Neil Young Defends Both Record Companies and Piracy

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  • January 31, 201

(The following post was originally published on sister blog Speakeasy.)

Musician Neil Young offered a vigorous defense of record companies, followed by an equally vigorous defense of piracy, and laid out a rough sketch of new ways to distribute music in the digital age.

The famously contrarian Mr. Young laid out his arguments in an onstage interview at The Wall Street Journal’s D: Dive Into Media conference. The core of his case was that the sound quality of today’s digital music files is so low that it undermines the artistic intent of musicians like Mr. Young.

“What everybody gets is five percent of what we originally make in the studio,” Mr. Young said, referring to the way audio signals are compressed when they’re sold by online stores like Apple Inc.’s iTunes and when they’re ripped from CD onto consumers’ hard drives.

“We can’t control the back-end of the donkey,” he said, using the colorful metaphor to argue that musicians and record companies can’t control how consumers listen to music. He added that those parties have an obligation to give consumers the option of buying their music in a high-quality audio format.

The sound quality of CDs, he said, is little better than downloads, arguing that vinyl records offered the richest playback experience. “This is the 21st century,” he said. “We have five percent of what we had in 1978.”

Mr. Young argued for the creation of a high-resolution audio format, which he said would require 30 minutes per song to download; music playback devices built around his proposed format would be able to store about 30 albums’ worth of music.

Asked who he thinks will create such a device, Mr. Young answered: “Some rich guy.”

Mr. Young then made the case that unpaid digital downloads are now the most effective tool for promoting music. “Piracy is the new radio,” he said. “That’s how music gets around. That’s the real world for kids.”

He proposed to reconcile the seemingly contradictory points of view by proposing a world in which consumers use piracy or free services like Spotify to sample music, then buy high-quality files of music they value.

He said that he and Steve Jobs had discussed such a possibility, but that since Mr. Jobs’s death last year, “not much” had happened with the talks.

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