To Feel the Music: A Songwriter’s Mission to Save High-Quality Audio, by Neil Young and Phil Baker
Many if not most Copper readers are audiophiles, and one can safely presume we’re all music lovers. As such, I think we can surely identify with the passion expressed by Neil Young for music reproduction that can be felt, and not just heard. Hence, the reason Young and many other audio enthusiasts prefer music from analog or high-resolution digital sources over digitally-compressed and other lower-res formats.
To Feel the Music: a Songwriter’s Mission to Save High-Quality Audio is a book written by Neil Young and Phil Baker. It’s the behind-the-scenes story of the inception, creation, development and ultimate downfall of the failed Pono high-resolution digital music player that Neil Young famously funded and promoted starting in 2012. Given that the ideas for so many groundbreaking audiophile products are often inspired by a similar passion, I thought it especially appropriate to review To Feel The Music, a fascinating look at the challenges that a company faces in the 21st century in launching a new product, particularly an audiophile one.
The Initial Vision
To help create Pono Neil Young partnered with the book's co-author Phil Baker, a consumer electronics product designer with an impressive track record of iconic devices from Apple, Polaroid, Seiko, Barnes and Noble, and others.
To Feel the Music’s story is told in alternate chapters by Young and Baker. Young’s love of music and his mission to keep artists’ work from being degraded through digital compression is laudable. Young is also on a crusade to preserve classic recordings in high resolution before the analog masters have degraded beyond recovery.
While Pono was Neil Young’s idea, the task fell upon Baker to coordinate with Young’s manager, the late Elliot Roberts, to assemble the team required to make Pono a reality. This involved a host of concerns that the layman would never dream about, yet are probably everyday chores for every audio industry product entrepreneur.
From the very beginning, Pono was conceived to be a handheld player of hi-res downloaded digital music files, thus competing as a super-high-quality alternative to the soon to be defunct iPod and to cellphones and other low-res audio sources.
In creating an all-new product Baker had a panoply of immediate concerns including the Pono’s industrial design, user interface and screen, DAC and internal circuitry and software. Baker called in colleagues from his days of creating the Nook eBook reader for Barnes and Noble and other products to work on various aspects of the Pono. Neil Young was still funding it from his own pockets at this stage, and his loose, informal business approach would soon create Pono’s first hurdle. (Later Young would take on private investors.)
After initial prototypes of the hardware were ready and promotion for the Pono had already gone public, the designer for the proprietary software tried to hold back the code in a last-minute renegotiation for a bigger slice of the equity pie. Rather than succumb, Young, Baker, and their new CEO (see Section II following) were able to get another hardware designer to redo the circuitry to deliver high-res audio without needing the proprietary software, while keeping the additional cost incurred to a minimum.
Along with designing the actual device, the other immediate concern was being able to obtain high-res audio content to play on the Pono, at a low-enough cost to ensure Pono’s viability. In order to ensure the content was truly high-resolution, a scrupulous forensic effort was required to ensure that the high-resolution content met Pono’s standards. This task was often made difficult by poor record-keeping on the part of some record labels.
Financing and Management
Since Neil Young was focused on his own recording and live performance career, getting Pono off the ground required full-time management in order to become an actual audio company and not just a rich rock star’s hobby. Start-up tech companies are a very different animal than record and other entertainment companies, and the skill sets required are very different. Finding the right CEO proved elusive. Once Pono found John Hamm, an investor and consultant to many successful tech start-ups and a dedicated audiophile, they had someone solid at the helm. Software engineers (to create an online store), a business development manager, a marketing director and other personnel were hired soon after to make Pono an actual business.
Hamm’s financial expertise became crucial when development costs required an additional several million dollars that Young and his pool of private investors could not supply. It was decided to deploy an innovative Kickstarter campaign. Aided by the ability to purchase signed Pono players from a host of like-minded musician friends like Willie Nelson, The Eagles and Crosby, Stills and Nash, the Pono Kickstarter campaign raised $6.2 million – a 2014 crowdfunding record for the second-highest-grossing Kickstarter hardware campaign and the third-highest Kickstarter campaign ever.
However, the the success of the crowdfunding created increased expectations for delivering the first 15,000 Pono players on the stated availability date of within months, which put a time crunch on the quality control testing and product debugging stages that still had to take place.
Manufacturing and Sales Platforms
Baker concluded from the start that production of the Pono would need to be done in China. Luckily, his vast previous experience in electronic products sourcing led him to the right facilities in that country. The Pono units, complete with a Neil Young-designed reusable bamboo box and shrink wrap, were manufactured and packaged at the Chinese factory. However, a quality control issue occurred in about 20 percent of the initial units with the discovery of a loose screw rattle that had to be addressed. Additionally, bamboo products required quarantine in Israel and a few other nations, which necessitated repackaging units for those destinations. The factory quickly handled all of these concerns.
