Neil Young is a famously belligerent audiophile, lambasting what he sees as inferior sound quality on MP3s . So he's doing something about it. His imminent Pono system combines high-end portable music players with a new download service that will sell albums at far greater sound quality than iTunes. To use a crude analogy, if a 256kbps MP3 is an easyJet flight (cheap, convenient), then Pono's 24-bit files are a trip on Concorde.
Musicians such as Young are used to studio-quality sound and rarely listen to music on a BlackBerry on a bus or through £100 speakers, so greatly misunderstand how music is listened to "in the wild". For the moment, only they really care about high-end audio quality. Since the iPod and mobile-based services such as Spotify, the average consumer prizes convenience above everything else. The commercial flops that were Super-Audio CD and DVD Audio (offering surround sound) showed that, even when tinkering with a mainstream format, the mass market is not interested.
Young is the latest in a growing number of musicians suggesting that they know best when it comes to selling music. The shellshock of Parlophone being offloaded as part of the Universal acquisition of EMI prompted threats of a strike by bands on the label, while Dave Rowntree from Blur recently claimed that he told EMI about an iTunes-style download model before Apple got there but was ignored. Rowntree seems to have forgotten that labels tried this years before Apple with the rival Pressplay and MusicNet services; both were embarrassing failures. A technology company came along and showed them how to do it.
There is a market for improved audio – as FLAC downloads (where audio elements are not lost when the file is compressed) and wireless speakers such Sonos (built specifically with the likes of Spotify in mind) show – but because they are expensive they will remain, for now, the preserve of a small number of high-end-audio enthusiasts. Ultimately, musicians are coming to this with a musician's expectations while Steve Jobs and Daniel Ek of Spotify put the consumer front and centre and, by doing so, changed everything. There is a reason musicians are musicians and technologists are technologists.