How Neil Young became the latest start-up success story


Neil Young on Tuesday speaks during the South by Southwest 2014 music festival in Austin. ( Jay Janner/ Austin American-Statesman via AP)

Last week, everyone was talking about Neil Young. But instead of reminiscing about "Heart of Gold," tech writers were reporting on his Kickstarter project to get the free world to rock to higher quality audio. So how did Young go from aging superstar singer-songwriter to start-up founder?

Well, to start with Young kicked off the Kickstarter for Pono, a music "ecosystem"and digital music device aimed a supporting high-quality digital recordings, at the South by Southwest music festival where it was sure to get plenty of attention. Young, you see, hates Mp3s. He says they deliver a compromised version of audio. And he's right. Mp3s and AAC, the primary codec used in iTunes and other digital music sellers, compress audio from the CD format and squeeze it down to make file smaller sizes.

The process reduces sound quality from the CD version of audio, which is already lower quality than the original master recording in studio.  But size was important when music players had more limited storage capacities -- and for most people, the music sounded good enough.

But it's not good enough for Young. “You are getting less than 5 percent of the original recording," he told the New York Times in 2012 when he was just starting his charm offensive.

The Pono Music service will sell audio encoded up to 9216 kbps -- a significant step up from the 256 kbps AAC audio encoding found on most iTunes tracks. Although it was once reported the company was trying to develop their own audio "format," the current Web site say Pono will use the open source Free Lossless Audio Codec, or FLAC, audio format as its standard, although it will be able to play "most" other "high-resolution music formats" along with your existing pedestrian-quality digital recording catalog.

Some have argued that the high end of audio available via Pono is overkill. But that hasn't deterred the over 10,000 people who committed more than $3.7 million to the project. That's more than seven times the initial goal of $800,000 and makes the Kickstarter project a success. But that success didn't come out of the blue.

Young founded the project in 2012 and was hyping Pono to news media for years before the Kickstarter launched. From the David Letterman Show to the New York Times, he laid out his vision for a higher quality audio future, even invoking digital music pioneer Steve Jobs. Young said the Apple co-founder and chief executive also wasn't satisfied with the fidelity of most digital audio formats and listened to vinyl at home.

And, of course, the star power helps. As a general rule, having a celebrity backing your Kickstarter helps a lot in picking up backers. (Although there are exceptions...) This is, of course, not to undermine the value of the underlying product. The Pono Kickstarter was funded because people wanted a the Pono Player, just like the Veronica Mars movie was funded because people wanted a Veronica Mars movie. But it would be stupid to pretend having an already beloved set of characters or a legendary musician on board didn't bring an instant air of legitimacy.

But for Pono, the Veronica Mars movie, and many other successful celebrity-backed projects, crowdfunding is just as savvy as a marketing ploy as it is a solid money raising technique. There's not a lot of risk in asking people to commit to buying something you're already pretty sure they want. And given the connections and talents involved, the products could probably secure cash through more traditional structures if they tried.

But going the Kickstarter route provides provides almost immediate concept validation. And it all but ensures a round of news stories about the success of the fundraising effort. Just like this one.

 

Andrea Peterson covers technology policy for The Washington Post, with an emphasis on cybersecurity, consumer privacy, transparency, surveillance and open government.
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Andrea Peterson · March 14