Neil Young’s Pono-graphic Priesthood
Neil Young’s Pono Music format is in the middle of a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign, raising nearly $3 million and exceeding the $800,000 goal in the first two days. Accordingly, all of the really cool incentives are already gone.
It’s hard not to get excited about this format that blends vinyl’s superior sound quality and the iTunes’ portability, as anything that enhances music ultimately improves life for listeners. But the idea is a little disquieting when you consider that it will require you to replace and repurchase your entire music collection. No dedicated listener will tolerate owning five albums with great sound and 500 others that are less so. So like any great new thing this will cost you dearly.
The player, a $399 hand-sized triangular unit, is meant as a do-over for iTunes, which is itself a pretty cool way to store, manage and transport music but lacks the sound quality of vinyl, or even CDs. Young likens the MP3 experience to listening through 1,000 feet of water, while CDs are slightly better at 200 feet. It is only with Pono, he says, that you can break through the water’s surface and hear music as it was intended, or as musicians hear it in the studio.
In my own time as a technology journalist I’ve witnessed a plethora of boring demos and pitches by celebrities who knew and cared nothing about the product, which is why the Pono campaign is is so refreshing. Young’s messages are sincere and articulate. He is of course an A-list celebrity, and he’s pitching something in which he truly believes. So why not join in? Even kicking in $20 won’t get you much back, aside from a good feeling about casting a cash vote for musical quality. Vinyl has previously set the sound quality standard but ut a vinyl collection is stationary. With Pono, the consumer gets to satisfy the parallel needs for sound quality and portability.
Pono removes the file compression from MP3s, increasing depth and taking away the echo for an unprecedented musical experience. All the technical specs are on the Pono web site, but there are no demos available since you need to hear the players to “get it” and the players aren’t available unless you’re one of Neil’s friends. The wisest path is to wait until someone you know gets a Pono player and decide whether to jump in based on how it sounds for real, rather than hearing about it second hand and buying on faith.
“Real” Neil Young fans want to believe Neil when he says Pono is righteous (incidentally the Hawaiian translation of the word “pono” ) and we will have the perhaps irrational urge to jump right in. Never mind that he could have easily come up with the $800,000 himself, opening the investment to any music fan will build grassroots support and make those who’ve invested feel special, like getting a backstage pass that doesn’t disappear into the ephemera once the concert is over.
Kickstarter campaigns, once new, are now pretty standard. There are the low level contributions that get a “thank you,” $100 gets some swag, and the top level pledge gets you a VIP package. Here, you can kick in $300, $99 less than the Pono player’s retail price, and get a first edition Pono player. This is presumably of unlimited quantity so it could be a fun present for your favorite music fan. Although it could become the gift that keeps on taking.
For $400 there is a choice of 16 “signature” Pono players with etched autographs from different artists pre-loaded with their two favorite albums in Pono format. These are limited to 500 each, so those “signed” by Young, Tom Petty, Crosby, Stills and Nash and Pearl Jam are gone, but you can still get the likes of James Taylor, Willie Nelson or My Morning Jacket. As a bonus you get preloaded Pono versions of two of the artist’s favorite albums.
(Keep in mind that Kickstarter gets 5 percent of the money raised plus credit card fees, so if Pono raises $3 million Amazon could get a $200,000 kickback)
The main incentives are already gone, 30 lucky souls will attend a dinner and listening party with Young, with a night at the Half Moon Bay Ritz Carlton thrown in, for $5,000. While I still have reservations about Pono this is something I actually considered purchasing under the “once in a lifetime” category. But I snoozed, and will end up spending the money languishing in my IRA on something more permanent. Which, as it turns out, would just about cover the investment needed to acquire the Pono versions of the albums that I can’t do without.
Which isn’t going to happen right now. I’d rather blow five grand, if I had it, on a dinner with Young than face the thought of having to repurchase Revolver and a few hundred others yet again. I may reconsider after hearing Pono for real, but right now the thought of jumping on another musical bandwagon makes my head spin. Take the $5,000 and deduct $400 for the player. We are told that Pono albums will cost between $15 and $25 each (yes, and Revolver is only 35 minutes long) so if we average that out means I can buy 230 albums. Like when I switched to CDs in 2006 and began the big repurchase, I was at first careful to not buy anything unfamiliar. When albums are that expensive you don’t want to be stuck with something unpleasant.
As a young person buying vinyl on a limited budget I often bought the “wrong” record but would listen to it album for as long as it would take to like it. That won’t work these days, with the prevailing short attention span people move on when they are the least bit bored. And Pono, unlike vinyl, will allow you to easily skip ahead.
Right now, Pono isn’t for everybody. It’s reserved for those who are passionate about music and have several thousand dollars to reboot their collection. This will change as Pono reaches a critical mass, at which time the price will presumably fall to a level we can all afford. Either that, or the minimum wage will increase and trigger a trickle-up effect and we can all buy a Pono. Or maybe they’ll come up with a Pono streaming process where you can pay a subscription price and get access to a variety of music, a la Pandora. Not only would this save a mass repurchase but would offer new music in the Pono context. Which is the key for moving the new format out of the past and into the future.
Right now, Pono isn’t for me. I’ve spent the last few months rebuilding a vinyl collection, which has rekindled my personal relationship with the music. I’m happy to have quality at home and don’t need it as much on the road.
I’ll avoid Pono for the same reason I’m avoiding heroin. I don’t need something that’s going to send me into a perpetual state of euphoria while sucking away all my money and leaving me in the gutter, a withered, sobbing wreck wondering whether I should have saved something for retirement.