Neil Young Busts a Music Store for Selling a Bootleg CSNY Album (1971)

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Neil Young Busk­ing in Glas­gow, 1976: The Sto­ry Behind the Footage

‘The Nee­dle and the Dam­age Done’: Neil Young Plays Two Songs on The John­ny Cash Show, 1971

Free: Lis­ten to Dave Grohl’s Sound­track for New Film Cel­e­brat­ing the Days of Ana­log Record­ing

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Wash­ing­ton, DC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (6)
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  • Nick says:

    Just a quick note, since I know you’re inter­est­ed in spread­ing infor­ma­tion like this: the whole “MP3s sound bad” thing is basi­cal­ly a myth, and peo­ple could end up spend­ing tons of unnec­es­sary $$ because of it. In every blind lis­ten­ing test that I’m aware of, once the bit rates go over 224, the dif­fer­ence between MP3s and the orig­i­nal record­ing is imper­cep­ti­ble to all but trained lis­ten­ers. Peo­ple are switch­ing to FLAC and WAV (and Young’s pro­posed for­mat) which dou­bles or even quadru­ples the amount of space they need for their music, and that has cor­re­spond­ing finan­cial impli­ca­tions.

  • Josh Jones says:

    I am not “inter­est­ed in spread­ing infor­ma­tion like this.” I don’t have any stake in it.

  • Marian says:

    Why has this video dis­ap­peared? Every link I have found of it goes to the same YouTube file which has been “removed by the user”.

  • jan trip says:

    please,check this out.

  • Hi every­one I have been glued to my seat def­i­nite­ly . It is nice to know that all the infor­ma­tion I need is right in front of me. enjoyed it

  • Doug Jenner says:

    Neil’s new for­mat is FLAC (and it plays many more for­mats), the play­er is the PONO and it’s ready for order on Kick­starter. And, if you can’t tell the dif­fer­ence between a qual­i­ty FLAC record­ing and an MP3, then you need some new sound/listening equip­ment.

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