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Neil Young Q&A: On Pono’s ‘Hard to Ignore’ Launch, ‘Knocking Heads’ With Labels

Neil Young and his PonoMusic team were all smiles the day after launching the music service and player at South By Southwest, and with good reason.

Neil Young and his PonoMusic team were all smiles the day after launching the music service and player at South By Southwest, and with good reason. A Kickstarter campaign for player pre-orders doubled its goal in less than 24 hours, with more than 5,000 “backers” ponying up $1.6 million for the machines, which are due out in October. “That’s a significant accomplishment,” Young told Billboard at Austin’s bucolic Hotel St. Cecilia. “We’re just wondering how long it’ll keep moving like this, but it’s gone very well so far. It’s hard to ignore that there seems to be a market there for what we’re offering.”


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The high-resolution service has certainly captured attention and imagination, with all three major conglomerates on board — at the 70/30 rate that’s uniform within the music industry according to PonoMusic CEO John Hamm, who equivocated during a presentation Tuesday at the Austin Convention Center (“I wasn’t trying to be cryptic; surprisingly, everyone in the world has the same deal,” Hamm said the next day). PonoMusic plans to recruit smaller, independent labels into the service as well, according to Hamm, and will also offer exclusive products including music and limited edition Artist Signature Series featuring etched autographs and two albums chosen by the artists themselves pre-loaded onto the player. So Young exuded genuine excitement as he spoke about his latest envelope-pushing creative endeavor.

Billboard: The Kickstarter launch worked. What are people latching onto here?
Neil Young: I think there’s a lot of people who remember good-sounding music, even if they’re in the older generation. It probably is people who understand what they don’t have now, not people who don’t understand what they don’t have now — although some of them may be curious.

Could Pono maybe turn on a new generation to the joys of better sound?
Well, they’re in for a big surprise. When my daughter first heard this, for instance, she has like five or six thousand songs on her MP3 player, and she first heard Pono she just looked at me and said, “Dad, how come I’ve never heard this?” That was her question. I said, “Well, honey, the technology has not been there for you to hear this . . . Now the technology is here, and we’ve brought it back — not that it wasn’t there. We didn’t create anything. We just made it available, what really existed.

Is it really “there” now? Is listening to, say, “Zuma” on Pono going to be . . .
“Zuma” sounds as good as it did, there’s no doubt about it. And it may sound better than it did. We went back to the original masters and we did super, highest digital transfers through all the best possible ways of listening to it — and that’s off the master, not off a copy of the master that the vinyl was made from. We went back to the master, the same tape that was in the studio when they mixed it.

You’ve gotten plenty of buy-in for Pono from the industry.
Why would they not want to do this? We’re offering the industry the right to have all the control they ever had, every marketing decision they want to make. “You want to put out a single and not put out every individual [album] track? It’s your right. You have the music. How do you want to represent it, ‘cause I’m a record company guy and I want you do do whatever it is you want to do with this.” If a record company wants it to be an album on Pono, it’s an album. They have the ability to control it. We are just the way to get the music to the people, and we can play exactly what the artist did. There’s no change. It’s identical to what the artist created. We’re dealing at a quality level now that they haven’t given away.

Is it odd to be working with the labels in this cooperative fashion? You’re a guy who’s known for knocking heads with them on occasion.
I still knock up against them. We knock up against them. I know it took us a long time to get this stuff, but in the end they gave it to us. We didn’t have to pay a fortune for this. We talked to them, and they know we are them. We’re not a tech company. We’re a music company. That’s a huge difference. We are music. That’s all we’re here for. And we want music to be as good as it can be.

Granted, it’s your idea and your company. It’s not like you’ve ever had an issue being inspired, either, but as an artist does the presence of Pono give you an extra jolt?
Well, absolutely. There’s not that depressing aspect to making a record where you make a record and go, “Wow, too bad no one’s gonna hear it.” And that wore on me, knowing that all the work I put into making the records was not gonna be heard. That really bothered me, and it bothered all the artists. The testimony of those artists speaks for itself. All they have to do is hear it, and they go, ‘Oh my God, thank you. It’s there. It’s what we did.” And I go, “Thank YOU. You make it. All we’re doing is playing it.”

Are you thinking about making any modifications or additions to the player, from the prototype or in the future?
Nothing, no. This rollout of the player is a basic music player. We’re not a phone. We don’t have to be a phone, so we don’t want to be a phone. We don’t want to do anything other than play music. Everything else is taken care of at various levels of quality by other people. It’s not our focus. Anything that gets in the way of us making a great music player, we’re not interested in it. One thing well — that’s all we do.