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The legendary Canadian musician Neil Young is best known for his association with Buffalo Springfield, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and Crazy Horse. However, he has now set out to develop and market an innovative high-definition audio format to rival MP3s. Young has been a vocal critic of MP3, and even CD, audio quality. The 66-year-old has frequently decried the decline in audio file quality in the digital age and is now looking to champion a new audio format to improve the most commonly used audio quality.
According to Rolling Stone, Young has filed for six trademarks with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office: “Ivanhoe,” “21st Century Record Player,” “Earth Storage,” “Storage Shed,” “Thanks For Listening” and “SQS (Studio Quality Sound).” The description alongside the trademarks gives the impression that Young wants to enter the market of digital content distribution, referring to “online and retail store services featuring music and artistic performances; high resolution music downloadable from the internet; high resolution discs featuring music and video [and] audio and video recording storage and playback.” During the “D: Dive Into Media” conference, Young explained that his ultimate goal is to give listeners the chance to hear artists’ music at as close to studio production quality as possible. Young thinks that today’s low audio quality undermines artists’ original intent. He voiced his frustrations by also alleging that only five percent of the data from a studio production is retained through current online music downloads, referring to the over-compressed versions of recordings sold by online stores like iTunes.
Young’s trademark filings are currently going through the approval process before they can be registered by the government. In March, Young’s paperwork was accepted for publication in a public journal that allows industry interests to gauge if his registration is harmful. If the trademarks go through without hitting any snags, Young could have them registered by as early as the end of this year. Penguin Group, the publisher for Young’s memoir, explained further details about the project’s goals in a press release issued last September. The release revealed the project name as Pono, which would be a “revolutionary new audio music system presenting the highest digital resolution possible.” The release also stated, “Young wants consumers to take full advantage of Pono’s cloud-based libraries of recordings by their favorite artists.” The audio quality of these files would far surpass that currently available through online music retailers like iTunes and Amazon. The pursuit of high-definition audio quality has actually been on Young’s mind for some time. At the “Dive Into Media” conference, Young said he met with Apple CEO Steve Jobs before his death to discuss the development of an audio device that would allow individuals to listen to studio-quality albums.
With cloud-based computing storage on the rise, Young’s Pono could potentially become the cutting edge of digital distribution. However, based on current trends, it appears that there are several market barriers Pono would have to breach to reach before the technology would become widely accepted. For one thing, Young will be hard-pressed to achieve mass market appeal with his high-definition audio. In today’s age of the ubiquitous iTunes store and similar online music retailers, quality products are often eschewed in the face of cheaper alternatives. This does not mean that Young’s foray into the distribution industry is not welcome to opponents of the recording industry, which has doubled down on perceived copyright law violations. Young is a defender of both recording companies and piracy. It seems that he is simply driven by the desire to present a better product to the masses. The risks associated with pushing technological breakthroughs in an entrenched music recording industry are significant both in terms of time and money. Young, however, is ardent in his belief that a sea change in the industry is necessary to keep up with the times. At “Dive Into Media” he stated, “Piracy is the new radio. That’s how music gets around. That’s the real world for kids.” This grassroots recognition could potentially give Young an advantage over the anachronous strategy of the recording industry, which, according to Young, is “living in another world from Silicon Valley.”
Another potential concern regarding Young’s high-definition audio is that it may not find a foothold with today’s discerning music listeners. Those that are already concerned with sound quality often track down high quality audio files online through private torrent trackers. The genesis of the problem lies in the reproduction of music. The outcome will be the same poor studio quality Young has been lamenting if his high-definition files are played through an iPod and iPod ear buds. Another problem is that audiophiles and music pirates are already fully acclimated to, and accommodated by, FLAC files. FLAC files allow for 100 percent lossless fidelity to be reconstructed from previously compressed audio formats. Audiophiles then listen to FLAC through expensive equipment. Average consumers have no interest the world of FLAC and high-tech equipment.
However, many music pirates do often wish there were high-definition options available for purchase. Young’s Pono could possibly capture this market demographic. Even if the average listener does not fully appreciate the quality upgrade Young is advocating, perhaps this is a smaller niche Pono can satisfy. Some music pirates also consider downloading a sort of trial period where liking the music enough will eventually translate into a physical purchase. This is the fundamental idea that gives Young’s plan promise. Radio allowed people to create rudimentary recordings on cassette, which then often led to purchases in brick-and-mortar stores. In many cases, the internet now takes the place of traditional radio. Therefore, it may very well be that Young will encounter an unexpected level of interest for high-resolution audio and video.
Young’s new audio format, and the business plan behind it, may have to go through many tweaks and adjustments before he is able to strike the right formula with Pono. As with some risky technological innovations, Pono may fall by the wayside due to being too revolutionary for its time. But since Young sees piracy as the present and future he may be embracing the future by crafting a model that takes advantage of the market’s trajectory. His goal of creating a new means of reproducing high-definition audio files indicates that he understands the root problems of the music industry. Pono’s success could show that consumers are ready for an audio format that bucks the status quo and brings the music distribution industry into the real world.
– Marissa Harper
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