In April, Canadian singer-songwriter Neil Young announced that he was shifting gears on his high-fidelity audio project, Pono. What began as a music player and online music store would become a high-quality streaming service, Xstream. This week, Young not only released his thirty-ninth studio album, The Visitor, he also launched the Neil Young Archive, a site that contains almost his entire back catalog using the service, which visitors can listen to in a high quality format.
Young has decried the relatively low quality that most music is available in for digital audiences. In 2012, he told Walt Mossberg and Peter Kafka at D: Dive Into Media that he was concerned about the quality of MP3, and hoped that better devices would come to market that would bring allow audiences to listen to music the way it was meant to be heard. In 2014, he put his money where his mouth was and kickstarted a music player called Pono, and later launched an accompanying music store. He later pulled his entire catalog from the various streaming services out there, saying that he was frustrated by the low quality: “I don't need my music to be devalued by the worst quality in the history of broadcasting or any other form of distribution."
You can now listen to nearly all of his back catalog, for free, at least through June 30th, after which users can subscribe “at a very modest cost,” according to my welcome e-mail. The archive, Young says, was developed “to provide fans and music historians with unprecedented access to all of my music and to my entire archives in one convenient location,” and is available via the high-quality streaming streaming service he announced earlier this year.
In April, he said that Xstream would be an “adaptive streaming service that changes with available bandwidth,” and the site will automatically adjust the streaming rate based on a user’s connection, according to the audio set up section on the site. The quality will go from an MP3 quality all the way up to 192kHz/24-bit high resolution, while the music files themselves are of master quality. The site will display the quality while you listen, and users can toggle between 320kbps or master resolution if they wish.
Listeners can browse through the site as a filing cabinet or as a timeline, starting with his 1963 song Aurora from his first act, The Squires, and going all the way up to his latest release, The Visitor. Each section is accompanied by additional material: scans of the sheet music, press clippings, and pictures. Not everything can be streamed: some of his work with Buffalo Springfield, such as “For What It’s Worth”, and several unreleased albums aren’t available to stream. The site’s FAQ also says that more material will be regularly added.
While the site isn’t exactly the most intuitive — Young recorded a 10-minute tutorial video to explain how to use the site — and it isn’t available on your mobile phone, it’s a fascinating, deep dive into a vast body of work, one that goes far beyond your typical artist homepage. It showcases not only more than a half-century of music, but lets you listen the way that it was intended to be heard in the first place.