Neil Young's Pono Plans Take Shape With New Trademarks

Digital-to-analog music service continues growth

December 19, 2012 9:00 AM ET
neil young pono
Neil Young performs at the 26th Annual Bridge School Benefit at Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View, California.
Steve Jennings/WireImage

Evidence of Neil Young's latest move to brand and market Pono, his forthcoming music service featuring high-resolution master downloads of songs, can be found in his recent federal trademark applications for a pair of slogans – "Pono Promise" and "21st Century Digital" – which reside on Pono's website.

The latest trademark applications, filed this month, refer to "cases for audio tuners, audio receivers, amplifiers, tape players, compact disc players, MP3 controllers/players, audio mixers, audio speakers in the nature of music studio monitors, microphones, audio speakers, compact discs, audio tapes, portable computers, antennas, phonographic record players, audio recording equipment," according to documents on file with the United States Patent and Trademark Office. 

Neil Young Expands Pono Digital-to-Analog Music Service

Seattle-based investor Gigi Brisson – listed as a director of Young's Ivanhoe Inc. in a recent SEC filing – registered mypono.com in May, a month after Rolling Stone reported Young's initial attempt to trademark names associated with Pono. When contacted for comment about the new filings, Brisson referred Rolling Stone to Young's manager, Elliot Roberts.

"It's too early for me to talk about it, to give you anything that's based on reality," Roberts tells Rolling Stone. "Who knows what kind of problems there might be or might not be?"

Young tweeted earlier this month that Pono will roll out the service's cloud-based music-library component and portable digital-to-analog players by summer. It is unclear whether Young's Silicon Valley contacts from his days as an investor in Pacific Microsonics – which developed HDCD audio technology and was acquired by Microsoft in 2000 – will have a role in Pono's development and marketing. While several people contacted said they were not among Pono's investors, venture capitalist and former Young associate Peter Gotcher now serves as chairman of the board of directors at Dolby, one of the companies involved with Pono's audio development, a source close to the project revealed. (Several insiders declined to comment on which retailers Pono has approached and what its product line will cost.)

During an interview with David Letterman in September, Young acknowledged he was "negotiating with Sony" and working on transferring albums including The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan and Highway 61 Revisited for Pono. A Sony Music representative tells Rolling Stone the label has no comment, and those with Universal Music have not responded to requests. Warner Music Group converted its library of albums to 192kHz/24-bit resolution prior to teaming with Pono last year.

This week, after driving fewer than 2,000 miles in the 1961 Lincoln Continental Young once deemed "worthy of the Pono feature," the automobile collector asked an associate to auction the classic car on eBay with a starting bid of $15,000.

"In addition to the original stock radio, a powerful custom sound system has been installed," the listing reads. "This includes front and rear speakers, a subwoofer under the front seat and another in the trunk. Music rocks in this car!"

Young bought the pearl-white sedan, equipped with the original V8 engine, from a Canadian seller through eBay last year in the hope of meeting with Ford Motor Company Executive Chairman Bill Ford Jr., according to Young's book, Waging Heavy Peace, released in September. "I want him to hear Pono in one of Ford's own cars," he wrote. "I have chosen a 1961 Continental over a new Ford Focus, but I want to take the prototype system out of the Continental and put it in the Focus to show how easy that is as part of the demo I plan for Mr. Ford."

A different car, however – a 1978 Cadillac Eldorado – ended up serving as Young's demo-on-wheels for Pono. Last year, Young invited several musicians into his antique car for a Pono presentation and recorded their reactions for a potential marketing campaign, according to his book. Tom Petty, Beastie Boys' Mike D, Kid Rock and members of the Red Hot Chili Peppers were among those consulted.

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