Neil Young and the Damage Done

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Crowds can achieve results. Ask people in Tahrir Square or Kiev. But does that concept apply to selling a product like the Pono, the high-fidelity music player backed by Neil Young?

In the world of "crowd sourcing," pooling funds from a large group of people to help achieve an objective is increasingly popular means for charitable and commercial ventures. Its potential received great fanfare this week as legendary musician Neil Young sought funding for a project to create a high-fidelity system for playing digital music that restores all of the sounds and nuances of the original recordings as intended by the artists.

Neil Young has been adamant about his feelings for digital recordings and thinks that songs on Apple's (AAPL) iPhone "sound like crap." Even Steve Jobs wasn't satisfied with the sound of music on the iPod.

As an artist proud of his work, and together with a growing collection of other well known artists who feel the same way, there is certainly a case to be made for providing a medium that faithfully recreates the experience. Of course, doing so requires capital and investment and is faced with long odds when the competitor is Apple.

Young is using Kickstarter, a leading source for crowdsourcing that offers rewards for contributions based upon the level of donation, or "pledge."

As an example, a $5 pledge to this campaign entitles the donor to "LOVE + THANKS" and a mention on the website. Greater amounts give you T-shirts, signed posters and a discounted price on the music player. At the highest level, $5,000 donors receive a "VIP Dinner and Listening Party with Neil Young."

These rewards surely have some personal value, but what I see is greed.

First, Kickstarter offers a great opportunity for those without ready access to capital and a wonderful means to generate financial support for what may be great projects, products and ideas that would otherwise never see the light of day. Crowdsourcing may be the mechanism by which yet another great American success story is launched, minus the burden of investors worried about their capital investments.

The more traditional route is to access capital markets or venture capital and accept the potential liabilities that may come along with those alternatives. Whether that includes the repayment of business loans or the granting of equity, the price is very tangible, although perhaps necessary and even an indispensable part of the equation.

The novice inventor has little access to these traditional routes of funding, having neither their own capital nor networks to get a foot in the door. That is where Kickstarter comes in and offers an opportunity to open the doors with very few strings attached (other than a token gift of appreciation). That opportunity can make all of the difference, but seems inherently wrong when the ones asking for pledges have infinite avenues available to them and are more likely to find the path to success to be a paved road.

There's Neil Young.

While I'm not privy to his ability to personally finance this worthy project, it may be reasonable to believe that through his own resources or through his personal network of contacts he would be able to find the resources necessary to bring this concept fully into being. There is, however, scant information on the Kickstarter site as to the earlier backers of this effort.

The objective was to raise $800,000, which seems like a small amount, although there's no indication of just how much has already been invested in the project. That $800,000 threshold was surpassed in just the second day of the campaign. In fact, it was more than doubled with more than a month remaining to collect even more.

Like the duo in The Producers, the campaign can keep collecting as much as it wants because all that needs to be done is to print more T-shirts or sign more posters. As opposed to 100% of the pie, the universe of T-shirts is conceivably unlimited and carries no future obligation to any of the donors.

Donors (many of whom, like me, probably already have a large collection of rock and roll T-shirts) love the idea of being associated in "perpetuity" with one of their favorite rock stars.

On the other hand, the cynic in me wonders how $800,000, in a project of this size, could possibly have made any difference, particularly when access to real investors shouldn't be a limiting factor. One has to wonder whether the campaign is simply part of an awareness and publicity campaign, as it has certainly already achieved quite a bit of attention in addition to money. It certainly helps to create a potential audience for the planned new hardware and is made more enticing with donor discounts.

No matter what your opinion this campaign will be an example of the power of crowdsourcing and will serve as a model for others eager to protect their own interests and perhaps drain from the pool of donations available to others less well connected to capital sources.

Too bad, but at least if Neil Young is successful, his work will be heard in the manner in which it was intended. For the donor who received a discount on the player, it's more likely a situation of wondering how many washes that T-shirt can endure.

At the time of publication, the author held no positions in any of the stocks mentioned.

This article represents the opinion of a contributor and not necessarily that of TheStreet or its editorial staff.

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