Exploring Neil Young’s views on streaming music in a larger context

Neil Young is angry.

He’s angry that the sound quality of recorded music has degraded over 95% from the glory days of vinyl until now, with most of the world listening to streaming recordings. It’s like going into a museum and looking at digital thumbnails of the Mona Lisa and other masterpieces instead of seeing the real things.

Here are his views in more detail:

Neil Young hates what the internet has done to music

Neil Young hates what the internet has done to music

Yes, he’s correct. There’s about 20x more information on a vinyl recording from the golden age of records, such as The Beatle’s White Album and Neil Young’s own classics, as we’ll hear on a CD. And there’s even less on a typical digital file and with streaming services like Spotify.

Sure, the powers-that-be in the recording industry could have done it differently and combined high quality recordings with computerized convenience, but they didn’t. (No surprise there: For the past 40 years, the mainstream music business has been in a race to the bottom in every possible way.)

So yes, Mr. Young is correct, and it’s nice to hear someone publicly going against the tide and pointing out how much we’ve lost when listening to recorded music.

But at the same time, I can’t help but see this as part of a larger trend, which Mr. Young doesn’t mention.

As large as the loss of sound quality has been from vinyl to streaming, there’s much greater loss in the transition from live performance to any recording, including the much-cherished vinyl.

Yes, that’s right. Recorded sound is nothing like “live” music.

Even the best microphones cannot pick up even a fraction of the subtleties that a human ear can hear. And despite being a professional musician myself, I never noticed the difference until I began recording in the best New York City studios.

I remember once producing a session at the famed Edison Recording Studios, where a lot of big movie soundtracks were recorded. After spending an hour or so conducting a string orchestra playing my own arrangements, I went into the mixing room to listen to a playback. I was shocked to hear how different the raw recording sounded from what I had just heard from the live players.

When I asked the engineer why this was so, he explained that the fancy mics they used, despite costing thousands of dollars, only picked up a fraction of what the human ear can hear.

One of his jobs as an engineer, he said, would be to add “sweetening” to the sound in order to “fool” the listeners’ ears into thinking they were hearing live music.

In other words, recording music is kind of like the process in the food business of making processed white bread. They strip away all the natural nutrients from the wheat, and then add a small fraction of it back in with “vitamins and minerals.”

In music, this aspect of recording and sound production isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s what enables us to enjoy recorded music in the first place. (Keep in mind too, that the golden age of high fidelity only lasted about 30 years, from the mid-1950s through the mid-80s, when CDs were introduced.)

I like recorded music as much as anyone else, but I also lament the gradual decline of live music over the past 100 years. There’s no two ways about it: the almost near-disappearance of live music nowadays is almost totally due to the rise and popularity of recorded music. (Most of us would be surprised by how many restaurants, clubs, street corners, and living rooms had live music as recently as the 1950s. Yes, 40,000 years of live music has been almost totally wiped out in barely a century.)

Seen in this light, Neil Young’s anger about the decline in recorded sound quality from vinyl to streaming is part of a longer, larger trend. Even amplified live performances are no match for the high fidelity of unamplified live performances.

For me, this is a much more important issue that we, as a culture, haven’t even begun to recognize or address. No, I don’t want to go back to an earlier era, and I’m not saying we should stop streaming. The optimal goal would be to reap the benefits of daily, participatory involvement in live music as we humans did for thousands of years, and to also embrace all the benefits that technology affords us.

Enjoy the journey, and “let the music flow!”


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