Book Review : To Feel the Music

A very readable story of the rapid success and surprising failure of a US high tech company.

This is a fascinating and very approachable book about the success and failure of an American designed and developed high quality music player and the music delivery service it was integrated with.

In 2012 the well known pop/rock star Neil Young became interested in developing and marketing a new portable music player, which became known as the Pono.  The product launched at the end of 2014.  Notwithstanding his high visibility backing and a lot of favorable press, plus very successful Kickstarter fundraising for the product’s development, it was not a commercial success and the company closed down in December 2017.

The book tells the story of why Young decided to develop the player, and, with co-writer Phil Baker (the operational/product development guy behind the project), gives a very readable and engaging account of the problems and struggles they had as a small and undercapitalized company trying to wade into a market dominated by Apple and lesserly by Sony and other companies.  Taken at this level, with fascinating insights into what is involved getting a new consumer electronic device to market (one has to wince when reading the reasons why it is impractical – almost impossible – to develop and manufacture equipment in the US these days), it is very interesting and very readable.

The book is, however, slightly schizophrenic, and not just because the chapters are sometimes written by Neil Young and sometimes by Phil Baker.  In each case, the chapter writer is named at the start of the chapter, but it would be helpful if they were also shown in the Contents listing, too.  The big split is that they are telling two different stories.

Neil’s story is an idealistic pursuit of an impossible goal, and made all the more impossible because of his refusal to allow scientific and business reality to intrude on his preconceived notions of music quality and the music business.  Phil’s story is more down to earth – one of developing a new product under great time pressures, organizational upheavals, and budgetary constraints.

In a way, Neil’s perspective is analogous to one seen in airlines.  Just because you’re a pilot in a fancy uniform doesn’t mean you have any added understanding of airplane operating economics or airline marketing, even though many pilots believe that being able to program a computer on a plane and then watch it fly itself for long hours at a time makes them experts on aviation in general.  Perhaps similarly, just because you’re a good songwriter and performer doesn’t mean you also have the ability to second guess how music is recorded and marketed, and the regularly repeated but never substantiated claims that the record companies could and should be doing various things and not other things are perhaps contradicted by Neil’s own attempts to do such things himself and failing in the process.  He is to be commended for his brave attempt, and it is easy to understand why, from a musicality rather than commercial point of view, a musician in particular would wish to see the best possible quality in his recordings.  But after an experience that shows the commercial side of things is more complex than perhaps he’d first thought, Neil emerges out the other end with his views unchanged, rather than altered by the experience.

If you’re interested in behind-the-scenes tales of business startups and failures, with wild swings between great good fortune (their fantastically successful $6.2 million Kickstarter campaign) and terrible bad luck (the sudden demise of their high quality music provider) this is a great and gripping yarn, complete with heroes, villains, and other characters of more ambiguous or ambivalent nature.  The story is all the more readable because it is all true, and well told by the two people at the center of much of what was going on.

The hardcover book is 242 pages, and has a reasonable number of black and white photos and illustrations within it.  It lists for $24.95, and is available on Amazon for $13.59.  It is also available in Kindle/eBook format, and at a bargain price of $4.49 (we believe this is a short-term discount relating to all the Black Friday stuff – snatch it up while it lasts).  Definitely get the Kindle copy, and maybe the hardcover.

So, that was the executive summary, and perhaps all you need to know.

There’s also some backstory and related issues that the book sometimes offers strong opinions about, and which deserve to be discussed, to be put into context, and at times to be rebutted.  We’re therefore publishing a second article also, a commentary on what we feel was a rather Quixotic quest that Neil Young and his Pono venture embarked upon.

Please click the link to read our companion article, “Was the Pono Predestined to Fail?“.

2 thoughts on “Book Review : To Feel the Music”

  1. I know this is an old article, and my comments are not directly related to this article, but I was re-reading it and it reminded me of some of the hi-res audio myths being pushed – $1,000 cables, MQA, etc..

    I did read and agree 100% with your article on the subject several years ago (2014?) and I sometimes do double blind/ABX testing, although it usually isn’t necessary. You might be familiar with Dr Mark Waldrep’s H-Res Audio Challenge II, which I took part in last year. I have a high quality setup in a very quiet, acoustically treated dedicated listening room, and I was unable to distinguish “Hi-res” from Redbook (CD) quality beyond random chance, as was the case for most of the hundreds of participants.

    Most of my music is hi-res FLAC, and I must admit that most of the time I cannot tell the difference between a song from my library and the Amazon Music Unlimited HD version, which is usually 44.1/16 with possible degradation due to the streaming. I have lots of stunning music and clearly, to me, the recording and mastering are key. I am a big fan of surround (5.1) music and there how it is recorded and mastered is even more critical – some is great, some of it is awful. Pick well-recorded music, listen on a good system and enjoy – don’t worry about technical issues, focus on the story being told, the harmonies, the instruments and soundstage.

    Music is magic.

    1. Hi, Don

      Thanks for your interesting note. Maybe I’m a cheapskate, or with lack of audio acuity, but I’d not pay a single penny extra for “hi-res FLAC”. 44.1/16 is all I need, and, I suggest, all anyone else needs either.

      Perhaps the earlier articles you are thinking of might be these two?

      What Makes Digital Music Good (or Bad) Quality?
      You Can’t Trust Your Ears – Or Anyone Else’s

      Here also is a link to Mark Waldrep’s absolutely excellent site : Well worth visiting and browsing around (offered not to you, Don – I’m sure you know it already, but to other people reading).

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