Neil Young Wants to Move Pono Music Service Into Streaming

Rich Fury/Invision/AP
Neil Young photographed on May 18, 2016.

Neil Young's beleaguered Pono, a name that covers both his high-resolution listening device and a digital music store, has been struggling since its January 2015 launch, and most recently was taken offline this July after its provider, Omnifone, went into administration and was purchased by an unidentified buyer (7digital took over). Five months later, the high-quality audio download platform remains out of service, but Young isn't giving up on his pet project just yet. In a new interview with Rolling Stone, Young says he's looking into adapting the service for streaming.

"We're setting up right now partnerships for a Pono hi-res streaming service, and when we get our streaming service up we're gonna re-emerge as a streaming service and a hi-res download offer," Young says on the RS podcast. "That's what we do, that's our service: we provide the best that's available, full-resolution music, great-sounding music, and we're pushing towards getting our presence in phones and being able to be part of large partnerships that will enable us to be able to share the sound of hi-res and have people experience the sound of hi-res in music, like they have in television."

Pono initially launched with a library of two million songs, allowing users to purchase and download lossless FLAC files of each track and rejecting the compressed formats that make files like mp3s take up smaller amounts of space on hard drives and free up room for more songs or data. That's often necessary for streaming services to avoid delays and buffering times in delivering audio to users, and only Tidal currently offers a hi-res subscription option, which it advertises for $20/month. Young, however, says Pono will not use lossless compression methods, but is in the process of setting up a partnership with a company based in Singapore that will allow Pono to stream its catalog at varying levels of audio quality.

"We want to maintain our quality level when we go to streaming and I think we can," he says. "And if you have the bandwidth, you can get the full frequency, the full everything. If you don't have the bandwidth, your app will show you what you're missing... You'll be able to move around and there won't be any break in the music, but the resolution of the sound will change and you'll be able to tell what happened when you look at your screen. And that will educate people as to the difference between hi-resolution music and regular streaming-level music."

While that sounds like it could be a separate, frustrating headache for listeners, Young has always positioned Pono as a teaching tool for fans who want to hear tracks with the full audio resolution with which they were recorded, which would necessarily limit its user base to audiophiles and the like. And it's had its share of problems along the way. Just eight months after its launch, Young posted a lengthy letter to Facebook calling Pono a "labor of love" and noting the company still needed a "proven business leader" to run it. But some of his plans -- such as expansion to several different countries -- did not materialize, and Young admitted that, despite initially raising $6.2 million via Kickstarter to launch Pono, the company was struggling from a lack of resources. (A rep for Young did not return a request for comment.)

But after recently reversing his stance on streaming -- after withholding his music from all services, Young quietly allowed Tidal the rights to stream his catalog this April -- the veteran rocker believes Pono's musical ideal can work hand-in-hand with the music industry's preferred method of consumption.

"If the track is available that way, we will be able to stream it that way," he says. "That's up to the record companies and the artists and what they provide us with. They're free to make any quality they want. It's their product."


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