Po-Nope!

I last wrote about Neil Young’s erstwhile Pono music store a little less than two years ago, when the SS Pono was already taking on water. Unsurprisingly, Pono has now found a new home in Davy Jones’ Locker. Let’s take a moment to consider the reasons why.

When you are trying to enter the market as a disruptor, you need to actually do something different. The original iPhone is a great example of a market disruptor. Touch screen phones prior to the iPhone sucked, because nobody had thought to build a UI around the idea, and even if they had, plastic resistive screens would’ve been miserable to use anyway.

In its earliest stages, Pono did intend to do something different, something horrible – reintroduce the concept of DRM to purchased digital music files. We suspect that Pono initially partnered with Meridian to develop a new lossless container format with copy protection, which the company has experience with – they created the “MLP” protected container format for the DVD-Audio disc. Thankfully the world was spared from that lunacy. The last thing the industry needed was another “PlaysForSure” debacle, not that it would’ve helped anyone anyway. The idea of trying to stop music piracy now with a new DRM format is like trying to slam on the brakes after you’ve already driven off of a cliff. Even the emergency brake can’t help you then.

So without their new DRM format, Pono was forced to ride into town selling high-res FLAC files for exorbitant sums of money, something HDTracks, far from saints themselves, had already been doing for years. But wait, it gets worse! Like HDTracks, Pono was extremely reluctant to talk provenance. They tried to sell the “Pono” version of a particular album as something new. “Don’t worry about where it came from. This is the Pono version, so it’s the best, because we say it is.” This is the exact opposite approach that music stores trying to sell HD files at double the cost of a CD should be taking. If some engineers have created a new master of an album specifically for the Pono store, then great, it’s the Pono version. A 15 year old SACD converted to 24/88 PCM and slapped on the store is not “Pono” anything, it’s a 15 year old SACD, converted to 24/88 PCM, and it should’ve been described as such.

Worst of all though was the missed opportunity, which we’ve touched on before when talking about Pono. When we complained about HDTracks’ atrocious DR5 version of Megadeth’s Countdown To Extinction, the company’s response was “it’s Megadeth!” as if that somehow means something. “It’s metal you idiots! It’s supposed to be stupid loud and sound like garbage! Now buy it from us in 24/96 to make sure you get that ultimate HD sound!”

What Pono could’ve done, that would’ve genuinely been innovative and disruptive, is to set an ultimatum for music sold on its store. “If it’s not DR8+, we aren’t selling it.” Which is not to say that every DR8+ album sounds like aural ecstasy, you can absolutely have a miserable sounding record with a great DR score. That wouldn’t be the point though. The point would be to do something to try and stop the madness. Youtube hasn’t done it, ReplayGain hasn’t done it, and Soundcheck hasn’t done it. Some tick box in a program is not going to cause an earth shaking change in the industry. It’s going to take someone with influence to say “music shouldn’t be produced like this anymore.” That someone could’ve been Neil Young. He knows full well about the problem, but he chose to punt, in order to have access to basically the same catalogue that HDTracks has. How’d that work out?

Young isn’t done yet though, his new idea is to birth a new streaming music service from the ashes of Pono called “Xstream” [What is this, 1997? Wait, I’m pretty sure my Voodoo graphics card supports Xstream.” -Alex] that will shake up the glut of already available streaming services by get this – offering adaptive playback quality! Wow! You know how much fun it is when your 1080p HD Netflix or Youtube stream drops to 480p crap for a couple of minutes because of Comcast? Don’t you want your music streaming service to do that too? I also have to say that the whole idea is a bit hilarious given Young’s past thoughts on audio streaming services. Check back with us in a year or two, when we wave a fond farewell to Xstream.