Grizzled granddad of rock Neil Young has railed against so-called “lossy” digital formats—our current standard of consumer audio—for at least a couple of years now, promising to replace Mp3s with his own high-end digital service and player. He even references concerns about digital music quality on the alternately cranky and wistful endless jam opening track “Driftin’ Back,” from his most recent album, Psychedelic Pills.
His advocacy is admirable, given the dismal sound of so much digital music these days. I suppose it takes a fogey like Young—who remembers what records sounded like in the Golden Age of analog—to care about the decline of audio quality. Given Young’s dismay over disposable digital formats, one might assume he’d take a hard stance against one of their biggest drivers: music piracy. Instead, Young has gone on record saying
It doesn’t affect me because I look at the internet as the new radio. I look at the radio as gone. […] Piracy is the new radio. That’s how music gets around. […] That’s the radio. If you really want to hear it, let’s make it available, let them hear it, let them hear the 95 percent of it.
This position makes a certain amount of sense. Mp3s, like broadcast audio, are cheap simulacra of master recordings—useful as promotional tools. Those who care deeply about sound quality should be willing to pay for it in the form of lossless digital audio, CD, or vinyl. Listeners neither pay for traditional radio nor for stolen Mp3s.
That difference may explain why Young expressed a very different view of piracy forty-two years ago. Let’s drift back to 1971, when Young found bootlegged vinyl copies of Dylan and CSNY albums at a record store (above). In the first few minutes, Young meanders, the camera following. But skip ahead to 3:30 and watch him discover the bootlegs and confront the clerk, who has no idea who he is. The clerk stammers and stutters, Neil demands answers and then dramatically walks out with the CSNY bootleg album, forcing the clerk to pull him back in and call a higher-up. Then Neil makes a case for his musical property. (All while The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour plays in the background.)
It’s a pretty amazing exchange that shows how invested young Neil Young was in managing the products of his labor. He’s not so young and hungry now, the industry has undergone some seismic shifts, but he’s still fighting for control over his sound. And he has good reason to. Psychedelic Pills is an instant classic, as endearing as Neil in ’71. Check him out below in a live performance that year for the BBC.