Thursday, March 26, 2009
Won't Get Fooled Again? We'll see.
There are a number of dilemmas thrown up by the imminent arrival of the long-awaited Neil Young Archives box set. Even if you're not a fan of the man and his music, bear with me because some of these issues go right to the heart of how recorded music is traded generally.
If you haven't caught up, Youngy has been working on a series of incredibly comprehensive archival recordings and ephemera for a hundred years. Christ was playing fullback for the South Sydney Rabbitohs when he started. Rumour is they were even winning, it was so long ago. The first installment, covering his career (Neil's - not Christ's) from 1963-72, will be released on June 2. There are three versions of this 10-disc monster - Blu-Ray, DVD and CD - and they'll retail for $300, $200 and $100 bucks respectively (that's American dollars so expect to pay 40 percent more in Australia.)
The recommended Blu-Ray version will carry much more material, be heavily interactive, be tied to a book and become "the gift that keeps giving" by pushing free material your way via the Internerd, whenever Neil finds another dusty suitcase in the garage with all his old harmonicas and Playboys.
The DVD will have audiovisual content and superior sound quality to the CDs. The CD box will be CDs (but you probably knew that already).
The whole project was unveiled at a special panel discussion at the SXSW music festival last week and there's a slick website that includes a personal pop-up message from Neil himself, telling you why you have to have the Blu-Ray version. If you pre-order for any format other than CD, he (or more likely one of his helpers) will send you a bonus Blu-Ray disc.
If you don't have a Blu-Ray player, Neil helpfully tells you to ask an electrical goods retailer to let you use one of theirs' and then you'll have to buy one.
If you are a Blu-Ray owner (PlayStation 3 will work too) you'll also get a jukebox 45 by the Squires (Young's schooldays band). I'm not sure a salesman will demonstrate that on a turntable but you can always ask.
Industry comment from the likes of Chicago journalist Jim Derogatis is that this package is the way of the future, that CDs will be dead in five years and that massive, one-off legacy box sets provide the only viable lifeline for the few Ma and Pa music shops that still survive the download onslaught.
I appreciate all that. Ditto Neil's opinion that Blu-Ray is far superior in the audio quality it can deliver and the interactivity is a given. I like the fact Young's a techno geek and always trying new things. But I have issues.
Firstly, I am sick to the back teeth of the global giants trying to shove new audio and audio-visual formats down my throat. I remember the Beta vs VHS farce of the '80s (Beta won.) I resisted the switch from vinyl to CD until it was inevitable and have been appalled time and time again with the criminally negligent way the uncaring big companies mastered music for the new format.
Yes, I've also been sucked into re-purchasing the same music over and over, re-packaged with bonus tracks and outtakes that more often than not weren't worth hearing (hence why they were left off the original albums).
But SACD? As redundant as eight-track tapes. 5.1 remixes are a wank unless you've shelled out big bucks for a top-end home theatre system. I have a cheapie because I watch little TV.
So if no-one trusts the big music conglomerates and lots of people are taking pleasure in watching them squirm under the relentless march of downloading (as much as it's at the expense of music-makers), do you have to wonder why?
Then there's the side issue that of the the 10 discs in the Neil CD box set, three have already been released. Warners should have made it clear they were integral to the bigger project and although the other seven CDs will be available individually, I'll bet the economics of that play heavily in favour of the record company, as usual.
I hope (and suspect) Neil Young's commitment to a new format that brings unprecedented quality to his fans is genuine. From a selfish perspective, it sure beats him tinkering with toy trains.
Part of me wants to embrace the Neil Young Archives and their almost irresistible marriage to Blu-Ray, but the buying into the whole thing at the optimum level involves a lot more than a one-off purchase. There are another four volumes planned and once critical momentum is achieved, it's certain other artists will be pushed over to the new platform.
Deep down, I don't want to see that much control over fandom put back into the hands of capricious, uncaring brokers of music as a commodity (and I don't mean Neil). It's that simple.