Pono Kickstarter

As regular readers know I have serious issues with Kickstarter, in large part because the site/service can so easily be exploited for nefarious purposes. As RPS finally (and to my mind belatedly) made clear after flogging the site endlessly, when you’re giving money to a Kickstarter project you’re not buying anything. Instead, you’re investing in something that may or may not happen, which means the people you’re investing in need to have a great reputation to go along with their great idea.

I’m genuinely glad there’s a way for independent artists and creators to bypass gatekeepers and raise money for small projects, and from time to time I’ve considered the possible utility of the site myself. That I’ve never backed a Kickstarter project before is less a sign of where my heart is than where my brain is, because I know my brain would be angry with me if I put scarce personal equity into something that never materialized. (I do that enough on my own.) Having said that, today I backed my first project on Kickstarter for reasons that have nothing to do with Kickstarter, and I think the project I’m helping to fund is something you might want to consider as well.

For years Neil Young has been griping about the quality of music in the digital age. It’s a complaint I’m not only sympathetic to, at some point in the recent past I noticed that I had simply stopped listening to music for enjoyment for close to a decade. When I tried to figure out why it became obvious that my enjoyment of music ceased when the MP3 file became the playback standard. To bring music back into my life I tried using iTunes, but that proved to be just as bad, in large part because (unbeknownst to me at the time) Apple’s default sampling rate for ripped CD’s was less than lossless. Only when I discovered FLAC and Foobar2000 and was able to get CD sound out of my digital library did I once again start hearing sounds that had gone missing.

I want to stress here that I’m not an audiophile or a purist. I don’t need an oscilloscope to know what I’m hearing. Instead, I feel it, and all I can tell you is that digital music has generally left me cold. Not cold enough to go back to the hisses and pops and turntable maintenance of vinyl, but cold nonetheless. So when I first heard that Neil Young was pushing for a new standard for digital music I was all for it. Unfortunately, if memory serves, that was also a decade ago. (Or at least it seems like it.)

Well, that day is here. Sort of. As I understand it the PonoPlayer is ready to go and Kickstarter is being used as much to sell/reserve initial/limited copies of the device as it is to raise money for future development of the accompanying service. Still, if you believe in high-quality music and supporting the artists who make it, I think it’s worth considering what Pono is about and whether you want to chip in. At the very least you can help demonstrate demand is there which might encourage the big-money people to get off their stuffed wallets and buy in as well.

As for the risks involved, I’m confident that Neil Young isn’t going to take my contribution and blow it on a new couch, or something worse. Although he might be tempted to sink it into an all-electric Lincoln Continental. (I jest.) Currently, on day one, the campaign is halfway to its initial $800,000 goal. Given that it looks like the 30-day campaign will be fully funded in a day or two, and that it’s backed by people who have reputations to protect, I think the risk of the project falling apart are pretty low. Not zero, but close enough for me.

— Mark Barrett

Ditchwalk Delivered via Email


  1. trailblaer says

    The player sounds cool but it’s not like you can’t get plenty of high definition music now. HDtracks has a ton including many Warner Brothers, Sony and Universal titles. Want Springsteen, James Taylor and Pearl Jam in high rez? They’re already here!

    • says

      I agree that this isn’t groundbreaking in a technological sense. I also agree that if you want HD music you can usually find it if you’re willing to dig, or if you’ve got the equipment to make the conversion yourself.

      I think Pono is important more from a demand perspective than anything else, and it’s in that spirit that I contributed. MP3’s are and were awful, but in the context of the times they also solved problems related to limited storage capacity. Today we don’t have those problems, yet the move to make HD (or even CD-quality) music readily available on music sites has been horribly slow, at least in part because all of the people raised on MP3’s literally don’t know what they’re missing.

      I don’t expect the crazy high-end sampling rates to ever catch on, but if Pono can be the point of a spear that pushes back against the flat, monochromatic, volume-compensated barrage of sound we’re used to I have to be a part of that.

      Obviously Neil Young’s association helps a lot, but I still think it’s a positive sign that the project blew through the initial goal in less than a day and has doubled up in less than two. Demand is there, at least in this moment, and I hope there’s a ripple effect across the industry. In practice I’m not even sure HD adds prohibitive costs on the recording or distribution side these days, so hopefully we won’t need a big wave to push back against the conventional music-production tides.

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