Rock and Roll Book Club: Neil Young's 'mission to save high-quality audio'

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'To Feel the Music,' a book by Neil Young and Phil Baker.
'To Feel the Music,' a book by Neil Young and Phil Baker. (Jay Gabler/MPR)

"You know," writes Neil Young, "I may end up going to my grave and be banging my head against my gravestone trying to get somebody to understand about what's happening to music!"

He's not complaining about bro country or trap beats, he's writing about audio quality. The legendary singer-songwriter thinks the recording industry has been experiencing a crisis of audio quality since the '80s, and most listeners have no idea.

That latter fact is the crux of the Neil Young dilemma: when you feel like you're banging your head against a gravestone trying to get listeners to understand what they're missing, can the difference really be that big a deal? That's the skeptic's view of Young's Pono project, an entrepreneurial attempt to design and produce a device allowing you — yes, you — to put high-quality music in your pocket.

Pono players shipped to Kickstarter backers in 2014, and three years later Pono went kaput. In his new book To Feel the Music, co-written with Pono partner Phil Baker, Young chronicles his successful, if brief, attempt to bring a reasonably-priced, reliable high-quality audio player to the consumer market.

It's not a simple story, and To Feel the Music is perhaps most interesting as a tech-startup case study. Young and his investors dreamed big: they didn't just want to create a high-quality audio player, they wanted to revolutionize the world's personal listening habits. Yes, they fell short of that goal, but when your stated desire is for a player that "sounds like God," you have to know you're fighting an uphill battle.

In the book's first few chapters, Young lays out his case. In his world, first of all, you have to understand that analog is always better than digital. He would rather have you listen to his albums on audio cassette than CD. A graphic comparing music formats puts a vinyl record at "100%" of possible sound quality. Even his own Pono player only hits 90%, and a CD lands at a mere 25%. Spotify? Ha! Five percent.

Audiophiles have been having the CD-versus-vinyl debate since Target was just a Minnesota discount store, and while the jury will be out forever, it's safe to say arguing a record is four times better than a CD represents one very particular way of presenting the facts. Nonetheless, Young makes a sound point (so to speak) when he argues that in terms of digital audio quality, we're still stuck in the 20th century.

He draws a comparison to video quality: if you're used to streaming HD movies, put on a standard DVD and you'll readily notice the difference even on a small TV. Streaming video now routinely bests DVDs, which hit the consumer market in 1997 — but typical streaming audio is objectively lower in quality today than CDs, which landed on shelves in 1981. Why wouldn't listeners demand more? This is what keeps Neil Young up banging his head against a gravestone (or just his bed's headboard).

Of course, as Young acknowledges, Pono wasn't the only advance in consumer audio quality this decade. Streaming services are slowly but surely making higher-quality audio available, but progress is happening haltingly. Young, Baker, and their supporters — including dozens of fellow music stars who supported Pono in various capacities — wanted to spark a revolution.

Pono high-quality audio players.
(Pono)


So what, exactly, was Pono? It was a device that ran about $300 — about the size of an iPod, but shaped like an outsize triangular lipstick tube. It had to be an irregular shape to fit the components that allowed it to play high-quality audio files with maximum possible fidelity; it would play any audio files, but a blue light would come on when it was playing true HQ audio downloaded from the Pono store.

The store ended up being what brought Pono under. The back-end technology for the store was run by a company that was purchased by Apple and subsequently shut down, leaving Young and his colleagues with no way to sell music to their customers. (Apple didn't respond to Young's e-mails, he says. Ouch.)

Much of To Feel the Music constitutes a detailed history of the process of bringing Pono to market. Quixotic as Young's dream might have seemed, he found a lot of people to share it: a Kickstarter campaign drew $6.2 million in pledges, with 15,000 backers contributing the amount required to get one of the first Pono players.

The story is at once daunting and inspiring: Pono did become a reality, but Young and his partners faced everything from management shakeups to tech defections (the guy who was designing a unique data-compression solution ended up licensing his technique to Tidal) to the fact that hundreds of supporters sent their cash, then moved homes and forgot to keep Pono posted.

At one point, 3,000 finished Pono players had to be disassembled and inspected because a single employee working a single shift on the Chinese assembly line hadn't fastened a single tiny screw tightly enough in the players she worked on. Then there were the challenges that come with the territory when you have an idealistic founder: Pono was ready to package the players in cardboard, but Young wanted them shipped in reusable bamboo boxes instead. That caused problems with Australia and Israel, which regulate bamboo imports...and so on.

After all that rigamarole, did the Pono players work? Emphatically yes, say Young and Baker. Very few buyers complained or had to return their players, and by the authors' estimate, most of the negative reviews dismissed the need for such a product rather than the quality of the product itself.

One of the mistakes Young does acknowledge is dismissing the idea of high-quality streaming: Pono was based entirely on downloads. When he discovered technology that allowed streaming quality to adjust itself to match the maximum capacity of a user's bandwidth, Young tried to reinvent Pono as a streaming platform called Xstream. That didn't take off, so the artist decided to prove the value of high-resolution streaming "on my own turf, with my own music."

That brings us to the happy ending of this story: the Neil Young Archives, a subscription site that allows fans to access his complete recorded catalog in high-quality streaming, with supplementary liner notes and bonus features arranged in a timeline of Young's career. It's been acclaimed as a landmark in fan service, and may eventually be emulated by other artists. For now, at least, Young's own fans can hear his music in a form as close as possible to that the artist intended.

Unless, of course, they're able to just go ahead and put on a Neil Young record.

Upcoming Rock and Roll Book Club picks

Tune in to The Current at 8:30 a.m. (Central) every Wednesday morning to hear Jay Gabler and Jill Riley talk about a new book. Also, find Jay's reviews online.

Sept. 18: Country Music: An Illustrated History by Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns

Sept. 25: High School by Sara Quin and Tegan Quin

Oct. 2: Face It by Debbie Harry

Oct. 9: Me by Elton John

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