There's an epic interview slash feature in the New York Times with music legend Neil Young. The notoriously particular audio purist explains why he believes the internet is killing music through poor quality streaming, and how it's harming our brains.
Young appears not only to believe that the quality of the music is poor, which few would argue in comparison to vinyl. He also believes it's literally harming our minds.
Neil Young, described here as "crankier than a hermit being stung by bees," loathes Spotify, Facebook, Apple, and Steve Jobs, who it must be noted, is dead.
"He hates what digital technology is doing to music," most of all, writes David Samuels in today's NYT.
"It's gotten to the point where he doesn't want to write music anymore."
At ground level, which is to say not the level where technologists live but the level where artists write and record songs for people who care about the human experience of listening to music, the internet was as if a meteor had wiped out the existing planet of sound. The compressed, hollow sound of free streaming music was a big step down from the CD. "Huge step down from vinyl," Young said. Each step eliminated levels of sonic detail and shading by squeezing down the amount of information contained in the package in which music was delivered. Or, as Young told me, you are left with "5 percent of the original music for your listening enjoyment."
Producers and engineers often responded to the smaller size and lower quality of these packages by using cheap engineering tricks, like making the softest parts of the song as loud as the loudest parts. This flattened out the sound of recordings and fooled listeners' brains into ignoring the stuff that wasn't there anymore, i.e., the resonant combinations of specific human beings producing different notes and sounds in specific spaces at sometimes ultraweird angles that the era of magnetic tape and vinyl had so successfully captured.
If you want to envision how Young feels about the possibility of having to listen to not only his music but also American jazz, rock 'n' roll and popular song via our dominant streaming formats, imagine walking into the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Musée d'Orsay one morning and finding that all of the great canvases in those museums were gone and the only way to experience the work of Gustave Courbet or Vincent van Gogh was to click on pixelated thumbnails.
But Young hears something creepier and more insidious in the new music too. We are poisoning ourselves with degraded sound, he believes, the same way that Monsanto is poisoning our food with genetically engineered seeds. The development of our brains is led by our senses; take away too many of the necessary cues, and we are trapped inside a room with no doors or windows. Substituting smoothed-out algorithms for the contingent complexity of biological existence is bad for us, Young thinks. He doesn't care much about being called a crank. "It's an insult to the human mind and the human soul," he once told Greg Kot of The Chicago Tribune. Or as Young put it to me, "I'm not content to be content."
Neil Young's Lonely Quest to Save Music: He says low-quality streaming is hurting our songs and our brains. Is he right? [nytimes.com, photos: SHUTTERSTOCK]