Setting up access to the music catalog would prove to be the more daunting task. Pono was attempting to re-create an iTunes-like site from scratch, along with a point-of-sale component. It might have been impossible to create an entire infrastructure, but fortunately Pono was able to modify a resource that had already been created by software giant Salesforce.com, thanks to Neil Young’s relationship with Marc Benioff, Salesforce.com’s CEO. (In fact, the Pono workaround later became the model for the direct-to-consumer platform currently used by Salesforce.com. Pono also made a deal with cloud-based music services provider Omnifone (now out of business) for the use of its back-end and sales collection services.
Initial Public Reception and Growth Obstacles
Given that Neil Young’s objective for Pono was to make high-resolution audio an accepted consumer format, the challenge was to convince the millions of mp3 and streaming listeners what high-resolution audio was and why it should be important to them.
Upon Pono’s launch, audiophiles and reviewers in high-end audio publications praised Pono for its excellent sound. However, other tech reviewers and influencers who had never experienced high-resolution audio would use iPod earbuds and other inadequate methods to audition Pono and, as a result, would be unable to discern a significant sonic difference. This led to a slew of accusations that the whole idea behind Pono was “snake oil,” and some outright refusals by a number of influencers to admit to their inexperience in evaluating high-performance audio, along with their reluctance to eschew the convenience of inferior-quality sound.
To his own frustration, Neil Young found that many tech heads’ love of digital gadgetry outweighed the ability for them to recognize the fundamental problems with digital audio that had made listening to anything other than high-res audio quality a clinically painful experience for him, complete with headaches and pain in his ears. And as a collector of antique cars, Young thought that car stereo systems might be an inviting market for Pono, but he would find out otherwise.
In discussions with Ford Motor Company’s Lincoln brand about installing Pono as a standard feature in Lincoln vehicles, Young was rebuffed when, during the evaluation process, Lincoln engineers insisted on feeding the signal from a Pono through lower-quality DACs into a collection of run-of-the-mill car speakers. To Young’s amusement, the engineers also mixed in an audio loop of engine rumble during the evaluations.
In another automotive industry meeting with Elon Musk, Young’s request to audition Pono in a Tesla with a simple wire-plug connection to an analog amp was met with sneers for not being a wireless technology, and a refusal by Musk to even consider the possibility that Pono would sound better than the digital processing used in the standard Tesla audio system. A possible distribution deal with audio giant Harman International also fell by the wayside.
When Pono required a further investment of $4 million, an investor was identified who wanted the usual seat on the corporation’s board, which would be commensurate with this person’s proportionate investment relative to Pono’s valuation. This met with resistance from a board member who also was a lawyer for several other board members. A power play ensued, resulting in the CEO's dismissal. Young, Baker and Roberts all concluded, in retrospect, that this was one of the worst moves Pono had made. The company would subsequently falter for the remainder of its lifespan and never recover.
The straw that broke Pono’s back happened when Omnifone was taken over by Apple. Apple immediately shut down all of Omnifone’s business dealings with outside parties, including Pono, who was also a competitor. Pono eventually went out of business in 2017.
Yet Pono remains a reference standard for portable high-resolution audio devices. It was and is an excellent-sounding player, and received Stereophile’s Products of 2015 Digital Component of the Year award. Both Young and Baker have continued their collaborations with the Neil Young Archives and its Xstream service, aimed at Young’s desire to have his collected works made available to listeners in a format that enables his music to be heard in studio-quality sound as Young originally intended.
My personal perspective on the Pono saga is colored by the fact that my day job is as a project and corporate finance consultant, predicated on a prior 15-year tenure on Wall Street as a trader and investment banker. As such, I am well-aware of the kinds of considerations Young and Baker had to deal with behind the scenes.
The challenges faced by Young and Baker are not uncommon. To Feel The Music does an excellent job of giving readers an intimate look into the struggles of contemporary small business entrepreneurs (defined as under $15 million valuation). In particular, Pono’s various technological and logistical obstacles seemed to pale in comparison to the internal financial and political ones, something that happens across all industrial sectors.
To Feel The Music left me with a deeper respect for Neil Young, whose music I have always loved, if not his self-indulgences at times. I think any audiophile will come away with a much greater appreciation for the dedication, hard work, and vision of those inventors who ceaselessly strive to ascend to greater heights in the quest for high-quality sound. And most of them accomplish this without a rock star sitting on their board of directors.