Earlier this week, Neil Young announced his project to develop a digital format better than mp3s was nearing competition. Starting March 15, his portable music player, called a PonoPlayer, will be available for pre-order for $399.
The player, which was announced last year, is an attempt to develop a digital file format and player to match the sound quality of analogue music, something which the standardization of smaller mp3 files has helped erode. The player’s 128GB drive will be able to store between 100 and 500 high resolution albums, capturing the “highest audio fidelity possible, bringing to life the true emotion and detail of the music, the way the artist recorded it.”
The player will launch into a rapidly eroding market for stand-alone music players, which have mostly been absorbed as bundled features in smartphones and tablets. iPod sales have been on a steady decline in recent years, and dropped 52 percent in Apple’s 4th Quarter 2013 compared to a year earlier, selling just 6 million units across all models. Meanwhile, the sudden popularity of subscription services like Spotify and Pandora have weakened the sale of digital tracks, which saw their first ever decline in 2013, while the number of streamed songs rose 32 percent to 118 billion.
With the emergence of the iPod, the constraints that bound forced consumers to listen to music ritualistically to one performer for one prolonged period began to weaken. Unlike the gramophone or hi-fi system, there was nothing immediately musical about the iPod, it was a small computer with RAM, a small storage drive, and a rigorously simple interface. It could just as easily have been an SMS device, a digital address book, or a pocket encyclopedia. It was a genuinely cryptic device, whose value came more from its support for a model of compulsive, unbounded consumption, than for the quality of goods it offered. It wasn’t a music player but a compulsion enabler.
Being out of fashion is not the same as being out of touch, and in his own sweet way, Young’s attempt to revive last century’s values for consumption is a reminder of what we are sacrificing in transforming to a digital culture of non-stop access to digital packets that never quite match their analogue counterparts.
Turning on iTunes feels like a museum of all the unsteady emotional crutches I’ve leaned on throughout the years. I bought an entire Pete Townshend album after hearing one song play in a TJ Maxx while waiting for my mother to finish returning a sweater one christmas break. I have an album of hip-hop songs I bought from a man on a subway seven years ago that sounded good in the 30-second samples he played me. Why was it I needed to listen to “Stars 4-Ever” by Robyn 340 times two winters ago? And there is my favorite song, which iTunes tells me I have never once listened to.My own iTunes collection is an overgrown heap of strange names and albums, many of which I don’t remember buying or copying to my hard drive. Other songs are so sickeningly beloved that listening is redundant as they have already been thoroughly imprinted into my brain. Other songs are total strangers that seem to be trespassing, petitioning for attention where they’re not welcome. I don’t want or need most of what I have come to possess in the decade-long process of amassing a digital music library.
The transition to subscription-based streaming lightens this uncanny weight by simply offering access to everything. Songs become atmospheric and don’t have to be personally accounted for. And if a song begins to feel alienating, it simply disappears again into the incomprehensible whole from which it emerged.
With Spotify I find myself listening in a perpetually collapsing pool of memory, with the newness and unexpected swinging from one familiar song into a network of 10 unfamiliar ones. I have little recollection of what I’ve listened to yesterday or the day before. The pleasure of discovering a new song is overwritten by a flood of similar variations by the hundreds of acts taking their turn striking somebody else’s pose.
Streaming services take us a step closer toward directly and efficiently manipulating the brain through exposure to patterned musical data, with less and less need for celebrity, zeitgeist, or community. In this culture, Young’s righteous faith that the sensual qualities surrounding the ritual consumption of music matter more than the basic patterns of the information music contains seems hopelessly outmoded. Being out of fashion is not the same as being out of touch, and in his own sweet way, Young’s attempt to revive last century’s values for consumption is a reminder of what we are sacrificing in transforming to a digital culture of non-stop access to digital packets that never quite match their analogue counterparts.
We are moving from a time of slowness and prolonged focus to one of speedy mania, where the thing itself is less important than the effect it produces. The tragic flaw in Young’s plan is that quality of music only matters in a world where quantity of music is limited enough to make it perceptible. In our world, we have only room for the highs.
Michael Thomsen is Complex's tech columnist. He has written for Slate, The Atlantic, The New Inquiry, NewYorker.com, Billboard, and is author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men. He tweets often at @mike_thomsen.