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Neil Young Raises $6,225,354 on Kickstarter to Prove That People Still Care About Audio Quality

by John Oszajca on April 16, 2014

Neil Young discusiing Pono

Neil Young hates MP3s. He thinks the songs on your iPhone sound like crap. So he started a crusade to bring the “feeling” back into music. Literally. He wants you to hear everything, just as it was recorded. So, he created Pono, a high-end digital audio system.

Within hours of opening the doors on his Kickstarter campaign, Pono easily reached full funding at $800,000. The campaign ended yesterday, officially raising $6,225,354 in funding from over 18,000 backers. -The 3rd most funded project in Kickstarter history.  And with endorsements from Eddie Vedder, Flea, Beck, Stephen Stills, and Sting… Neil Young may be on to something.

What is Pono?

Pono is a music player designed to work with an associated PonoMusic.com service. The music player has 128GB of memory storage which can hold “about 100 to 500 high-resolution digital-music albums.” You’ll also be able to expand that storage with a memory card.  Its triangular design (it looks like half a Toblerone) is small enough to travel easily. Though, the Pono player is intended to be used when the listener can completely enjoy the listening experience as opposed to drowning out the noise of a loud subway.  Its essentially a preamp for playing really, really high quality audio files.

Despite the long held argument from audiophiles who are willing to spend thousands on stereo equipment, most people probably can’t really tell the difference between the audio quality of vinyl, CD, or Mp3. But Young’s take is by making music more portable and convenient “we have sacrificed the emotional impact that only higher quality music can deliver. The average listener has been listening to stuff that they are capable of hearing a lot better. They just had nothing to listen to so they’d know the difference.”

We’re all familiar with the vinyl vs digital debate. But science supports that MP3s aren’t the same quality as the CD version. And, they are far inferior to analog source, vinyl pressing, or original tape masters. But for most people MP3s have been “good enough”.

Young maintains that PonoMusic tracks go beyond being able to recognize the words and the melody of the song. “You’re actually feeling all of the music the way the artist mixed it in the studio, and that’s the difference. You’ll get the same rush that the artist got.”

But Pono has also been met some resistance. Critics in the tech industry specifically, have questioned whether high resolution is the answer to audio fidelity. Their stance is that the solution is to move toward a return to CD-quality audio, not necessarily the absurdly high-rate audio that Young proposes.

If Neil Young is right then we may have an opportunity to reach fans who prefer an alternative to MP3s. With the direct-to-fan marketing approach we take here, offering higher quality audio files might potentially offer a more unique selling proposition much in the way that vinyl has been used for years now. These files could also make great upsells or just generally help to boost our customer value stats, a key factor when it comes to scalability and being able to afford certain types of advertising.

Until Pono is widely available there are alternatives to MP3 that you can make available to your fans: WAV, ALAC, FLAC, DSD.

What do you think? Is Neil Young right? Does your music sound like crap on your fan’s iPhone? Do they care enough to purchase a higher quality product?

More importantly, will this impact your bottom line, or leave you feeling more fulfilled as an artist?

{ 31 comments… read them below or add one }

dave steel April 21, 2014 at 10:12 am

really simple actually
quality is what matters
not convenience
or marketability or even accessibility
just quality
if you’re an artist this goes without saying
selling crap versions of your carefully, skilfully made music is like selling low res photos of your paintings
or summaries of your novels
up to you people, but you’re either
on the bus or
off the bus…. excellent work Neil…..

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Allen April 19, 2014 at 3:27 pm

Thanks John for keeping us updated on these things.
A few thoughts. I was at SXSW and saw Neil’s talk on the Pono. First- I think this will probably be a niche item simply because who will spend $400 for a player in addition to your phone (which most of us use for listening to music). Then up grade all your MP3’s to WAV or whichever files you choose. Although I love high fidelity listening, for me personally I can’t see the time and cost as an investment I want to make at ‘this time’. For my hi end listening I still do vinyl of course there are many cons of that format as well. I guess the question we have to ask is ‘do we want it (higher fidelity listening experience) enough to warrant the cost? As a working musician personally for me now- it’s no. I can spend that $400 on many other needs that I have to make the music (the gig we did last Fri did not cover the repair bill on my amp). I do think it’s a step in the right direction because I would hope to see the IPhone 7/8 or whatever having the capabilities to play WAV files at higher bit rates in the near future. Then I would be able to have all my music at the touch of button at high fidelity. Until then when I want that experience I’ll put a vinyl disk on the turntable sit on my couch with a glass of wine and enjoy the music.
Just my 2 cents.

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John Oszajca April 21, 2014 at 7:10 pm

Hey Allen, I’m with you actually. I’m not personally much of an audiophile. But I love it whenever anyone can spark any kind of a movement or even a conversation. And Neil has done that at the very least. It will be interesting to see what comes of it.

