At SXSW, Neil Young Pumps PonoMusic, Denies Presidential Run

AUSTIN, Texas (TheStreet) -- In a show appropriately resembling an Apple (AAPL) product rollout, Neil Young took the stage at SXSW Tuesday to present his new music media "eco-system," PonoMusic.

"'Pono' means the one, the whole," Young said. "It's a Hawaiian word."

The iTunes-like product for distribution of ultra-high-quality digital audio files includes an online store of downloadable files from major and independent labels, a software library that lives on the customer's device and a triangular piece of hardware about the size of a mobile phone that can fit in a pocket and can hold hundreds of albums of high-quality audio.

Musicians and their audiences like the sound, he added, because "Pono is about the music. It's about the people making the music. ... It's about making you hear what we hear."

In a presentation that was billed as a "SXSW Interview," Young prowled and growled his way around the stage solo for about half an hour, flanked by a SXSW backdrop and images on two giant screens. He explained his complaints against CD and mp3 formats, his fixation with creating a better technology that can represent music to the public with all the detail the artists intend, and the launch of his Kickstarter campaign after failing to generate interest from traditional investment channels.

Emphasizing that Pono was about "rescuing an art form," he said, "The venture capitalists couldn't understand this, because they can't own it."

That "rescue" is not an exercise in nostalgia, he insisted. Young aims to create an experience for the the next generation of musicians and listeners that will be even better than the high-quality vinyl analog recordings of his youth, he said.

"I don't want to bring anything back," he said. "I want to take it forward."

What Pono does not have, and what was probably a key turnoff for venture capitalists, is a proprietary format for its audio files, similar to the iTunes format.

The site is artist-driven. Major and independent labels can sell their music through PonoMusic at whatever resolution they prefer. Young himself is making all of his music available at the highest resolution possible (192 kHz/24 bit) but he acknowledges that many artists won't have access to that format or won't choose to use it.

"This is freedom of choice," he said, adding his biggest applause line, "I'm running for president. ... "

Even if the company fails, Young insisted, the technology he and his team have developed will win, setting a new standard for the listening experience.

"This can't be put back in the bag," he said.

Young is a native of Canada, as he was forced to remind the audience, so the presidency will remain forever beyond his reach. ("And that was a joke," he said, to drive the point home). That didn't stop him from throwing up Richard Nixon-style victory signs, however, to the approval of his fans in the auditorium.

His address was followed by a short film, made partly at Bonnaroo Music Festival, in tour buses and on back lots, featuring the reactions of dozens of famous professional musicians and producers to Pono after hearing it for the first time. Young was behind the camera for most of this film, while his boat of a 1970s restored white Cadillac, outfitted with the Pono sound system, was a featured guest.

The list of onscreen endorsements was impressive. Gillian Welch, Eddie Vedder, Stephen Stills, David Crosby, Tom Petty, Sting, James Taylor, Dave Grohl, Elvis Costello, Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne, Emmylou Harris, Dave Matthews, Patti Smith, and T Bone Burnett were a few of the names extolling the sound system's virtues in the moments right after they had first heard it.

Many, like Elton John, compared it to listening to analog vinyl recordings and to listening to their own work in the studio. Producer guitarist Jack White of the White Stripes described it as "a huge leap in quality."

Following the screening, Young was interviewed by USA Today technology report Mike Snider and then joined by PonoMusic CEO John Hamm as the pair took questions from the audience.

One of the big questions on audience members' minds: Many people have bought the same song in multiple formats. Does Pono mean I'm going to have to buy it again?

"Can we get like a rebate?" one member asked. 

The basic answer came from Hamm: If you want the highest audio quality, then yes, you'll have to buy it again. Listeners may want to transfer their library of digital files to the Pono player for convenience, but those files don't take advantage of the high-end technology. It's possible to transfer CD audio or vinyl into a high-resolution digital audio file that will then be playable on Pono, but involves considerable investment of the user's time.

It is doubtful that Pono alone can change the music market, which in the last few years has started trending toward streaming music through subscription services, with album sales to consumers becoming less of main source of revenue. But raising the bar on the listening experience could well have a significant impact across all channels.

"It's a no-lose situation," Young said. "We win. Everybody wins."

Pono's Kickstarter campaign has gained significant ground in its early stages. While it still had fewer than 4,000 backers Wednesday morning, it has already well exceeded its goal of $800,000, at a pledged amount of $1.28 million.

Asked by a member of the audience who his running mate would be in a bid for president, Young acknowledged that David Crosby would be a bad choice for a ticket, although of Stills he said, "He is politically very savvy."

Taking a more circumspect strategic pose, he added: "You know, I don't think we should try, I think we're gonna lay back and we're just gonna let the opportunity kinda float by."

-- Written by Carlton Wilkinson in Austin, Texas

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