Neil Young Trademarks Digital Audio Format and Online Store, Intends to Improve Digital Media
Audio and video recordings featuring music and artistic performances; high resolution music downloadable from the internet; high resolutions discs featuring music and video of music and artistic performances; pre-recorded digital media containing audio and video recordings featuring music and artistic performances for storage and playback
Online and retail store services featuring music and artistic performances, high resolution music downloadable from the internet, high resolutions discs featuring music and video, and pre-recorded digital media featuring audio and video recordings for storage and playback
The description gives the impression that Young is looking to get into the digital content recording and distribution business. This suggestion is further supported by comments made by Young at the D: Dive Into Media conference earlier this year when he explained that he wants to “rescue the art form that I’ve been practicing for the past 50 years.” He went on to describe the problems with the digital music industry as largely stemming from the poor quality of modern audio files and music playing equipment. Of particular note was the fact that he did not criticize piracy online, instead describing it as “the new radio” responsible for “how music gets around.”
This is an unusual position for someone whose income is primarily based on music sales. But Neil Young is an unusual person even as rock stars go. This is a guy, after all, that got sued by his record label for “not sounding enough like himself.” He eventually split with the label, and almost twenty years later released the rejected live recordings coupled with user videos scrounged from YouTube (they hadn’t personally filmed many of the performances). Oh, and somewhere in there he got labeled the “Godfather of Grunge.”
Young’s current efforts are notable because they represent another artist’s attempt to respond to the challenges of online piracy through innovation rather than exclusive reliance on strict enforcement of copyright law. A few months ago fellow blogger Ashlee Hodge discussed a similar effort by Louis C.K. who released a full-length comedy album for $5 that was free of digital rights management but included a direct appeal by Louis C.K. on the download website encouraging the honest purchase of the low-priced album. Efforts like this are on the other side of the spectrum from industry efforts to aggressively control copyright enforcement through means such as collaboration between ISPs and the media industry. By taking steps to develop a new “studio quality” format and encouraging the creation of media players that can support it Neil is looking to promote improvements on existing technology. Whether he can actually drive this type of technological jump remains to be seen but he clearly believes that he can, and is moving full-bore to achieve it according to a press release related to the publication of his memoirs.
There are risks to trying to create and promote a new digital content format and distribution system, the most obvious of which is that it could simply fail and be a colossal waste of time and money. Even assuming it is successful, there is the very real risk that the new technology will immediately become a target for online piracy and just improve the quality of pirated material at the personal expense of Young and his collaborators.
Neil Young has made his fortune, and it is possible that these risks just aren’t that intimidating to him. I prefer to think, however, that it is illustrative of his desire to appeal to fans by creating a better product, reasonably priced, that will help strengthen the bond between artist and consumer. These types of experiments are important to fighting piracy because they are more likely to change user expectations than public service ads and download-site crackdowns. The public response to strengthening enforcement efforts has been extremely negative, as evidenced by the recent SOPA protests. Over the long term, the solution to the piracy challenge will require more than just heavier enforcement. Attitudes within the user community towards content producers and the products they create will need to change. Artist efforts to be more directly involved in the distribution side of their creations may help encourage this change. Young’s efforts put him at the forefront of this effort. Regardless of the outcome of his endeavor, I respect and support Neil Young’s efforts to experiment with and push the envelope of digital technology and I hope he has the same success with it that he’s had throughout his turbulent musical career.