Kickstarter Campaign Begins For Neil Young's Music Player

Mar 12, 2014
Originally published on March 19, 2014 7:16 am

Amid the thousands promoting new music at this week's SXSW festival in Austin, Texas, one artist took to the stage Tuesday to promote a new way to hear it. Before a crowd at the Austin Convention Center, Neil Young launched a Kickstarter campaign to support his long-planned high fidelity music player and online store, Pono.

Young was plainspoken as he explained what motivated him to develop a new digital music player. As the world has gone digital, he said, many things have gotten better.

"You know, cameras got easier to use," Young says. "Everything went up — and music went down."

Young says MP3 files, and the similar ones you get on iTunes, actually hurt his ears. The same compression process that allows these files to move faster over the Internet and take up less room on your computer or device also takes away a lot of subtle highs and lows in the music.

"What we decided to do," Young says, "was to come out with a new system that was not a format, had no rules, respected the art, respected what the artist was trying to do and did everything that it could to give you what the artist gave."

Young says the music sold in the Pono store will sound anywhere from 5 to 25 times better than an MP3 — though the 128GB player can handle files of just about any format, setting it apart from iTunes and Apple's mobile devices, which do not support certain formats.

Visually, the Pono player lacks the sleekness of Apple's products (many online commenters have compared its triangular prism shape to a Toblerone bar). And it comes at a heftier price — about 400 dollars for this first release. Despite those limitations, Pono's Kickstarter campaign exceeded its $800,000 goal just hours after launching; at the time of this writing, supporters have pledged $1.5 million and counting.

Young received praise from many musicians after his speech in Austin. But some in the industry think Young might be coming a little late to the music player game.

"A lot of consumers are opting for the convenience of streaming," says Mike McGuire, an analyst for the technology research company Gartner. "People are kind of feeling a preference for being able to carry it around and access it from any device."

But even proponents of streaming music would like to see better audio quality. D.A. Wallach is the artist-in-residence for Spotify; he says he wants his little sister to be able to hear, say, Pink Floyd's The Dark Side of the Moon in something other than MP3.

"She doesn't even know what the experience is like of imagining the music in sort of three dimensions in between the speakers — and that's always part of what I've found so magical about music, is actually how visual it can be when the conditions are right for listening," Wallach says.

Wallach is hopeful, as more people get faster Internet connections, that streaming music services will deliver high-fidelity audio. But he says he's still rooting for Young and Pono to raise awareness and create demand for higher-quality digital music. In his speech, Young made it clear that it would be fine with him if that's all he achieved.

"If we fail, we've made enough noise so people know something's wrong and they can hear it," he said. "If some big huge company comes along and kicks our ass with millions and millions of dollars, that's great for music. If they'll do what we do, it's a no-lose situation. We win."

But Young still wants you to buy his player.

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Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The musician Neil Young launched a Kickstarter campaign yesterday. He's looking for support for a long-planned high fidelity music player and online store called Pono. Young told an audience at the South by Southwest music festival that he wants to make digital music sound better.

Here's NPR's Laura Sydell.

LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: Young was plain-spoken as he explained what motivated him to develop a new digital music player. He says he's watched the world turn digital, and a lot of stuff has gotten better.

NEIL YOUNG: Everything, you know, cameras, you know, got easier to use. Everything went up. Everything went up, and music went down.

SYDELL: Young says mp3 files and the similar ones you get on iTunes actually hurt his ears. MP3 is a format that compresses audio to make it move faster over the Internet and take up less room on your computer.

But the compression process takes away a lot of subtle highs and lows in the music. Young says his player and the music to be sold on the Pono store will let fans hear the music the way the artist intended.

YOUNG: What we decided to do was to come out with a new system that was not a format, had no rules, respected the art, respected what the artist was trying to do and did everything that it could to give you what the artist gave.

SYDELL: Young says Pono will let you listen to music in whatever format the artist picks. He says the quality will be anywhere from five to 25 times better than mp3s. The Pono player will play those files and just about any other format. It's shaped like a bar of Toblerone chocolate and Young says you can hook it up to a stereo system. It will cost about $400. Nevertheless, within hours of launching the Kickstarter campaign, it exceeded its $800,000 goal.

There were fellow musicians in the audience who were excited by what Young was saying. Todd Fink is with The Giving Tree Band.

TODD FINK: We record at a very high resolution so I think it would be really neat for the people who listen to our music, you know, to be able to hear the things that we're actually doing in the studios.

SYDELL: All over South by Southwest, there was respect for Young from musicians. But, some analysts, like Gartner's Mike McGuire, think Young might be coming a little late to the music player game.

MIKE MCGUIRE: A lot of consumers are opting for the convenience of streaming. So people there are kind of showing their preference for being able to carry it around and access it from any device.

SYDELL: But even proponents of streaming music would like to see better audio quality. D.A. Wallach is the musician-in-residence for the streaming music service Spotify. Wallach wants his little sister to be able to hear, oh, for example, Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon" in something other than mp3.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WELCOME TO THE MACHINE")

D.A. WALLACH: She doesn't even know what the experience is like of imagining the music in sort of three dimensions in between the speakers and that's always part of what I've found so magical about music is actually how visual it can be when the conditions are right for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WELCOME TO THE MACHINE")

SYDELL: As more people get faster Internet connections, Wallach is hopeful that streaming music services will deliver higher fidelity audio. But, he says he's rooting for Young because he hopes the effort will raise awareness and build demand for better audio.

In fact, Neil Young made it clear that it would be fine with him if that's all he achieved.

YOUNG: If we fail, we've made enough noise so people know something's wrong and they can hear it. If some big, huge company comes along and kicks our ass with millions and millions of dollars, that's great for music, that's what matters. If they'll do what we do, it's a no lose situation, we win. Everybody wins.

(APPLAUSE)

SYDELL: But Young still wants you to buy his player.

Laura Sydell, NPR News, Austin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.