Neil Young still sports his trademark shoulder-length hair. He still loves the unmistakable, haunting sound of a harmonica. The legendary singer even tours with “Old Black” – the same battered Gibson guitar he has used for the past five decades.
Given these idiosyncrasies, Young is probably not a figure you would associate with technological innovation. But despite his hippie image, the singer-songwriter is a genuine tech obsessive. Young works closely with Hello Iconic, the Honduras-based software development team behind the Neil Young Archives – the subscription-driven platform that showcases his body of work.
“He’s actually always been very innovative and forward-thinking,” said Jorge Garcia, the CTO and co-founder at Hello Iconic, which originates from Tegucigalpa, Honduras. “He poses challenges on the technology side that are super relevant, so it’s really interesting just to work with a mind that is so advanced.”
While most of the day-to-day management of the platform is in the hands of Hello Iconic, Young closely monitors the process, while contributing ideas and communicating strategy to the team.
“Once the pandemic came, he started popping up on Zoom and we were like ‘oh, Neil Young is on the call,’” said Alejandro Corpeño, Hello Iconic’s CEO and its other founding partner.
The subscription service launched in late 2018. It offers access to Young’s full archive on web browsers, Android and iOS. Visitors to the desktop site are met with a filing cabinet filled with folders stretching back to 1963. Inside, fans can open all of Young’s studio albums, listen to live recordings and access photos, documents and other memorabilia.
A new feature, called The Hearse Theater, offers video streaming of concert performances, live sessions and documentaries. The website and app also offer a virtual newspaper filled with artist news, fan letters and opinion pieces written by Young himself.
The project’s most unique feature is its state-of-the-art streaming quality. The songs can be played at up to 15,000 kilobytes (kbps) per second, depending on your hardware and internet speed. You can also switch between the high-resolution song and a compressed version that streams at 320 kbps. The impact on the dynamic range is striking.
Young has been working for years to bring high-res audio to his fans. In 2014, he released the PonoPlayer, a portable music player that boasted superior sound quality. Although the PonoPlayer was not a commercial success, his streaming solution is the latest manifestation of that same mission.
Meanwhile, Young has also made news for his efforts to free the platform from two major tech giants. Last month, the artist announced that the Neil Young Archives website would remove Facebook and Google logins from the site. “Facebook knowingly allows untruths and lies in its political ads to circulate on the platform,” Young wrote in a statement to his fans.
Sharing their Secret Weapons
Hello Iconic follows a Scrum framework for developing and delivering their products.
“We follow a strong process,” Garcia said. “The whole company has two weeks sprints with a sprint planning meeting, daily stand-ups, a sprint review and a retrospective… The fact that we use scrum with a two-week cadence ensures that every two weeks we have a demo which shows results that are immediately releasable.”
Phil Baker, technology manager of the Neil Young Archives, agrees that Hello Iconic’s process has been key to the project’s success.
“I’ve worked with many [developers] over the past decade and a lot of the time it’s like a black hole,” Baker said. “You really don’t know how well they’re doing until it’s done and then you find problems. So, we really wanted a company that would be open.”
The relationship with Hello Iconic started last year, when the Neil Young Archives were seeking a single vendor to take care of the ongoing development and maintenance of the platform.
“Prior to working with Hello Iconic, we had a totally different company developing our Android and iOS apps and a different company handling the desktop app,” said Hannah Johnson, the project manager at the Neil Young Archives. “I think you can probably imagine the level of confusion when we wanted to make changes to one platform and had to coordinate that across two… completely separate teams.”
The Neil Young Archives have not encountered any difficulties from working with developers in a different country.
“I worked in Silicon Valley in the past and it’s not often that companies, particularly in software, want to share their secret weapons with the world. That told me they had a damn loyal workforce that was very happy” – Phil Baker, Neil Young Archives
“Sometimes people go outside of the US because they’re looking to save money,” Baker said. “Money was never really a factor in our case. We were just thinking what is the best way to get this done? They’re pretty much in the same time zone, they speak English well… We could be working for a team in New York for all we know.”
Hello Iconic has been building software for companies – ranging from obscure startups to world-famous brands – since 2011. The company specializes in audio and video streaming for the entertainment business. The team has worked on projects for clients including ABC, Disney, National Geographic, the New York Knicks and The Walking Dead.
Baker said the company culture was another factor behind Neil Young’s decision to collaborate with Hello Iconic.
“When you go on their website, they list all of their employees by name,” Baker said. “I worked in Silicon Valley in the past and it’s not often that companies, particularly in software, want to share their secret weapons with the world. That told me they had a damn loyal workforce that was very happy.”
A Budding Ecosystem in Honduras
Hello Iconic’s growing portfolio of collaborators has helped build their brand.
Garcia said he had noticed increased interest in outsourcing software development to Latin America in recent years, as clients become increasingly familiar with the concept of Nearshoring. Hello Iconic has also grown its network of contacts since it opened an office in Pasadena, California, in 2016.
“You can see clients trust you more because you have the commitment to open an office in the US,” Garcia said. “[Companies] that have doubts ask for references and we are always glad to provide them.”
Partnerships with famous clients such as Neil Young also attract new talent to the company.
“It helps us both ways,” Corpeño said, adding that working with big names facilitates recruiting because “people are excited about the client.”
Garcia said the talent pool in Honduras was rapidly expanding.
“What has happened in the past 10 years is that different companies in Honduras are making products of the highest level in different areas. Hiring is becoming a bit easier in that sense. The know-how is growing.”
Garcia and Corpeño hope the technology ecosystem in Honduras creates new opportunities in a country where a lack of jobs has contributed to mass migration in recent years.
“One of the reasons why a lot of the people leave is because they don’t find those opportunities locally,” Garcia said. “[We are focusing] on training, giving talks and scholarship programs. We really think that as we make that ecosystem stronger it will help smart people stay in the country and create new jobs.”
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