Neil Young gets techie in his golden years

Neil Young speaks at the 2014 SXSW Music, Film + Interactive Festival on March 11, 2014 in Austin, Texas.
Dustin Finkelstein | Getty Images
Neil Young speaks at the 2014 SXSW Music, Film + Interactive Festival on March 11, 2014 in Austin, Texas.

Neil Young credits Apple co-founder Steve Jobs with bringing digital music to the masses. Now the 68-year-old rocker is trying to take the next giant step forward -- by going back.

At Dreamforce, the annual conference hosted by Salesforce.com, Young gave a keynote on Thursday in front of a packed house of techies in San Francisco, spelling out his plan to revolutionize the listening experience with his new company called PonoMusic.

Young, who released his first solo album in 1968, has been in the music business long enough to remember the days of vinyl. Almost half a century later, that experience is long gone, with most music now downloaded digitally via super compressed files or streamed over the Web. Pono aims to keep the new delivery format, but do so in a way that brings back the quality of master recordings.

"It's as if the iPod met a vinyl record for the first time," Young said. "It's as if you were in the studio with the artists."

There's no shortage of excitement. In April, Young closed out a Kickstarter campaign for Pono that raised $6.2 million, almost eight times his stated goal. The $399 PonoPlayer is currently available for pre-order and is expected to hit the market in the first quarter of 2015.

Building hardware that's as sleek as an iPod and at a price that consumers will pay is challenging enough for a start-up founded by a career singer-songwriter. Creating digital files that sound like analog for millions of songs will be an even greater technical feat. That's not including the three years of negotiations that were required to get the record labels on board.

As for venture capitalists, forget about it. Trying to get them to buy into a start-up moving into Apple's space has been "quite a journey" Young said.

During his presentation, Young displayed a page from his Website labeled "Pono World Times," which has a music counter showing the number of tracks being added to the Pono catalog in real time. The ticker is over 620,000 and there are about 2 million songs in the queue, Young said.

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That's just the beginning. After that, he plans to hit "all the vaults" of all the record companies.

So why Dreamforce? For one, Young spoke there in 2011. And in addition to having a die-hard fan in Salesforce Chief Executive Officer Marc Benioff, Young is using a new collaboration product from Salesforce called Community Cloud to create a social experience on Pono so fans can chat about artists and songs.

The format of this year's keynote provided an added incentive for Young to participate.

Young was preceded on stage by former Vice President Al Gore, who delivered his most updated state of the environment presentation. Gore, whose documentary "An Inconvenient Truth" won an Academy Award in 2006, first detailed why climate change is the single "most serious challenge we've ever faced in the history of civilization." He followed with a more optimistic discussion surrounding the global opportunity to build and adopt technologies and alternative energy to help save the planet.

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Benioff then brought Young, an environmental activist himself, on stage for an unscripted chat with Gore. For about half an hour, the former politician and Grammy-winning artist went back and forth on the hazards of corporate control in politics and those politicians who remain climate change deniers.

A big focus for Gore is the need for us to end our reliance on fossil fuels. Young suggests that would be a lot easier if gas stations would offer even one electricity charging option for every six gasoline pumps.

Twenty five years after releasing a song called "Rockin' in the Free World," Young is kindly suggesting that we "give people freedom of choice of what they want to burn in their cars."

By CNBC's Ari Levy. Follow him on Twitter: @levynews