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Music

Neil Young’s long, tech-focused battle to create his own subscription service

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Veteran rock musician Neil Young has launched a new online archive available by subscription and offering what he calls the highest quality sound available in the world of music streaming.
(Danny Clinch)

The down side of being at the cutting edge is that a sharper one is just around the corner — something Neil Young discovered almost before he released his technologically advanced 2009 career retrospective box set “Neil Young Archive, Vol. 1.”

That project, with which the veteran rocker presented all his recordings from the first decade of his career (1963-1972) on MP3, CD, DVD and Blu-ray formats, was outdated soon after it was released, to the extent that he knew that the next installment wouldn’t be released in similar fashion.

A decade later, however, he’s cut the ribbon on the full roll-out of his 50-plus year musical archive, as a budget-priced streaming service built on a high-quality streaming platform.

NeilYoungArchives.com had a soft launch Dec. 19 as a subscription-driven service that costs $1.99 per month — a bit more than a single song download on iTunes — or $19.99 a year.

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“We topped 10,000 subscriptions a while back,” Young, 73, said from the road last week by phone the day before he arrived in Milwaukee to start a new solo tour. “I thought that was cool. I appreciate every one of them for being there — it’s been a while. A lot of these people have been part of my musical life for many years.”

When he said, “It’s been a while,” he wasn’t exaggerating. The archive project has been in the works for decades — many fans thought it was long overdue when the first installment finally saw the light of day in 2009.

Young’s consistent answer to the question of “What’s taking so long?” was that technological advances in the delivery of music to consumers kept outpacing his ability to put the project together in a way that satisfied him.

It’s the same dilemma that ultimately took part in sinking his Pono high-resolution music player and store, which premiered right when consumers began abandoning downloading music in favor of streaming.

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Young’s new site carries through the basic design of the physical version released 10 years ago. Visitors to the site, who were able to access it free for several months last year during the introductory period, find a virtual file cabinet containing myriad folders for each of Young’s studio, live and compilation albums, as well as files for each song, most containing lyrics and many with film, video, press clippings or other content within.

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A sample virtual file folder contained in the NeilYoungArchives.com website and streaming service
(NeilYoungArchives.com)

Those stretch back to his early years as an aspiring teenage rocker in Canada through his membership in celebrated rock bands including Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Solo projects, from Crazy Horse to the Stray Gators to Neil & the Pinks to the International Harvesters through the recent Promise of the Real, are also covered.

Users can play full albums, individual songs or hopscotch across the decades. A meter readout shows the streaming speed, which ranges from 1 kbps through 15,000 kbps, depending on subscribers’ equipment and bandwidth available from their internet service providers.

He developed the streaming protocol based on technology developed by OraStream, and the platform allows full-resolution sound files to be streamed not just on audiophile equipment in home sound systems but also over computers, smart speakers and smartphones.

“This is the first time the public has been able to hear high-resolution [audio] that’s not dummied down music,” he said, referencing the popular streaming services most consumers use. “So you really hear the difference at the source.”

He’s so enthusiastic about the sound quality of his new service that it features a switch that allows users to easily compare the “master” version against one streaming at 320 kilobytes per second (kbps), which is considered high quality on most streaming platforms.

“The real reason I did it is so I can do my own music,” he said. “It’s the last time I want to go to record companies to make deals over high-resolution streaming. They’re turning high-res music into an elitist thing. It should all be the same price. I feel very strongly about that.”

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For those who haven’t given up on owning a physical version of music they like, Young’s website also includes a button that brings up a ZIP Code-keyed list of independent record retailers near them.

Although the Neil Young Archives is dedicated to the output of a single artist, Young noted that there could be a ripple effect for other musicians interested in the platform’s capabilities.

“For somebody who’s got a lot of songs — Paul McCartney or Bob [Dylan] or Willie [Nelson] — anybody who’s got a lot [of recordings] and wants to get their company into this, they could,” he said. “It’s a platform — anyone could use it.”

The other advantage is it can — and will, Young promises — be updated regularly with new material.

Young recently found an early 1970s performance in Tuscaloosa, Ala., that he’s pushing to the front of his planned releases, this one with the Stray Gators — steel guitarist Ben Keith, keyboardist Jack Nitzsche, drummer Kenny Buttrey and bassist Tim Drummond. “It’s the ‘Harvest’ band playing all those songs, live in Alabama.

“I like how rejuvenating it is,” said Young, who has no West Coast stops confirmed on his new tour, but who said he expects to be adding some soon. “It lets me reflect on some of the things that have happened, to reflect on people who have happened. It excites me.”

randy.lewis@latimes.com

Follow @RandyLewis2 on Twitter.com

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