Monday, April 24, 2017

Pono is dead, long live Xstream (if it ever launches) | UNLIMITED | CMU


Neil Young has announced that his PonoMusic download store will not be returning, after it was taken offline when content provider Omnifone shut down last year. So, bad luck if you were one of the people who bought into the idea that hi-res audio downloads were the future. Luckily though, Young has discovered a new thing called streaming. So, welcome the soon to be launched hi-res streaming service, Xstream.

In a post for Pono customers on the service’s website, Young explains that after Omnifone was closed, he had begun working with a new content partner. However, it had become apparent that running the service would be too costly. Part of the problem, he says, is that he was never keen on charging high prices for the hi-res content on the Pono store.

“Last year when Omnifone, our download store partner, was bought and shut down with no notice by Apple, we began work with another company to build the same download store”, he writes. “But the more we worked on it, the more we realised how difficult it would be to recreate what we had and how costly it was to run it: to deliver the Pono promise, meaning you’d never have to buy the same album again if was released at a higher quality; the ability to access just high res music, and not the same performances at lower quality, and the ability to do special sales. Each of these features was expensive to implement”.

Quite why no one realised this wasn’t viable first time round isn’t clear. Better late than before people have given you hundreds of thousands of dollars to deliver it though, I guess.

Young is also wary of renewed criticism against him personally if prices were to go up again: “I had to put up with lots of criticism for the high cost of music delivered in the way all music should be provided, at full resolution and not hollowed out. I had no control over the pricing, but I was the one that felt the criticism, because I was the face of it. And I pretty much agreed with the criticism. Music should not be priced this way”.

So, enter Xstream, a new streaming service that will apparently deliver high quality audio but without users having to pay more for it than the likes of Spotify and Apple Music. Developed with lossless audio delivery company Orastream, it will play back audio to users at the highest possible quality available depending on what internet connection they have access to at the time. All of which, actually, doesn’t sound like a terrible idea.

You may have already spotted some issues though, not least the fact that Young is planning to offer a better service than the main streaming platforms but at the same price point – when to date higher-quality streams have been priced at double normal streams. As such, licensing negotiations so far don’t seem to be going so well.

“One of my conditions is that it should not have a premium price”, says Young. “I’ve insisted that there be no premium price for this service. Pono tried that with downloads and it’s not a good model for customers. And I’ve told the labels it’s not a good model for them to charge a premium for music the way it was meant to be heard. I firmly believe that music is in trouble because you can’t hear it the way it is created unless you pay a premium. No one gets to hear the real deal, so the magic of music is compromised by limited technology”.

He continues: “Good sounding music is not a premium. All songs should cost the same, regardless of digital resolution. Let the people decide what they want to listen to without charging them more for true quality. That way quality is not an elitist thing. If high resolution costs more, listeners will just choose the cheaper option and never hear the quality. Record companies will ultimately lose more money by not exposing the true beauty of their music to the masses. Remember, all music is created to sound great and the record labels are the ones deciding to not offer that at the normal price. The magic of music should be presented by the stewards of that music at a normal price. Let listeners decide on the quality they want to purchase without pricing constraints”.

So that’s a passionate and actually fairly convincing position. But don’t expect this new venture to launch any time soon. “I’ve been meeting with and speaking with the labels, potential partners such as the carriers, and other potential investors”, Young goes on. “For many it’s a difficult sell. There are already streaming services, some doing well and others not. While there’s nothing as good as Xstream, or as flexible and adaptive, it’s still proven a difficult sell for companies to invest in”.

While there are still arguments to be had about what levels of audio quality human ears can actually hear (hint: a lot less than that which was offered by Pono), the idea of adaptive audio quality is a good one. And if there is to be a future for hi-res streaming – whether it is priced at a higher rate or not – cracking that is likely a prerequisite.

As the cost of transferring larger audio files comes down, services will naturally move to offer better quality, where possible, just as iTunes did with downloads. Neil Young may get there first, or he may find that he never gets out of the negotiating phase. Bad news for him, but better for everyone else is that this idea is one that will likely be replicated elsewhere in time. Probably sooner rather than later if Xstream does get any traction.


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