I love the meeting point between music, technology and business. And I also have a soft spot for people and companies that pursue quality. So “To Feel the Music” by Neil Young and Phil Baker brilliantly checks off many of my reading interests. The book takes you on a somewhat out of control odyssey primarily detailing the creation and eventual demise of the high resolution audio player Pono. But the genesis of the device and the core of the book is what matters most.
For Neil Young, Phil Baker and the Pono team sound quality was the philosophical and business driver. It’s what informed the entire project and it’s also what ultimately drove the company out of business. The challenge for Pono was three fold. First there was educating the consumer as to what high resolution audio is and why they would want it. Second, the technical hurdle of building not only a physical player but also a distribution system in the form of a dedicated website. And third, convincing record companies that the pricing of high resolution audio should be similar or equal to the cost of compressed audio formats. None of these elements are what one would call a breeze to achieve.
I probably should add another massive mountain that Pono had to climb. Money. As the book details, product development is not cheap and at pretty much every step Pono was hunting for capital. To say it was an uphill battle would be an understatement. Just about every setback you could think of, they encountered — from personnel to engineering to finally losing their dedicated distribution website. All of these setbacks were costly and in the end lead to the demise of Pono.
Was it a worthwhile effort? On the business side, Pono burned through a whole bunch of cash and are no longer in business, which obviously isn’t a good thing. But from a purely audio quality and art perspective, I would say absolutely Pono did what they set out to do. Recordings should sound the best they possibly can and compressed audio doesn’t do that. There’s the argument that the consumer simply wants more songs and not better sounding songs, but why can’t they have both? Computing horsepower and bandwidth are not the limiting factor they were even in the recent past. If you can stream high definition video you certainly can stream high resolution audio. And that’s exactly what the Neil Young Archives are doing right now. My hope is that the large labels and streaming companies will follow in Pono and Neil Young’s footsteps and give listeners a chance “To Feel the Music”.