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Cary April 19, 2014 at 3:07 pm

It is great to see big artists fighting for the integrity of music. Though I love modern music and mp3s don’t bother me a whole lot, I think this is necessary for keeping the music industry from trying to continually compress music and “crap” it out faster.

Dave Grohl and now Neil Young … this could be quite interesting.

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John Oszajca April 21, 2014 at 7:36 pm

Hey Cary, agreed. I’m up for any kind of a revolution :-)

Cheers.

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Rett Wills April 19, 2014 at 1:20 pm

I knew the ‘backlash’ would begin soon. I just didn’t know from which direction. Keep plugging away Neil Young and Rob Fabroni. We’ll get back to sound reality soon.

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Pete April 18, 2014 at 9:45 pm

I, for one, am excited about Ponomusic. The combination of the advanced hardware and 192kHz files can be a turning point if executed. I recently wrote a blog with my thoughts about digital fidelity…

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Brett April 18, 2014 at 8:09 pm

Bla bla bla another entrapaner flogging another way to hear music. People won’t give up there I phone that does everything except wash your clothes to carry a player around . I guess if it doesn’t work it won’t be Neil’s money down the drain. When your ear device is so close to your eardrum it doesn’t matter
Besides most people wouldn’t know what the sound difference is between any of these formats . On a selling point of view if the public are happy with mp3s and that’s where the sales are then I’d be stupid to avert away from that. 16 bit and mp3s are what people know, my grandmother even knows that
Cheers

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Brett April 21, 2014 at 12:03 am

I’m done with this .Neil raises how much ?
6 mill and then he sells the player to you for $400.00
Is really about the quality???

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John Oszajca April 21, 2014 at 7:22 pm

Hi Brett,

I can understand where you’re coming from but honestly, do I believe it is about the quality in this instance. The funding campaign was done to first see if there was any interest in a device for playing albums at superior quality to Mp3s. The results of the campaign proved that there certainly is an interest.

But keep in mind that people who came in and donated will already be provided with the device once production has finished (at less than retail). So they don’t need to purchase it again. That was the incentive for donating. The general public will have to pay the retail price though.

Thanks for reading and contributing.

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Kim McElroy April 18, 2014 at 4:17 pm

Thanks John. This gives all of us hope to rise above the mediocre we’re surrounded with. Hats off to Neil for knowing what’s real.
Kim

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John Oszajca April 21, 2014 at 7:39 pm

Thanks for contributing Kim. Glad you enjoyed the post.

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ACook April 18, 2014 at 3:19 pm

The intro says this is a campaign to put the “feeling” back into music, and something else about “emotional impact”. Respectfully, if an artist plays with honest emotion, it can be “felt” and “impactful”, in most cases, in spite of and regardless of format. I still have some old 331/3 LP’s that I hold onto because of the feeling and emotion in the performance, in spite of pops and clicks. This Pono project seems admirable, especially for bona fide audiophiles. But all the money in the world can’t fabricate, produce nor buy emotional honesty in artistry. That comes from the heart of the artist which needs to be there before recording begins. All the best to yet another audio format from which to choose.

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John Oszajca April 21, 2014 at 7:42 pm

Good point Acook. I don’t disagree.

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DEPRAVOS April 18, 2014 at 2:37 pm

need to hear the device and files and the price before making any
judgement. modern records. especially modern rock records are a blur because of compression. a high quality file of a blur is still a blur. silk purse sow’s ear etc.

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Randee Lee April 18, 2014 at 2:08 pm

To me and this is just me, as an artist and an engineer
The mp3 format is not the issue. The real issue
Is the loudness factor. I can’t tell you how many
Projects I have heard that are recorded, mixed and
Mastered cooking the faders at the back end ending up
Too loud and distorted in the finished product.
Bring the levels down and leave some head room,
Then you will have clear and punchy recordings.
Volume is handled on the back end at the amplifier
Section not the front end at the audio production side.
Just my thoughts,
Much thanks
Randee

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John Oszajca April 21, 2014 at 7:45 pm

Thanks for the perspective Randee.

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Tommy George April 18, 2014 at 1:42 pm

Kick Starter only works when you’ve developed a strong fan base. In other words a fan base that trusts you and loves your music. The big stars from the past were backed by big labels with big money and that doesn’t happen for the musicians today. The reason Neal got great backing is based on his fame which makes this an easy sell. Today you can’t capture the excitement of the fans unless you’re from the 60’s or early 70’s The vibe has changed and easy access to music is already available. Heck it’s even free. The 60’s and 70’s will never be replaced.When those musicians are gone the time period will be a collectible for sure. However, the market has changed and the marketing will change as well. The excitement of the 60’s will never be back. Don’t count on raising big bucks if you’re just starting out. Signed : Seis Hombres “The Other Little Band From Texas”

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Doug Clyde April 18, 2014 at 1:20 pm

This is a great idea. I love high quality music. I have DVD audio from Mannheim Steamroller that I love to listen to (audio in 24bit/96kHz 5.1 surround-sound format). It sounds wonderful on my surround-sound speakers.
I also would love to produce HD audio, but I run into problems. I’m a New Age Artist and mix live instruments with synthetics and virtual instruments. All render at different rates, since I’m using different equipment and software. (32bit/44.1kHz, 16bit/96kHz, 24bit/96kHz).
So, do I render at full 24bit/96kHz quality and upsample parts of it, or just forget it and stick to CD quality 16bit/44.1kHz? I have no idea.
Basically, I want to know what the difference is between 24bit/64khz and 16bit/96kHz. Both have exactly the same bit rate. So, which is better? I have no idea.
I just wish I had more rendering options.

