CEO With A Heart Of Gold, Neil Young Takes The Reins At PonoMusic, Tech Vet John Hamm Remains Investor

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A changing of keys and tempo, at PonoMusic, the venture founded on the premise of a high-fidelity digital music service and music-playing deviceNeil Young, the iconic musician who founded Pono and saw it raise over $6.2 million on Kickstarter after aiming for only $800,000, is stepping in as its new CEO as John Hamm steps down. Hamm will remain an investor in the company, the company noted in an announcement.

As Young takes up the executive role, the company is adding another person to take on more operational responsibility: Rick Cohen, who has been acting as general counsel to the company, is coming in as COO. Also, Bruce Botnick is joining as head of content acquisition.

The news comes as the company prepares to ship the PonoPlayer, as its device is called: that was scheduled to start in October. It’s not clear if the company is still on track to meet that target; we are contacting PonoMusic for more details.

“PonoMusic has been a mission of mine for many, many years, and I’m more passionate than ever about the prospects for its success,” Young said in a statement. “I want to use my time and abilities to bring the fullness of music, as the artists created it, to as many music fans as possible.”

Update from Monday, July 14: Still no response from PonoMusic but coincidentally an update from Omnifone, a UK-based cloud music provider, which says that it will be powering the PonoMusic service. The service will launch “before the end of the year” in the U.S., UK and Canada, with albums costing between $15 and $25, with the PonoPlayer costing $399. 

While Young has brought a lot of music credibility and profile to the company, what Hamm brought was some executive clout for his track record in the technology business. Among his past roles, he was a board member and advisor to IronPort Systems (acquired by Cisco); a board member and advisor to Documentum (acquired by EMC); president and CEO of Whistle (acquired by IBM), among other roles. As you might expect, his previous connection to music is of the high-level variety: He’s also on the board of the Grammy Foundation.

“I appreciated the opportunity to lead the company and support Neil’s mission. I remain an investor in the company and look forward to the continued success of the movement,” said Hamm in the statement.

We reported in April that the company was in the process of looking for “proper VC funding” on top of its Kickstarter fundraise. While Beats Electronics, acquired by Apple for around $3 billion, has definitely blazed a trail for music startups founded by musicians, based around a software/hardware play and the claim for better quality no less, there are definite hurdles for PonoMusic to surmount.

The statement issued about the exec change says that these are the only big switches at the moment, and “the software and hardware teams within PonoMusic, led by Pedram Abrari and Phil Baker, respectively, will remain in place.” Abrari is SVP of Technology and Baker is VP of Product Development and Operations, with credit for working on some 80 consumer technology products.

Botnik, meanwhile, adds more music clout to the effort, having been a producer for the Rolling Stones, the Doors and Love. He will be “spearheading PonoMusic’s relationship with both large and independent labels.”