AUSTIN, Texas -- Neil Young has taken on Nixon, racism and the oil industry. Now he's ready to do battle with the digital music business.
The Bay Area rock legend was at the South by Southwest music festival Tuesday to introduce PonoMusic, a new online music store and playback system that he claims offers far better sound quality than what most listeners get from Apple and iTunes and popular music streaming sites like Pandora and Spotify.
"Every part of my body is getting hit with this," Young told a SXSW crowd of a few hundred people, describing his listening experience with Pono. "My soul is feeling it. I am doing what I use to do: I'm listening. I'm feeling. And I'm experiencing. I am living music."
Pono, which reportedly takes its name from the Hawaiian word for "righteous," is centerpieced by an online music store -- www.ponomusic.com -- and a PonoPlayer that Young said has 128 GB of memory and can store from 1,000-2,000 high-resolution digital-music albums. The PonoPlayer will be sold for $399 at ponomusic.com, and will be available for pre-order beginning Saturday at kickstarter.com.
It was not clear when the online music store will be open or how many recordings it will offer, although Young said all three major music labels -- Warner Bros., Universal and Sony -- will be participating.
Warner, which is Young's label, is particularly invested, says Rolling Stone. The magazine reports that Warner has converted its 8,000-plus album catalog to high-resolution album files to adapt to Pono's format.
The Pono site said "high-resolution" digital albums will likely cost between $14.99-$24.99 apiece.
Young said the new music business addresses what to him has been a long-standing problem with digital music -- the poor audio quality offered by compressed MP3 files and the devices and streaming services that play them.
What remains to be seen is whether mainstream digital music listeners will be willing to invest in a new player and a new music library. Representatives from Apple and other music industry giants have not commented on Young's gambit.
But some of Young's famous friends are on board.
"This is as good as you can get it," fellow Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Tom Petty said in a video message shown at Young's SXSW presentation. David Crosby, Eddie Vedder, Gillian Welch and Norah Jones were among the other stars shown in the video segment, raving about Pono.
It's a project Young has been working on for 2½ years (search YouTube and you can find a 2012 clip of the rocker plugging Pono on "Late Night with David Letterman"). And he acknowledges it will be a challenge to make Pono last in a competitive field in which convenience and affordability seem to be at least as important as sound quality.
"It is kind of amazing that it would take 2½ years to get to this point," Young said at the SXSW session. "There's a reason for it -- it's an interesting reason. (It's) because rescuing an art form is not something that really is of a high consideration to too many of the people in the investment community."
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