SxSW: Neil Young on the state of modern music, and his solution to it

Originally published on on March 12, 2014:


Today, I went to go and listen to Neil Young speak.

My dad, someone who’s followed Young’s career a lot longer than I have, warned me that I might have to get very stoned to be on the same level as Young. Luckily, I didn’t prepare accordingly and arrived (mostly) sober and ready to listen, because Young had a lot to say on the state of modern music and why he’s bothered to create a new music listening device, and he spoke very vibrantly.

Young came on stage in the Austin Convention Centre to the sound of camera lenses clicking so fast it sounded like he was wading through reeds, and introduced us to his conundrum when it comes to modern digital music. “I love to hear my rock and roll really loud…and I love every note on every song on every record” but, he says, while CD sound quality could already be classed as ‘rocky’, the arrival of the MP3 sent the music industry into duress. People still bought MP3s because they liked music, but they were buying “Xeroxes of the Mona Lisa”.

“Inside their soul, [the young people of today] are just not getting what we got”, he says. I’m starting to accept that I am classed as a millenial these days and, let me tell you, this ‘vinyl is better sound’ argument is old to us. We just don’t entirely worry about it. Or ever think about it.

But he goes on to explain how we’re getting songs, even ones from ages ago (like the ’90s?) at about 5% of their worth. Intriguing. Just take a second to imagine all the songs you know and love today…. at 20 times their vibrance.

It is here that he really introduces the reason we’re here – Pono Music.

Pono Music is a new listening device that allows music to be played at a much higher quality than we’re used to. As Young says, “a new system, not a new format.” It respects the art and what the artist was trying to do, and promises to give us music just like the artist made them in the studio. “It’ll bring you the reality and let you understand what the artist was trying to do in the studio,” Young says.

At this point, Young rips into our shitty phone/computer sound systems and everyone cheers. I’d like to take a minute to point out how funny it is that we love it so much when someone tears apart the way of life we all love/use, and will carry on loving/using the moment we leave that person’s sight. Anyway.

Young introduces the Kickstarter portion of this venture, and everyone on Twitter immediately pulls a lot of confused faces. “Neil Young’s asking us for money? Wait…what?”

Nope. Neil Young doesn’t really give a crap what you do. He led his speech with one main ideal today – “whether we succeed or fail here, music wins.” The CEO of Pono Music later came on to tell us that they chose to bring it to Kickstarter because it was, after all, about the fans’ experience with the music. And that’s a business decision I wholeheartedly agree with. After all, would you rather go and buy the device from some shitty chain store for like $600 in two years’ time? Nah, didn’t think so.

Young then plays a video featuring ever famous person ever talking about how good the sound of the Pono player is. Some record exec tells us that when you’re listening to your iPod/Phone on an average day, you completely forget how good music really can be. James Taylor follows that up by saying that the CD and MP3 don’t give the artist back what they put down in the studio. Basically, a host of famous people drive around in a car for a bit and then guarantee us that we’ll be able to hear the difference. If Eddie Vedder and Dave Grohl don’t convince you, I don’t know what will.

Have I actually heard music off the Pono player? No. Am I still intrigued? Very.

The Pono Kickstarter page launched today and is already 61% of the way to its goal. You can read more about Pono and back the project here.

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