I hate to be the one to break it to rock ’n’ roll legend Neil Young, but his new digital music
venture has about as much chance of succeeding as I have of winning a Grammy — maybe less.
Earlier this month at the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas, Young unveiled
Pono, a company that will offer a digital music player, an online store and music-management
software all designed to work together, much like the iPod and iTunes. What makes Pono different is
that it is focused on delivering a better audio experience.
The company will sell songs and albums in a high-resolution format that its player is designed
for. According to Young, Pono will take listeners back to the recording studio and allow them to
hear music in exactly the way the artists intended it to sound.
The company has already drawn a huge amount of buzz, and endorsements from artists and industry
executives ranging from Sarah McLachlan to Warner Bros. Records Chairman Rob Cavallo. Meanwhile, a
Kickstarter campaign the company is using to get its service off the ground topped its $800,00
fundraising goal within a day of Young’s announcement and had exceeded $2.6 million by the end of
Yet, despite the enthusiasm surrounding it, Pono is an anachronistic and ill-considered solution
to an all-but-nonexistent problem.
The service is modeled on how people used to listen to music five or 10 years ago, not how they
By and large, consumers are replacing stand-alone digital music players like the iPod with
smartphones. And instead of plugging those players into their computers to sync their music,
they’re getting music on their smartphones wirelessly — either by syncing their songs over Wi-Fi
or, increasingly, streaming them from services such as Spotify, Pandora or iTunes Match.
Pono would have consumers step back in time. They would have to carry around separate phones and
music players again. And they would pay $400 for that music device — which, in an increasingly
connected world, is resolutely disconnected. The only way to get music on it is by transferring it
from a computer over a USB cable.
You can’t buy a song when you’re away from your computer and you can’t stream it to the device.
The company’s not even working on a smartphone application that might be able to offer Pono
customers some connectivity or instant gratification.
Because the PonoPlayer isn’t connected, it can’t access to your entire music collection or the
universe of available music. Instead, it can only play what’s stored on it, which, if the songs are
all in the high-resolution format it’s promoting, is only about 800 songs.
For now, consumers will only be able to buy the PonoPlayer through the company’s Kickstarter
site. You won’t be able to test it out in Best Buy, much less Walmart. That’s going to make it hard
for the company to market its player to the masses — much less convince them that it really sounds
Troy Wolverton is a technology columnist for the San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News.