A lot of artists have complained about the abysmal sound quality of digital music over the years, but Neil Young is one of the few that actually did something about it. It began in 2012, when Young began talking about his plans to create a high-resolution digital music company called Pono. While a Kickstarter campaign to fund it in 2014 pulled in a record $6.2 million and a standalone player and online music store did come out, consumers were hesitant to abandon their smartphone for a separate device. As a result, the company struggled to compete with the likes of Spotify, Apple Music and Amazon Music. Undeterred, Young created the Neil Young Archives interactive website, where fans could stream any song in his vast catalog with stunning sound quality.
Young’s decade-long quest to preserve the quality of music everywhere is the subject of his new book To Feel the Music: A Songwriter’s Mission to Save High-Quality Audio, which he co-wrote with Phil Baker. An exclusive excerpt from the book, which arrived in stores earlier this month, can be read below:
The Most Important Thing I’ve Ever Done
Music has been one of the great joys of my life. I’ve performed for more than 50 years and written and recorded scores of albums. I’ve traveled around the world performing for audiences in dozens of countries. There’s nothing as good as a live performance where the music is unfiltered—where it fills the air, reverberates, and is just so pure and organic. Likewise, a great recording that tries to replicate this is also in a class by itself. It’s an art form.
In the sixties and seventies, advances in audio equipment, high-quality vinyl, and tape recording brought wonderful-sounding music into the home. While not the same as live performances, the sound was an art form unto itself and allowed listeners to enjoy the music, become immersed in it, and be exposed to many of its nuances.
Enter the Digital Age.
Yet in the early Eighties, instead of audio improving even more, something unexpected occurred. When digital music became available on the compact disc (CD), I got very excited. I thought, Finally, no more cracks, no more pops, no more surface noises that had accompanied vinyl records. All the artifacts would be gone.
When I went into the studio after making my recordings, I did what I usually did. I cranked up the volume and started mixing, listening to CD quality from my new digital machines. After three hours, my ears were killing me! They were ringing and really hurting badly. That was when I first realized that something was wrong.
The CD was a brand-new format, and because it was new, it was highly promoted and pushed very hard by the music and tech industries. But convenient as it was, it was inferior to its predecessors, such as vinyl and tape recordings, in terms of audio quality.
That was the beginning of a downward spiral, where at each step along the way of supposed progress, quality was compromised for convenience. And from that point to today, we’ve experienced this degradation over and over: multiple new formats, each sounding worse than what came before.
To me it simply made no sense. People tend to dislike new formats since they need to keep buying the same content over and over. But to buy the same content and get something worse? That was terrible! I thought, all we really need is one format, and if we have just one format, it should be great—the best it can be.
Unfortunately, today there is no convenient way for the mass audience to purchase the early high-quality recordings that come close to the original performances. Listeners cannot enjoy the history of recorded sound and the magical recordings of the last century at their finest. These high-quality recordings are currently only available to the elite few who pay a premium for their music and have the expensive equipment needed to enjoy it. And because the audience that can afford these recordings is so small, there’s only a very limited number of titles available. Instead, the record companies focus on what they can sell: inferior quality made for cell phones.
The acceptance of poor quality ripples throughout the industry and makes it even more difficult to reverse direction. People get used to hearing this poorer quality and many never experience what music could sound like. As the demand for high-quality audio diminishes, hardware companies struggle to survive and artists record at lower quality. When these companies die, there’s nothing available to play quality sound. It’s a race to the bottom that affects the entire audio industry.
Digital Quality Improves—Except Audio
The deterioration of quality is not happening with other digital content—only audio. Digital video and imaging have made amazing progress. Films in the theater and images we take with our cameras—and even our phones—are sharper and clearer than ever. Advances such as image and contrast correction take advantage of digital technologies to increase enjoyment and provide the detail and fine nuances otherwise lost.
Why can’t we say the same about audio? To me, something is wrong. As an artist I want my fans to experience the same quality that I experience in the studio. I want fans of other artists to be able to do the same. In this age of technology there is nothing standing in the way of this idea—except greed.
Record companies want to charge a lot more to stream high res just because it sounds better. There is no additional cost to them to stream high-resolution music. It’s only bandwidth. The consumer’s bandwidth costs have plummeted. Should it cost more to listen to good- sounding music than it costs to listen to bad-sounding music? Should the cost be borne by the consumer? I have not yet found a satisfactory answer.
The goal was to build a small, affordable music player that could play back high- resolution audio files better than anything available on the market. It was to be simple to use and targeted to all those who loved to listen to music, but without the complexity found on existing products designed for audiophiles. Neil’s goal was to expose a new generation of listeners, those who grew up listening to MP3 files, to something much better. He mentioned how his daughter, Amber, felt cheated when he explained to her that she was actually listening to a dumbed-down version of the original music, and he believed many others who had only been exposed to MP3 would feel the same way once they began using Pono.
We realized that this undertaking had a lot of risk. Not the risk of designing and building a player; that we knew we could do. The concern was with the current market trends and the market acceptance of a player. More and more music was being consumed, not as physical media, not as files on standalone music players or even phones, but as music streamed over the internet, delivered directly from the cloud. Apple’s sales of iPods had begun to plateau and were expected to soon decline. And numerous companies were offering streaming music for just a few dollars per month or even free with ads. Streaming was the enemy of quality music, but it didn’t seem to matter to the millions who listened to it in greater and greater numbers because of its convenience and low cost. We knew we were fighting an uphill battle but one that we believed would show how much better music could be.
Inspired by Neil’s passion for what we were doing, we were all focused on our jobs and not worrying about what we couldn’t control. It’s easy to dwell on “what ifs,” but our job was to design and build the superlative player that Neil had asked for.
Just as we did with Pono, we’ve been able to show the record companies and the tech industry what they can do to provide quality audio. Pono proved it was possible to make a low-cost player and create a download store that delivered the highest quality and the most enjoyable audio content ever. The biggest objection to Pono was it didn’t have the convenience of streaming. So, we showed once again that there is an alternative to low- quality streaming. It’s Xstream by NYA, being used right now on NYA to stream all of my music at its highest resolution, twenty-four hours a day, to my music-loving fans around the world.
NYA continues to evolve and live. I’m working on it every day, and we’re adding new features all the time. I’m now streaming some of my live concerts on the site. I’m also very excited about the NYA Times-Contrarian newspaper, which I spend a lot of time on, perhaps living my father’s dream of a newspaper life. But the real meat is the sound.
I also want NYA to be an example for my artist friends to show them what they can do with their music and to encourage them to develop their own archive sites. I’ve offered to provide the technology behind NYA to other artists to make it easier for them to create an archive with their own look and to stream in high-res. I’m also working to bring music collections and recordings from others to my site.