Having a celebrity endorse a product or champion a cause is usually a good thing. But not always. Awareness of “high-res music” among the general population didn’t really happen until Neil Young Kickstarter campaign for Pono was launched in the spring of 2014. The Pono campaign became the 3rd highest raise that KS had ever seen and Neil Young was everywhere singing the praises of “high-res” audio as the way to “rediscover the soul of music”. I heard him on NPR, watched videos of him online, read a number of interviews, and watched him deliver an impromptu speech at the last International CES Show. I was probably not the only person working in high-res audio that cheered his ability to get the press writing about “high-res” audio.
But not anymore. Neil Young has done more damage to the cause for better audio than any single individual on the planet. And I’m not the only one that thinks this way. He’s embarrassed himself, his company, his reputation, and the quest for higher fidelity. And I’m one of his fans! I’ve met Neil Young more than once, talked to him, and even have a Gold DVD on my studio wall for the work I did on his “Rust Never Sleeps” production.
I know that he cares about sound. His engineers are knowledgeable and very capable, so there is no doubt that he produces records that he thinks sound great. He is an analog guy, however. He railed aggressively against CDs when they first arrived. When DVD-Audio and Blu-ray were launched, Neil was right there ready to have his analog sourced older master remastered to the new formats. And then came high-resolution digital downloads…and the KS campaign to fund Pono and Ponomusic. He’s recently decided that streaming is “the lowest fidelity format” and therefore he’s removing his tracks from Spotify.
Neil Young became the cheerleader-in-chief for “high-res” music. If you listen to him speak about the subject, it’s clear that he’s not a techie. He actually said that difference sample rates could be used like EQ in the midst of a tune…”to alter the sound”. This is crazy talk. It would have been better to have him champion better sound and leave the heavy lifting for others. But he continued.
The mainstream press, YouTube “celebrity” posters, technical people, and even many audiophiles cast serious doubts about the music being offered on PonoMusic. And they were right. His insistence that everyone can perceive the improvement “hi-res” music deliver and the fact that the PonoMusic web store has almost no new recordings done at “better than CD quality” further eroded his credibility.
Pono’s Vice President of Content Acquisition Bruce Botnick (a celebrity audio engineer responsible for numerous hit records including The Doors), told the Associated Press, “More than 90 percent of the PonoMusic store is represented essentially by digital copies, or rips, of CDs”. He continued, “It’s a real fact-finding job…it’s going to take some time to handle the thousands of albums in question. Until then, it’s a case of buyer beware.”
Those of us who advocate for real high-res music couldn’t be more frustrated that Neil Young became the de facto voice for high-res music. I doubt whether the “hi-res” music campaign can recover from his snow job, seriously. The industry needs to discourage Neil from speaking about “hi-res” and maybe find a YouTube personality that understands the realities of good sound, has a large following, and can connect with music fans in a truthful and clear way. The message is simple…don’t over promise, don’t tell people if they can’t tell the difference it must be their hearing, get the facts straight and let people know that they’ll likely have to upgrade their systems.
The wrong people have been running the ship and it’s time to mutiny.
Step 7: Only demo recordings that are dramatically better than what the public has been used to hearing.