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PonoPlayer: When Millions of Dollars Add Up to Nothing

Neil Young's Pono Player Kickstarter FundingNeil Young Artist Signature Series Pono Player

would you rather listen?

The many stories I’ve told you here about business change and Influency have included quite a few examples of the way things work in the music business and other media businesses. Last week, although I’ve shown some love for both his understanding of his place in the music business and his music, I came down pretty hard on Neil Young’s new Kickstarter funded Pono Player.

As I said, I dig Neil Young. I like Kickstarter, too. But as I get more and more involved in our new change-the-media-business-for-the-betterment-of-artists project VideoNetworkOne and find myself even more interested in the way changes happen in media than I’ve always been, I can’t help but notice what a misconceived notion the Pono Player is despite Neil Young’s great intentions. And with a bunch of music luminaries aligned with Pono and Neil Young I figured the issue deserved another look.

500 folks who contributed to the Pono Player Kickstarter campaign will be receiving limited-edition Ponos “signed” by Neil Young. And not surprisingly, that particular bonus item disappeared quickly. But a bunch of other famous musicians are in on the fun at Pono. In fact, a few of them are bigger—sometimes way bigger, if with less longevity—than Neil Young, but not all of the limited edition, musician-branded Pono Players are sold out.

Arcade Fire, Beck, and CSN Pono Players Limited Edition Pono Players Featuring Dave Matthews, Foo Fighters, CSNY Limited Edition Pono Players Featuring Herbie Hancock, Nora Jones, Lenny Kravitz

Pono Players Featuring James Taylor, Tom Petty, Willie Nelson Pono Players Featuring Pearl Jam, Patti Smith, My Morning Jacket

And this is where the flaws in the Pono Player’s business model start to show. The artists who are on board are presented on Pono’s Kickstarter page in alphabetical order; that’s certainly the best way to handle the over-sized egos that folks with large followings inevitably possess. And this reveals some interesting, if inconclusive, things about the folks who want limited edition Pono Players signed by their favorite artists; it’s not necessarily about the order, nor the longevity, nor the disposable incomes of the people ponying up for Pono Players. What the results seem to indicate is that people who buy limited edition Pono Players are completely unpredictable.

What that means is that unless Neil Young’s goal for the Pono Player is to make a few million dollars and walk away, his team has failed to consider the marketing consequences of producing a music player that’s too large, shaped clumsily, too expensive, and falls outside the realm of what people are doing with digital music now; most people have moved on from dedicated music players holding music downloads to playing music through their phones, over the Internet. Which the Pono Player can’t do.

That’s too many misunderstood variables for the Pono Player to have any success after its pre-production financially-comfortable-and-technology-savvy-fan-participation-based Kickstarter campaign. Pono won’t change the music business or any other business; it will just … disappear.

The Pono Player’s way-higher-than-people-are-used-to-paying price is actually the least important part of this problem; Apple’s proven that; they’ve tricked a zillion people into paying three times more for their computers than the computers are actually worth. What’s wrong with Pono is that it’s a novelty, not a viable product. And novelties pay off through a short window; they don’t represent change and thus don’t create Influency.

Considering an Influency play of your own? Do better than Neil Young and the Pono Player; contact me here.


  1. Completely disagree. The target market is not average Joe, who doesn’t give a flip about audio quality. What the kickstarter showed, was that people can hear the difference, and want better quality sound. They are willing to forego the convenience of an all-in-one device where their music is concerned. And, no, it won’t be interesting to everyone. Many people have forgotten the emotional response we use to have when listening to analog music. But, all you have to do is listen to a cd and vinyl back to back, and there is no contest. That is why, when these things do finally hit store shelves, with demos available, loads of people will buy them at a fraction of the cost of a decent hifi.

    • Brian, I’m not sure we actually disagree.

      I’m an old guy. I remember how different vinyl sounded (and still sounds; I have kids who have turntables) Whatever the target is, Pono has serious issues. It’s too large and shaped in a way that isn’t pocketable. And no matter how great it sounds (let’s assume price of music ISN’T a problem!) under the right conditions, you won’t want to use it with cheap earbuds, right?

      So we’re at expensive player that’s not portable enough, playing expensive music, requiring expensive, unwieldy headphones (or a ‘real’ stereo). Yes, audiophiles will get in—maybe. But otherwise I see these things gathering dust and it being pretty likely that in a couple of years we never hear of Pono again. No matter how ‘great’ Pono ‘is’.

      • Jeff, there is clearly a market for high-definition audio and it is audibly better than either MP3 or CD. Both my wife and I (per blind testing) can absolutely hear the difference between 128Kbps MP3s, CD quality audio 44/16 and high-definition audio 96/24 or 192/24. Yes I have a pretty good home system (not too crazy though) and I’ll grant you that the difference isn’t nearly so apparent on a lower-end system or in a car, but that’s not whom Pono, Quboz, HDtracks, et al are aimed at.

        What matters to me and to the thousands of other backers of Pono on Kickstarter is to be able to play these tracks whilst on the move, and to buy more HD tracks from a wider variety of artists. So frankly whether Pono itself becomes ‘the new iPod’ is moot, success will be more DRM-free HD music available for me to buy and that I have a portable, quality way (Ponoplayer this year, maybe something better next year) to play it on.

        Oh and the headphone thing is just plain wrong – I have a pair of JH Audio custom-fitted in-ear monitors which sound simply amazing and are easily portable.

        You need to compare apples to apples. This will be niche for some years to come but I hope that, eventually, the standard won’t be MP3 or streaming at 96Kbps but lossless, HD music that we can consume in any way we want, be that portable, car or home. Until then Pono has my support and backing – and my money.

        • David, I appreciate the input, and I ESPECIALLY appreciate you arguing your point intelligently rather than by coming from a place of anger and indignation.

          I’ll start with the headphone argument: I think you actually made my point; you say your custom fitted (presumably high quality) cans sound great. Man, I hope so; JH in-ears go for north of a thousand dollars, do they not?

          Next: I absolutely concur that “there’s a market”. I just don’t believe it’s a big enough market to justify a rich guy (and c’mon, Neil’s a rich guy) going to Kickstarter so he can serve other rich people. THAT’S ACTUALLY IN NO WAY A JUDGEMENT, just a market observation. In “THE” (ha!) market, buying a $400 player that will be paired with several-hundred-dollars-and-up headphones isn’t “big”; it just isn’t. And Pono isn’t a game changer except for musicians/audiophiles (which yes, I’m lumping together).

          Finally, the Pono Player itself: in practical terms the Pono is non-pocketable because it’s both too big and clumsily shaped. I understand WHY, I just know I wouldn’t want to carry it.

          I won’t re-make my streaming argument, because despite streaming’s market share lots of folks would rather “have” their music. I’m one of them. Leaving me at the one thing I’ll argue only weakly about: the idea of having that music in a “better” format. I presume a day will come when the relative smallness of Pono’s storage will be adequately addressed to account for this. But today isn’t that day and $400 isn’t the price point.

          So I hear you, and I like the idea of Pono. I was a teenager in the late 70s; I grew up listening to art rock, and Pink Floyd and Yes sound like garbage on $6 headphones as MP3s, and only marginally better on $200 headphones, which is closer to my speed than your JHs are. I just still don’t see the market to justify crowndfunding something that costs this much and therefore appeals to so few people, and unless the shape/size thing is addressed I have a hard time believing I’ll change my mind.


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