Fear of Music : Determining the Surprising Success of PonoMusic


by Devin King

It’s March 14th at 8:33pm – three days into Neil Young’s one month funding drive for the new Pono Music Player. The goal was $800 000, but in the first three days it’s already raised an extraordinary $3,315,512. What does this mean? There are three possible answers.

First, the overwhelming success thus far might be attributed to the overt celebrity endorsements that came along with it. With Neil Young as its champion, Pono attracted names such as Bruce Springsteen, Jack White, Emmylou Harris and more. By bringing musicians to the forefront, the attempt is being made to show Pono’s credibility. It’s not just record label tools who want to make money trying to sell you this; musicians actually think this is a good thing. Related to this Young himself seems to be trying to save music itself from the horror of low encoding rates. In this, it’s another sort of rockist retreat to the past; a glory time of music. The musicians selected are generally of the Great Old Age of music, with some exceptions. If we’re not suckered in by celebrity endorsements, maybe this is part of our subconscious attempt to reclaim rock’s greatness.

Most will say that this campaign is popular due to a desire for higher fidelity of music. Pono isn’t the first to the HD music game, with sites like HDtracks existing for awhile, to say nothing of the various releases that claim to have higher quality of sound (such as the 24k Gold CDs.) While it might be the first to make it easily portable, there’s still many questions around how high fidelity these files will actually be. Some have noted that given the 128 gigs of storage may not hold a significant amount of music, depending on how the songs are compressed. Though PonoMusic CEO John Hamm (not that one) seems to be saying that the high-quality .flac files sold on PonoMusic will not be compressed, there is some skepticism. The claim that the PonoPlayer can hold 500-1000 albums doesn’t square with the fact that uncompressed albums stored in a similar 128 gig player often top out at 500 – which seems to indicate that the Pono files aren’t as HD as can be. If it is fidelity people are after, they ought to be answering more questions.

Most likely, though, we’re seeing some combination of the two, with a healthy element of living in an age of excess where we lay down our money for any shiny new product. There’s a reason that every piece of technology, from video game consoles to phones, sell out – because the hype around them is so huge, and our propensity to spend is so high, that part of the societal narrative is that we must buy these items. It used to be – in that golden age of music – that everyone would go out and buy Harvest and listen to it and talk about it and experience it at once. Now, we’re all buying the tools to listen to Harvest. And we’re probably re-buying Harvest too, in some sort of HD format.

As I was sitting writing this, another $5000 was contributed to the Pono Kickstarter. It’s pretty remarkable, since the player itself mostly looks like a baby toy with headphones attached. There’s a lot of compelling reasons to jump onboard; even if they don’t have anything to do with music itself.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *