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?“.