John Paczkowski

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Neil Young and the Sound of Music

You know what the biggest problem with music today is?

Sound quality.

That’s Neil Young’s take on the issue, anyway. For years, the musician has been obsessed with improving the way modern music sounds, sonically speaking.

In an interview with Walt Mossberg and Peter Kafka at our D: Dive Into Media conference, Young, the perennial music purist, said that while modern music formats like MP3 are convenient, they sound lousy.

“My goal is to try and rescue the art form that I’ve been practicing for the past 50 years,” Young said. “We live in the digital age and, unfortunately, it’s degrading our music, not improving it.”

While modern digital encoding schemes might sound clear on our iPods and smartphones, they only feature a small percentage of the musical data present in a master recording, and Young is on a crusade to correct that.

“It’s not that digital is bad or inferior, it’s that the way it’s being used isn’t doing justice to the art,” Young said. “The MP3 only has 5 percent of the data present in the original recording. … The convenience of the digital age has forced people to choose between quality and convenience, but they shouldn’t have to make that choice.”

Young proposed that fans stage a grassroots movement to demand higher-quality audio. “Occupy audio!” he urged.

So what’s the solution? New hardware capable of playing audio files that preserve more of the data present in original recordings, said Young.

Ah. But who’s going to produce that?

Said Young, “Some rich guy.”

And evidently there once was some rich guy working on just such a device.

The late Apple CEO Steve Jobs.

“Steve Jobs as a pioneer of digital music, and his legacy is tremendous,” Young said. “But when he went home, he listened to vinyl. And you’ve got to believe that if he’d lived long enough, he would have done what I’m trying to do.”

Also a topic of conversation during today’s interview: The recording industry, and whether the record label has outlived its usefulness. Young contended it hasn’t.

“What I like about record companies is that they present and nurture artists,” he said. “That doesn’t exist on iTunes, it doesn’t exist on Amazon. That’s what a record company does, and that’s why I like my record company. People look at record companies like they’re obsolete, but there’s a lot of soul in there — a lot of people who care about music, and that’s very important.”

Then why is it the case that some artists complain so much about the economics of the industry?

Said Young, “Those artists should go by themselves. They have a choice of what they can do. Artists who want to go it alone should just do that.”

Finally, Young discussed piracy, which he doesn’t view as the threat that some other musicians do.

“Piracy is the new radio,” said Young. “That’s how music gets around.”

Neil Young Session Photos

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