– Doug Clyde
ALBEDO MUSIC

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Doug Clyde April 18, 2014 at 3:25 pm

UPDATE:
I dove into a ton of online forums and found the answers to my software problems. Turns out that all of my programs are capable of 24bit/96kHz rendering, they just don’t default to that. It required digging deep into their settings to get it changed. On to producing HD music!

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Chuck Anderson April 18, 2014 at 11:08 am

I agree with both the audio and the fundraising concepts. Anything that promotes better sound and allows artists to create without a label in between has my vote. Also if this approach stops the presumption that everything should be free, it’s a significant step forward.

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Joe April 18, 2014 at 10:52 am

As an audio engineer, I think this is awesome. I can carry a device that pays back my 24-bit mixes in my pocket! Much better than dragging around a laptop with an audio interface. I think you will see professionals snatching this up the most, they already know how awesome hi-res sounds.

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Mike April 18, 2014 at 10:46 am

I say more power to Neil for doing this. That video you shared was a pretty strong endorsement. Whether you buy into this or not…I think it’s safe to say that there is a high end audience out there and if Pono is where they congregate then it will be easier for all musicians to target them.
This could also help to break the .99/song standard that iTunes has imposed. Now that might only apply to ‘low quality’ MP3s and offering a premium version at a higher price via Pono could be a realistic/non-douchey way to earn more per sale in a way that doesn’t involve vinyl.
My next question is how will musicians be able to offer their music in this format? As long as the process is free and musicians aren’t being forced to pay a premium to offer their catalog on Pono then I think it’s a win/win for all involved.

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Avrim Topel April 18, 2014 at 10:40 am

Right on Neil ! I have to take any skeptical audiophile’s argument against Pono with a grain of salt because too many righteous artists are behind this new system. If it was only a sales ploy SOMEBODY would be saying so. Sometimes even science don’t add up. Can’t wait til October.

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John Thomas April 18, 2014 at 8:08 am

Neil is an audiophile. Many musicians (though not all) are crazy about every little sound. And I like that at times. On the other hand, if I’m listening while I’m doing the dishes, I don’t need The Cure’s Disintegration to have all of the amazing lushness that a high end system will give me.

The average user isn’t an audiophone. I think Neil has a great idea for a potentially profitable niche market, but I don’t think this will ever be a threat to itunes (much as I hate itunes).

We just need to keep it in perspective, and we need to remember that a huge part of the business side of marketing music is the perceived relationship that the listener has with the artist. And this relationship trumps audio quality more often than not. I maintain that many artists with a good relationship with fans, good songwriting, and “acceptable” recording quality will have more financial success than audiophiles.

I wonder how much of Neil’s kickstarter campaign success has to do with how much people want high quality audio versus how much people want to be more closely associated with Neil Young.

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hans April 18, 2014 at 7:46 am

Hi John,

I haven’t heard the pono player yet and don’t know the price tag either so I can’t comment on the quality, but the promises seem to be attractive.
I don’t mind listening to mp3’s as long as they have a bit rate of 320 kbs. I also use this for my own music when compression is needed.
I think below this rate, the quality starts to deteriorate quickly in terms of warmth and EQ. Everything becomes thinned out.
It also depends on what kind of audience you would like to attract, people with a higher income who could afford to buy the player. Or affordable for everybody?
Keep in touch & all the best, Hans

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Allen April 19, 2014 at 3:35 pm

Hans,
It’s $400, well $399 but you can say with shipping or tax if you can find a store locally it’s a solid $400 and some change.
Cheers

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DEPRAVOS April 19, 2014 at 4:08 pm

most musicians would not be able to afford to listen to their own music.

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Blee April 18, 2014 at 7:33 am

I’m definitely keen to hear the quality of Pono but I wonder if the average listener would recognise the difference in quality? If it “does what it says on the tin” this would be a great tool in raising the emotional value of music to the listener.

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Electrik Bill April 18, 2014 at 7:14 am

I definitely agree. I have a dance song on a label, Octane Recordings, that’s already selling wavs to Club DJ’s through Beatport, Juno, etc. for up to 3x more than than the mp3.

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hayate April 18, 2014 at 6:57 pm

That is handsome ! Thanks John to let me know about the new Pono innovation !

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