Is Neil Young off his Rocker?

Neil Young likes to criticize things: war, environmental abuses, indifference to homelessness, the plight of small farmers, Presidents of the United States, etc.  Name an activist topic, and you can probably find several well-crafted lyrics, ranging from subtle to confrontational, on the issue. Neil Young is also critical of sound quality. Highly critical.

That’s old news. His disdain for digital audio is legendary. He once told an interviewer that he would burn his master tapes before he would let them be released on CD. Things got even worse when DVD was released. Comparing DVD to CD, he said, “That is totally a piece of crap. A thousand times more distortion, and I’m not exaggerating. That is a clinical number.” And that was before MP3 arrived…

Now, Mr. Young is apparently serious about his longstanding promise (or threat?) to develop his own high-fidelity audio format. According to Rolling Stone he has applied for a bunch of hi-fi trademarks — "Ivanhoe," "21st Century Record Player", "Earth Storage," "Storage Shed," "Thanks for Listening," and "SQS (Studio Quality Sound)" — with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. What exactly he has in the works isn’t clear — a download service? A file format? — but obviously the man means business.

In recent interviews, Mr. Young has asserted that he and Steve Jobs discussed a new audio format known as Pono that will deliver studio-quality sound from cloud libraries. According to Mr. Young, referring to Mr. Jobs, “And you gotta believe that if he’d lived long enough, he would eventually have done what I’m trying to do.”

The curious part is this: Although low-bit-rate perceptually coded files sound poor, high bit-rate perceptually coded files can sound very good. And if perceptual coding just isn’t your thing, you can choose from numerous lossless formats such as Apple Lossless Audio Codec, Windows Media Audio Lossless, MPEG-4 ALS, Dolby TrueHD, DTS-HD Master Audio, MLP, mp3HD, FLAC, APE, etc. These formats reduce file size and output data that is bit-for-bit identical to the original file. In other words, they are completely transparent to the audio signal. And, if lossless coding isn’t your thing, there are always WAV files. So, it isn’t clear what new invention Mr. Young is proposing.

But you know what? Maybe this guy isn’t off his rocker. In fact, maybe he’s doing us all a huge favor. I’ll tell you why. Absolutely nobody cares when an audio engineer or a nerdy audiophile evangelizes on the awesomeness of high-fidelity music. Those people might be high and mighty in their professions, but to the general public, they are just nerds. Last time they tried to sell the public on high fidelity (with SACD and DVD-Audio) their science experiment was a dismal failure.

But along comes Neil Young. Unlike your average nerd, he is a Rock God. When he talks about music, people listen. (They also listen when he plays music). He has the credibility and clout to actually make a difference. It’s like a pair of mediocre headphones. When an engineer says they are good, nobody cares. But when a celebrity puts his name on them, the same headphones become a cultural and stylistic phenomenon. That’s what Neil Young brings to the party.

The rest of us sit around and kvetch about sound quality. Neil Young is taking to the streets. He knows that poor sound quality is a cancer in the music industry and he knows that the problem of poor sound is not technological, but rather the groupthink of the record labels. No matter what trademark he chooses, if he can outflank the labels, and get people listening to high-quality files again, he might just bust down the door on poor sound.

I have two things to say to Mr. Young: You sir, with all due respect, are crazy. And, you are a genius.

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