Rocker Neil Young talks the future of sound at SXSW – USA TODAY
AUSTIN – Neil Young wants to bring music back to where fans can listen to every cymbal strike, every guitar strum, every echo thought up by a musician.
The future of sound one day soon could be contained in a candy bar-size receiver that sits on a breakfast counter — a new music initiative he’s launching named PonoMusic, the legendary rocker told an audience of several thousand attendees at SXSW on Tuesday.
“This is rescuing music,” Young said. “It’s an artist-driven movement to take it back.”
Young, 68, used a 30-minute speech, prerecorded video of stars and a Q&A with USA TODAY technology writer Mike Snider at the Austin Convention Center to promote his new start-up company, PonoMusic, a music ecosystem that will offer studio-quality music in an online store, akin to what Apple offers with iTunes. The portable PonoPlayer will be able to store up to 2,000 digital albums and initially cost $399.
Young appeared in signature black leather jacket and black hat, and paced back and forth across the stage as he described the new technology. He had been working on the high-resolution music project for more than three years and has decried the state of digital music in the past, particularly in his book, Waging Heavy Peace.
In Tuesday’s speech, he pointed to the invention of MP3s — the audio-encoding format most popular in mobile phones and online streaming sites today — as the key element that derailed recorded music’s quality. That format lowered sound quality by drastically reducing the amount of recorded information, he said. Unlike MP3s, Pono will allow up to a 192-kHz sampling rate, if the musician records at that rate, he said.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, who delivered timeless hits such as Heart of Gold and Old Man, said he became incensed through the years at seeing technology improving everything from video cameras to toasters but letting music quality wither. Investors initially were hesitant to invest in the project, he said. “Rescuing an art form is not something that’s a high consideration to too many people in the investment community.”
Midway through the presentation, Young flashed a video of more than 20 star performers and music executives — from Norah Jones to Sting to Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen — sampling PonoMusic and giving seemingly candid endorsements of the new sound.
“I haven’t heard a sound like that since vinyl,” Elton John said. “It was wonderful.”
Added T Bone Burnett: “This is the moment now where people can start to pay attention to quality again.”
The crowd of several thousand began filling the cavernous exhibit hall at the convention center an hour before the show. They ranged from the young, backward-cap-wearing tech milieu, their eyes darting between the stage and their cellphones, to older, nostalgic fans of Young’s music and ideas.
“Neil Young is a real hero,” said Laurelle Favreau, 56, a performing arts agent attending SXSW from Connecticut. “It’s wonderful he was asked to come. We’re interested in his goal of purifying sound.”
A Kickstarter campaign launched Tuesday to raise money and awareness of the project drew more than $500,000 in four hours, he said.
But even if PonoMusic is a financial failure, the effort is a big win if consumers realize there’s a choice in quality, Young said.
“If it’s a success or if it’s not a success — music wins,” he said. “Now, there’ll be a choice.”