Neil Young Is In The Middle Of A Crash Course Lesson On How Hard It Is To Keep Kickstarter Backers Happy

Aaany day now. Picture: Getty Images

Neil Young’s revolutionary music player is finally in the hands of its most faithful backers.

The PonoPlayer is the fourth most backed Kickstarter project to date, pulling in more than $6m on a target of $800,000.

It represents Young’s personal mission to bring studio quality sound direct to audiences, the way artists intended it. To do that, the Pono packs in 800 tracks at a 192 kHz/24 bit sampling rate. Your average CD tops out at 44.1 kHz/16 bit.

And it’s attracted plenty of attention right through its rapid development. There’s been some great reviews which say the sound quality is undeniably amazing, criticism of its “frightful” design, and faith in real cash terms from another $6m-odd worth of equity funding from a Crowdfunder campaign.

But getting fired up with a big idea, pulling enough cash on Kickstarter, and putting an actual product in backers’ hands are three different things.

Pono backers are getting email updates which are growing longer by the week addressing their many and varied concerns. Reading the latest, you have to feel sorry for whoever’s on damage control at Pono.

Under Productions & Shipments Update, there’s the ominous:

“Unfortunately much of what we experienced is par for the course for a consumer electronics startup. In fact, many of the top Kickstarter projects that have come before us experienced much greater challenges and significantly longer delays in the shipment of their rewards.”

From their Kickstarter page alone, Pono has 15,147 players to ship. They seem to be doing okay with that, having manufactured a tick over 12,000, with the rest on schedule for December 8 completion. But around 11,500 of those were pledged to be in backers’ hands sometime in October. That hasn’t happened:

“We remain dedicated to deliver all October and December players to you before Christmas.”

There’s 3497 Black players delayed:

“Because of supplier problems affecting the cosmetics of the special black soft touch paint.”

The Limited Edition players feature etched signatures of classic artists such as Pearl Jam, ZZ Top, Crosby Stills & Nash and Neil Young himself. That’s also causing some grief:

“While we began production of the Limited Editions players in pledge priority order, a number of them required their housings to be remade because the cosmetics and laser etching did not meet our specifications.”

They also feature two free album selections from the artist themselves. If you ordered Pono players signed by ZZ Top, Tegan & Sara, Emmylou Harris and Kenny Rogers, you’re out of luck, because:

“We are still waiting for (those) artists to provide us the albums for their December Limited Edition series.”

The albums come on a microSD card with the player. But some backers have noticed the resolution of their albums is no better than CD quality.

“We are providing the highest resolution available, and are working with the artists to provide more high resolution content.”

The player comes packaged in a bamboo gift box. That means another 380 backers have had their deliveries postponed because they:

“Reside in a country that does not allow our bamboo gift box to be imported … your player (regardless of player type) will be ship by December 10, once the newly designed cardboard boxes are ready.”

Pricing in the streaming age is always going to be a headache for any new retailer. Everyone seems to want something for $1, but Pono are actually offering something unique – music as it was laid down in the studio, at nearly five times the sampling rate of CDs. Still:

“We’ve heard from many of you about the pricing in the PonoMusic Store. Thanks to your feedback, we realized that some of our prices were too high.”

Here’s a valid complaint on the issue of that magical sampling rate. If you’re a backer from outside the US, you may already have your Pono player. At the very least, you’ll get it by Christmas. But you won’t be able to use it for the very reason you bought it for at least several months, because it wasn’t until October that Pono dropped this little bombshell on its international backers:

“Lastly, we are still planning on launching the PonoMusic Store in Canada and United Kingdom in the first quarter of 2015. We anticipate expanding the store internationally throughout 2015.”

Instead, you’ll get the glory of those two albums provided for many months, and this message from the online store:

And finally, here comes the software problems. On the PonoMusic World Desktop App:

“One earlier build of PMW was particularly susceptible to failed downloads but the latest version is very stable.”

Operating system issues:

“Out-of-the-box Windows 7 does not support exFAT format which is used by the PonoPlayer. We recommend that you update your operating system…”

And this one must be driving the Pono people nuts:

“If it’s the very first time you’re connecting you PonoPlayer to your computer, the OS will detect the player and may install the proper drivers to allow you to access it. This may take several seconds. Please be patient. If you remove your PonoPlayer too soon, the driver installation halts and you have to start the whole process all over again.”

Finally, beautifully:

“You may try unplugging and replugging your player to you computer.”

All this is no criticism of the people at Pono, who are actually doing an admirable job, albeit from what seems to be on the run. (Apart from the issue with international downloads, which is fairly ordinary behaviour.)

All up, the Pono hardware at least looks like it will be fully shipped two months behind schedule at most – not a bad result considering it was just a prototype seven months ago. Oculus Rift shipped its first headsets to developers nearly two years ago, remember, and it’s still months away from a retail version.

Pono’s latest email update, however, is a great example of what it means to take on the general public as backers for your project. The pressure to deliver on time is much greater than say, from an investor group, a good one of which would be much keener to make sure the product is ready, and hang the deadlines if need be.

In other words, it take Neil Young-like zen to pull it off… which is just fine if you’re Neil Young.

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