Last month, the PonoPlayer became available to the public. The Pono brand was created by musician Neil Young. The music players, along with songs from the PonoMusic store, are marketed as very high-quality music that’s remarkably better than what we hear on iPods, iPhones, and CD players. A number of articles came out last month strongly criticizing Pono and recommending consumers not to waste money on this. Mario Aguilar at Gizmodo explained that the difference in song file quality cannot actually be heard by human ears. David Pogue at Yahoo Tech conducted blind listening tests, which did not result in Pono’s favor. He also pointed out that most of the songs on the PonoMusic store aren’t even available yet in this supposedly better format. He compared the player to The Emperor’s New Clothes. Sam Machkovech of Ars Technica called it snake oil.
What I find interesting about this whole thing is that Pono is coming from Neil Young. The first song I remember ever hearing from him was “This Note’s For You,” a 1988 song that mocked commercialism and musical artists endorsing products. Among other scenes, the music video mocked Michael Jackson’s hair catching on fire while filming a Pepsi commercial, as if it’s somehow humorous for another artist to sustain medical injuries if done while “selling out”.
When I heard this song again as a teenager, I got what he was saying. I’m not against artists teaming up with companies, but I understood his point. He was about his music and he wasn’t going to change it or create something new that wasn’t really him for a big paycheck from some corporation.
The first impression I had of Neil Young makes this whole Pono hogwash confusing to me. Is he being a hypocrite or is this different? He’s peddling a product, which is something he criticized in other artists, but at least this is his product, not soda from a corporation. And this is still about music. He’s passionate about music and has talked about his frustrations with what he feels is poor audio quality in interviews for years. But this is what makes it all the more disappointing to me. He’s taking something that he knows is deeply important to countless people – music – and ripping consumers off.
It’s possible that Neil Young just didn’t properly research this before creating his product, and that no one came to him with the information. Or he might know but just wants to make money. Maybe he did read about the science on song quality files, but somehow convinced himself that he could still hear the files differently. Whatever the scenario, it’s rather disappointing. “I don’t sing for nobody. Makes me look like a joke.” Neil Young isn’t singing for someone else, but he looks like a joke, at least in this one aspect of his life. This doesn’t erase the decades of influential music he created. But it does make me hear “This Note’s For You” much differently than I did before. His message of integrity seems a little weird to me now.