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CMU Beef Of The Week #265: Neil Young v Streaming

By | Published on Friday 17 July 2015

Neil Young

If, when I started writing this column five and a half years ago, you’d told me that Neil Young would become one of the artists most featured in it… Well, that would have raised a number of questions. I mean, why would you say such a thing? Is that really what you’d use your powers of precognition for? I think there are more important things, to be honest.

But as doubtful as your apparently pointless prediction would have seemed at the time, you would have been right. What can I say? The man loves a beef. And this week we actually have two to choose from.

OK, the first was not entirely of his making, and technically happened last week. Though I suppose he laid the groundwork for it by withdrawing from British mechanical rights collecting society MCPS some years back. But I don’t suppose you or he could have foreseen the BBC subsequently banning all of his songs – his own recordings, covers of his songs, and even tracks sampling his songs – from its entire broadcast radio output in order to avoid having to do some slightly tedious licensing negotiations.

In a nutshell, the Beeb is launching a new version of its radio app which will allow users to cache programmes offline for later listening. Young – along with The Doors, Bonnie Raitt and Journey, who are also now banned from BBC radio shows – withdrew from MCPS in order to circumvent the society’s blanket mechanical licence for UK TV. But a side effect of this is that the broadcaster would now have to do direct deals with all four artists in order for that app to be able to store their music offline. Caching being a ‘mechanical copy’, see?

Sure, those deals could be done. Or the four affected artists’ songs could just be cut from show recordings before they go onto the iPlayer system. But, fuck it, why not just go the easy route and not play their music at all? None of those artists have commented on this development, but Young doesn’t seem particularly bothered by people not being able to hear his music, as shown in beef number two. “Streaming has ended for me”, he wrote in a Facebook post this week. “I hope this is OK for my fans”.

And why would his fans not be fine with not being able to listen to any of his music at their convenience? Maybe they should have seen it coming. Young has increasingly become chief advocate for getting a better sound quality in music online. And putting his money (and that of a small number of his fans, via Kickstarter) where his mouth is, he’s trying to bring that to the digital world, via the outdated concept of downloads and non-internet-connected MP3 players, through his Pono company.

“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”, he clarified of his decision to pull from Spotify et al. “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”.

He’s not totally anti the future though, he concluded: “When the quality is back, I’ll give it another look. Never say never”.

You could, as many people did, point out that “the worst quality in the history of music distribution” must surely be the tinny sound of old AM radios. And what about the cassette? Cassettes were pretty rubbish, right? Especially when played through the stereo in the Fiat Uno that was my first car. Don’t say it to Neil Young though, because he’s already made his case on this. About radio and tapes I mean. Not my first car.

In a second Facebook post, he wrote: “I was there. AM radio kicked streaming’s ass. Analogue 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”.

Of course, there are already two high def streaming services on the market, with Tidal and Deezer Elite, and most others, including Spotify, allow premium users to stream at the highest quality allowed by standard compressed audio files. Though I suppose you could argue that, when the majority of people on streaming services aren’t paying, then mostly they’re not getting that boost in audio quality.

Either way, Young is having none of it. And before you think this is just a marketing ploy for Pono, I should probably also note that Young also wrote: “Copy my songs if you want to. That’s free. Your choice”. So, while he may no longer think that everyone is going to rush to buy a Pono player, he is apparently happy for you to rip his music illegally at any quality level you want.

“All my music, my life’s work, is what I am preserving the way I want it to be”, he continued. “It’s already started. My music is being removed from all streaming services. Make streaming sound good and I will be back”.

I suppose that, in that reiteration at the end there, we have a glimmer of hope. Because, had Young taken against one of the old physical formats, there’s not a huge amount that could be done. The sound quality of those formats was pretty much the sound quality of those formats. But streaming presents a new, and I would argue more positive for the consumer, step in music distribution, in that quality upgrades are much easier to make.

For years the record industry operated on a system of format-updating to boost revenues. In part this was just due to the way the technology developed, but the fact that media bought for one technology was useless once the next format had been developed enabled looping marketing campaigns trying to convince everyone to re-buy their music collection for a second and third time. Certainly no one at any record label was saying, “Oh damn, this CD really does sound better than anything before it, what a shame people are going to want to buy all of their favourite records yet again when they hear it”.

But with streaming, where you pay for access rather than ownership, each technological improvement can by provided to the user seamlessly, if a company sees fit. Sure, at the moment some are charging more for the higher quality streams, but there will come a point when higher quality is standard for everyone at no extra cost.

The only real barrier to this is the bandwidth requirements of streaming, and what the average person could reasonably be able to download over a mobile connection without falling prey to the evils of buffering. And that’s a key point. There’s no point upgrading everyone to high def if they don’t have the net connections to access it. Try listening to Spotify while driving across France and you’ll see what I mean. Seriously France, your mobile internet is rubbish.

This beef isn’t about France though, it’s about Neil Young. It’s about Neil Young’s crusade for a boost in sound quality that many of his fans can’t receive, and most can’t even perceive. And after 50 odd years of performing on stage, I suspect he would be hard pressed to hear the difference too. And at least if he’d left his music on the streaming services, people would be able to hear something. Now they’ll have to make do with radio. Oh…

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