Neil Young and The Damage Done

NY HarvestWhen I first heard that Neil Young posted a message on Facebook on July 15 telling his fans and followers that he had made a decision to pull his music off of all music streaming sites, my first reaction was a non-reaction. In fact, given all the other news of the day, it barely raised a ripple of my interest. Without even delving beyond the headline, I just figured that whatever he wants to do with his music is his business.

I like a lot of Neil Young’s music, and over the years I’ve bought many of his albums – some tapes, compact discs, at least one DVD – and downloaded some stuff too.

Admittedly, at this point in my life, I don’t really check out any of his music very often anymore. Nowadays I tend to spend more time listening to new artists, when I’m not digging deeper into the past by wading through some of the great anthologies of early roots music that have been released over the past few years. Almost everything that I listen to is digitized and, unlike many who have complained about the quality and compression and all those things, I’ve got no problem with it. It’s easy and portable. Lots of people hate it. Lots more seem to embrace it. Whatever.

When it comes to people’s choices about music consumption, I guess I have an agnostic outlook. It’s all good, whatever way you choose it.

If you missed the words that Young first wrote on his Facebook page, here they are:

Streaming has ended for me. I hope this is ok for my fans. It’s not because of the money, although my share (like all the other artists) was dramatically reduced by bad deals made without my consent. It’s about sound quality. I don’t need my music to be devalued by the worst quality in the history of broadcasting or any other form of distribution. I don’t feel right allowing this to be sold to my fans. It’s bad for my music.

For me, It’s about making and distributing music people can really hear and feel. I stand for that. When the quality is back, I’ll give it another look. Never say never.

Neil Young has more than three million people who follow his page on Facebook. More than 11,000 people “liked” his post and it was shared more than 2,400 times. Less than two hours later, he returned to post again and that one was “liked” and shared by almost double the number of the first one.

Here’s what he wrote:

I was there. AM radio kicked streaming’s ass. Analog Cassettes and 8 tracks also kicked streaming’s ass, and absolutely rocked compared to streaming. Streaming sucks. Streaming is the worst audio in history. If you want it, you got it. It’s here to stay. Your choice. Copy my songs if you want to. That’s free. Your choice.

All my music, my life’s work, is what I am preserving the way I want it to be. It’s already started. My music is being removed from all streaming services. It’s not good enough to sell or rent. Make streaming sound good and I will be back.

A week later, as I’m sitting here writing this, Neil Young’s latest album The Monsanto Years is streaming through my system on Spotify. I just plugged his name into the You Tube search bar and it reads that there are “about 399,000 results.” As I think he’s probably already discovered, it’s unlikely that he’ll be able to back out of mass technological media distribution.

Meanwhile, I think there are a couple of stories behind the headline to this post that are of interest. Until I took the time to sift through and sample some of the thousands of comments, I would not have thought that he would get as much backlash as he did, for his words. His multi-generational fan base is rabid and ravenous, and usually when you read about him on Americana or roots music websites such as this one, he is spoken about reverentially.

Here are a few representative samples from his Facebook comments. I’ll try to sprinkle in both pro and con, although overwhelmingly – like maybe 50 to one – the comments were not from people who agree with his choice. The anger from his fans often took the tone of the first one below.

Doing an image search on Google for “Neil Young 8 track” shows exactly how willing you are to put music on garbage formats. Between this announcement, the ridiculously overpriced digital music player you supported and the anti-gmo fear mongering, I think I’m ok with never giving you another cent for music.

It’s artists like you that will help bring out the best in music! We’re suffering from serious lack of quality these days. Thank you Neil Young!

I’ll take your claim to be standing up for music sound quality seriously when you stop selling your catalog on iTunes, Google Music, Amazon, and other download services. Really, it’s about the money, isn’t it? I don’t blame you for that. It’s perfectly understandable from a business standpoint. But don’t disguise your motivation as being “for the fans” and “for the music.”

If I were so blessed to have my music recorded at all, I would want it to be recorded and available at the highest quality possible. I think Neil is as honest as can be. Speaks his mind. Why doubt him now?

I think it’s a terrible decision. I became a fan of yours primarily through the easy access of streaming it through Spotify, despite the “sound quality”. Without streaming, “Neil Young” would pretty much just be character in a Lynyrd Skynyrd song, to me. You’re a singer/songwriter, anyway. Your songs are much more about the words than subtleties in the music that the average listener can’t even detect.

So you get the idea. The yin and yang of public opinion and fandom.

I don’t think I’d be sitting here writing about this if it wasn’t for his comment about AM radio, cassettes and 8-tracks. Because I was there too, and at times I was probably in the same altered states that he was in, but sound quality and the delivery systems today are simply better than those formats ever were. Period.

By the way, if you want to talk about vinyl – I understand the reasons why many people hold it dear and close to their hearts – last February, as he promoted his Pono player, Neil said in an interview with The Guardian that vinyl reissues were just a “fashion statement.” The funny little device he was trying to promote was reviewed by Ars Technica, whose assessment provided possibly my favorite and fitting headline of the year: “A tall, refreshing drink of snake oil.”

Since it’s impossible to put the genie back into the bottle, Neil Young’s music will stay with us forever. And if the stream goes dry, there will be other ways to fish for it. But, should it become too hard to find, future generations might not bother to take the time to go find it. Which would be both sad and tragic. And that would be the damage done.

This was originally published by No Depression, as an Easy Ed’s Broadside column.