Home Interview with Neil Young on Music Piracy, MP3 Hell and Finding Freaks on the Web

Interview with Neil Young on Music Piracy, MP3 Hell and Finding Freaks on the Web

Here at the JavaOne conference in San Francisco Neil Young just announced that his whole life’s work will be made available on in a dynamically updating collection delivered on Blu-ray disk. After his Keynote announcement I was fortunate enough to participate in a small group interview with a handful of other bloggers. Young offered interesting replies to questions about Trent Reznor and music piracy, about MP3 sound quality and about the way the web enables his extensive work on electric cars.

The short version is that Young fully expects his collection to be sent all over the web for free, he hates MP3s and he loves finding freaky scientists on the web and offering them profiles in his next movie.

Free Music

I elbowed in between elder bloggers Tim O’Reilly and Dan Farber in the interview to ask what Young thought of Trent Reznor’s giving away free music and RadioHead’s saying they aren’t going to do so anymore. At first I thought he wasn’t going to give me anything good, saying: “The recording business is going somewhere but I don’t care about that, I try to remove myself from the business part. The artistic part of me tries to. The world will work it out.”

He went on though to point out that his project Living With War always was and still is fully listenable for free on his website. It delivered a message he wanted to get out, he said. His thoughts about the content included in his giant life collection? Blu-ray may be riddled with DRM but Young doesn’t think that will be an issue.

“Ten Blu-ray disks doesn’t lend itself to P2P,” he pointed out. “They [the fans] are going to do that anyway – people are going to copy all this music. We don’t have to deal with that. All we’re doing is supplying the mother-lode, trying to give them quality whether they want it or not. You can degrade it as far as you want, we just don’t want our name on it.”

More than just indifference, Young was downright enthusiastic. “It’s up to the masses to distribute it however they want,” he said. “The laws don’t matter at that point. People sharing music in their bedrooms is the new radio.” Go Neil!

MP3s Sound Like Shit

Wonder how Young feels about the ongoing debate over the impact of the MP3 format on sound quality? He’s pretty clear on it.

[When it first came out] “digital music sounded like shit,” he said in the interview. “It was no fun to listen to turned up. Instead of water poured on you it was like being attacked with ice picks. [His recordings on Blu-ray] are like snowflakes.”

“I don’t listen to music, it’s in my head. Putting on headphones is like hell for me. I can hear an mp3 from a half mile away because the air has a chance to make it sound natural.”

Young said that MP3 was convenient – but that it’s like a vision of paradise that’s only inches deep and slams you in the face when you try to walk into it. “I’m a music guy, a sound guy – I went through hell in the 80’s,” he said. “Now we’re coming close, climbing up the quality wall. I make all my music analog, when a new format comes along I will dump all my music to it.” Would he advise other musicians to do the same? He said that wasn’t realistic. “I’m too rich and elitist, most people can’t afford the machines [for analog recording] and the people to take care of them.” Young says he’s been hoarding tape for a long time, sometimes recording over content that didn’t work out.

Finding Freaky Scientists on the Internet

Young spent much of the interview talking about his work building an electric car that users don’t have to plug-in to a wall. The end of roadside refueling is his ultimate goal. He and Tim O’Reilly discussed the plans in some length and it was fun to listen to. Nothing else Young talked about is nearly as important. It’s also not very relevant to RWW, except for his thoughts on how the web has assisted his work on the car.

“The internet is a fantastic place to find science experiments,” he said. “That’s my favorite thing about the internet. People who are kooks in their garages – the tools are here for us to look to the edge of the scientific world. You can seek them out and tell them if you think their ideas will work. You can tell them you’d like to connect them with other scientists in other parts of the world and if the work succeeds or fails you’ll put them in a movie about the project.”

That’s not a perspective I’ve heard about the web before, and I like it.

Neil Young was a personable, intelligent and well spoken interview subject. I’ll remember getting the chance to interview him fondly for the rest of my life.

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Disclosure: Sun is a client of my personal consultancy and paid my travel expenses to JavaOne.

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