asked – and it’s this rhetorical question that forms the reason behind Young’s new high-definition portable music player and download service. It’s called PonoMusic, and it’s currently being sold on Kickstarter, as a way not only to gain funding for the idea, but to build a community of like-minded music-lovers; people who want more from their music experience; people who are tired of listening to music through little white buds.

Pono Music is a service that works together with a device that looks almost like a 3D iPod. It fits in your pocket, and rather than provide a listener with MP3 versions of songs, stores them as 192 kbs audio format. This, believes Young, is the key to the quality of the recording. The PonoPlayer is being sold online for $339. Within four hours of the Kickstarter campaign launching, it had already raised $800 000.

Without notes, and evidently passionate about the project, Young explained where the idea, which has taken two and half years to implement, came from. “I’m a fan of listening loud — I love to listen loud… I like to take whatever it is to the limit.” He says the introduction of the MP3 meant this was no longer possible, and it had a negative impact on the music industry.

“Everything started to die. It was because of the MP3 and the cheapening of the quality to where it was practically unrecognisable,” he said, adding that the idea of ‘filler’ tracks on albums became an excuse for people to be only interested in single tracks. “The album had no value – only the individual tracks had value. As a guy who’d been making records for many years at that point, I was pissed off. I love every note on every song on every record: they’re a family of songs that tell a story of how I was feeling.”

He maintains the sound of MP3 was ‘s***’: “We were selling shit, but people were still buying it because they like music [but] they were buying Xeroxes of the Mona Lisa.” The way Young sees it, music adapted to the constraints of MP3 and instead of being soulful, it became beat heavy. “It became smart, it became tricky. But for me, it was like ‘woah, I don’t want to do that!’… I started thinking it might be a good idea to do something about it.”

Young hopes music lovers all over the world will buy into and support his new service, which allows users to incorporate music they’ve already collected in other formats onto the player. He’s already got a slew of well-known artists, from Bruce Springsteen to Dave Grohl to Elton John and Norah Jones singing praises about the quality of sound offered on the service. But he says that even if PonoMusic doesn’t take off, and make the kind of successful impact he’s hoping for, at least the boat will have been rocked enough for others to take note, and push for something more from the music-listening – and appreciating – experience.

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