Neil Young is preparing to launch a new high-definition streaming service called Xstream, a continuation of the rocker's search for top-quality digital sound that Young started with his Pono player.
In a post in the members section of the Pono site, Young detailed the new streaming service, as well as some of the shortcomings of the Pono project that Young hopes to improve upon with Xstream.
"It's been almost five years since we kicked off the [Pono] campaign at SXSW to offer a player and download content that could fulfill my dream of bringing to you a music experience unlike any other for the cost. Thanks to our supporters on Kickstarter, the follow-on customers and some very good friends that supported the effort, we delivered on that promise… We sold tens of thousands of players, every unit that we made," Young wrote.
"But, despite that success, I was not satisfied. I had to put up with lots of criticism for the high cost of music delivered in the way all music should be provided, at full resolution and not hollowed out. I had no control over the pricing, but I was the one that felt the criticism, because I was the face of it. And I pretty much agreed with the criticism. Music should not be priced this way."
Pono hit another roadblock in 2016 when Omnifone, their download store partner, was "was bought and shut down with no notice by Apple." Young and the Pono team attempted to rebuild their download store, but the necessary price of the high-quality downloads made it cost prohibitive, especially considering Young's desire to keep the price down.
"The more we worked on it, the more we realized how difficult it would be to recreate what we had and how costly it was to run it: to deliver the Pono promise, meaning you’d never have to buy the same album again if was released at a higher quality; the ability to access just high res music, and not the same performances at lower quality, and the ability to do special sales," Young wrote. "Each of these features was expensive to implement. I also realized that just bringing back the store was not enough."
In a December 2016 interview with Rolling Stone, Young hinted that he would be pivoting the Pono vision away from a download store and music device and toward streaming, even though Young previously disparaged the medium, saying in July 2015, "Streaming sucks. Streaming is the worst audio in history." Young's decision came as he struggled to find investors to commit money toward a high-quality download company while streaming was overtaking the music industry.
"So now, sadly with Pono offline, for more than eight months I’ve been working with our small team to look for alternatives. Finding a way to deliver the quality music without the expense and to bring it to a larger audience has been our goal," Young continued.
"That effort has led to a technology developed by Orastream, a small company in Singapore that we’ve been working with. Together we created Xstream, the next generation of streaming, an adaptive streaming service that changes with available bandwidth. It is absolutely amazing because it is capable of complete high resolution playback."
As Young lamented in that December interview, while he wanted to move toward streaming, he expressed doubts that the internal chip found in smartphones could adequately decipher the high-quality files. However, Young and the team at Orastream have found a flexible solution.
"Unlike all other streaming services that are limited to playing at a single low or moderate resolution, Xstream plays at the highest quality your network condition allows at that moment and adapts as the network conditions change," Young wrote. "It’s a single high resolution bit-perfect file that essentially compresses as needed to never stop playing. As a result, it always sounds better than the other streaming services and it never stops or buffers like other higher res services."
In July 2015, Young pulled the vast majority of his catalog from streaming services like Apple Music and Spotify as the rocker lamented the sound quality of the files. However, 16 months later, Young's catalogs suddenly appeared back on the major streaming services prior to the arrival of Peace Trail. It's unclear whether Young will again pull his catalog from services when Xstream debuts.
"I want you to know that I’m still trying to make the case for bringing you the best music possible, at a reasonable price, the same message we brought to you five years ago. I don’t know whether we will succeed, but it’s still as important to us as it ever was," Young concluded in his Pono post.
"Thankfully, for those of my audience who care and want to hear all the music, every recording I have ever released will soon be available in Xstream high resolution quality at my complete online archive. Check it out. We will be announcing it very soon."