Neil Young Expands Pono Digital-to-Analog Music Service

Audio system could become rival to Apple

September 27, 2012 4:40 PM ET
neil young pono
Neil Young
Paul A. Hebert/FilmMagic

Aretha Franklin had never sounded so shocking, Flea decided last year, as "Respect" roared from the speakers of Neil Young's Cadillac Eldorado. Stunned by the song's clarity, the Red Hot Chili Peppers' bassist listened alongside bandmate Anthony Kiedis and producer Rick Rubin while Young showcased the power of Pono, his high-resolution music service designed to confront the compressed audio inferiority that MP3s offer.

Beginning next year, Pono will release a line of portable players, a music-download service and digital-to-analog conversion technology intended to present songs as they first sound during studio recording sessions. In his book out this week, Waging Heavy Peace, Young writes that Pono will help unite record companies with cloud storage "to save the sound of music." As Flea raves to Rolling Stone, "It's not like some vague thing that you need dogs' ears to hear. It's a drastic difference."

Pono's preservation of the fuller, analog sound already has the ear of the Big Three record labels: Warner Music Group, Universal Music Group and Sony Music. WMG – home to artists including Muse, the Black Keys, Common and Jill Scott – has converted its library of 8,000 album titles to high-resolution, 192kHz/24-bit sound. It was a process completed prior to the company's partnership with Young's Pono project last year, said Craig Kallman, chairman and chief executive of Atlantic Records.

In mid-2011, Kallman invested with Young and helped assemble a Pono team that included representatives from audio giants Meridian and Dolby, according to insiders. Once WMG signed on, Kallman said that he and Young approached UMG CEO Lucian Grainge and Sony Music CEO Doug Morris about remastering their catalogs for Pono distribution. Neither UMG nor Sony officially acknowledged those conversations.

"This has to be an industry-wide solution. This is not about competing – this is about us being proactive," Kallman tells Rolling Stone. "This is all about purely the opportunity to bring the technology to the table."

The title of Waging Heavy Peace refers to the response that Young gave a friend who questioned whether the singer-songwriter was declaring war on Apple with his new service.

"I have consistently reached out to try to assist Apple with true audio quality, and I have even shared my high-resolution masters with them," Young writes, adding that he traded emails and phone calls with Steve Jobs about Pono before the tech king's death last October. Apple declined to comment on whether a collaborative or competitive relationship with Pono exists. 

Apple's Mastered for iTunes program, which launched last year with the release of Red Hot Chili Peppers' I'm With You, requires mastering engineers to provide audio quality based on a listener's environment – such as a car, a flight or a club. Those dissatisfied with Apple's AAC format argue that it still represents a fraction of the high-resolution options that Pono promises to deliver. Engineers have debated the value of sound quality for years. 

In early June 2011, after filing a handful of trademarks for his cloud-based service idea, Young traveled to the Bonnaroo Festival to perform with Buffalo Springfield. While he was there, he invited fellow musicians into his Cadillac for a Pono demo, including members of Mumford & Sons and My Morning Jacket, and videotaped their reactions for a potential marketing campaign. 

"Neil's premise is cool, and I think it's exciting as a traveling musician," My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James tells Rolling Stone. However, he adds a caveat: "I think that's somewhere that he has to be careful: I've already bought Aretha Franklin's 'Respect' a lot of times. Do I have to buy it again?"

While Young acknowledges in his book that existing digital purchases will play on Pono devices, he points out that his service "will force iTunes to be better and to improve quality at a faster pace."

"His reasons are so not based in commerce, and based in just the desire for people to really feel the uplifting spirit of music," Flea said in defense of Young. "MP3s suck. It's just a shadow of the music."

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