Music Has Always Sounded Like Shit

I wrote and posted this bit back in July 2015 after Neil Young announced he was pulling his music off of streaming services because of sound quality. I wanted to put it back here as it’s a nice precursor to a piece I’m finishing up about vinyl albums.

To note: Neil Young’s music is currently available on all the streaming services. Guess that Pono thing didn’t work out as well as he thought it would. that being said, he’s still on his damn soapbox.

Originally written on July 16, 2015.

So Neil Young, the man who should talk in his singing voice because everything he says is a constant whine, is pulling his music from streaming services because of the “sound quality”

Reading his little blurb, this bit stands out:

“It’s not because of the money, although my share (like all the other artists) was dramatically reduced by bad deals made without my consent. It’s about sound 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. I don’t feel right allowing this to be sold to my fans. It’s bad for my music.”

If it’s not about the money, Neil, then you say it’s not about the money and move on. If you immediately start complaining about having your share reduced, no matter if you mention “all other artists”, then bitch about sound, then it’s about probably the money.

But I digress.

Look Neil, no normal person gives a sweet shit about sound quality. Yes, a small percentage of people do but in the large scheme of things the majority of music listeners don’t care.

Why? Because everyone has been listening to shit quality music since the beginning of recorded music!

“Artists” like Neil Young (read: dinosaurs) like to blame technology for the state of music sound. “It’s the digital file”, they rant and rave, “it’s all the fault of the MP3”. People who have been screaming about lack of sound quality seem to have forgotten the audio cassette with its hissing and warbling and muddiness. They seem to have forgotten AM radio (mono and hollow sounding). Yet both were popular because they brought music to the masses without having to be chained down to a music player at home. You could turn on the radio anywhere. Thanks to Sony’s Walkman, and all the knockoffs it inspired, you could take your music collection with you; create few mix tapes (usually over top of a mix tape which degraded the sound even more), pop it into your Walkman and presto!

“Ok, so tapes and AM radio kind of sucked. But vinyl and CD! Superior! Ha!” Sure, if you had thousands of dollars of stereo equipment, which none of us had. I listened to my music on relatively inexpensive equipment. When I had records, I used my folks stereo which looked something like a shithouse that had been tipped over on its back:

Everyone I hung out with had one of these monoliths in their living room. It’s what we were introduced to records with. They sounded like shit but we didn’t care.

Eventually, our parents got sick of listening to whatever it was we were listening to and we all got our own stereos which looked something like this:

And they sounded pretty much like they looked: even shitter than the cabinet. And, again, we didn’t care. We all just wanted to play our music and play it loud. We did know someone with a huge ass stereo and every now and then we’d go over and blast our records; and it was never about the sound quality of the format the music was on, it was about just being louder, man.

Fast forward to today. We can now get music anywhere. And I mean anywhere. I can buy an album walking to the store. Or sitting at work. One click and we can listen to what we want, when we want. We can purchase, stream, and download. And yes, we can even order CD’s and vinyl if we want but not many people do anymore. And why should we? We can take our entire music collection with us. Our music libraries are all contained on the little pocket computers we all carry around with us. And guess what?

The music sounds great.

I ask everyone who lived in the 80’s, the original heyday of portable music, to think back and remember what your music sounded like played through these:

I mean, those cheap ass players didn’t even have a Rewind button! And it was all most average people could afford. Back in the 80’s Sony Walkman’s were expensive. And even compare that to what your music sounds like today, as an MP3 on an iPhone, or an inexpensive Android phone, played through the default earbuds, Walkman’s sounded like shit, too.

I guarantee that the MP3 on the iPhone wins out. Hands down.

Here is the thing: when MP3’s became super popular in the early 2000’s they were shitty sounding because they were encoded at 128kbps. This was due to the fact that we didn’t have gobs of hard drive space back then. We also didn’t have online cloud storage and the fastest, consumer internet download speed one could get was 3Mbps – and keep in mind that most people were still on dial-up connections.

Portable MP3 players were rare and the affordable ones only had very limited storage. My first MP3 player cost me a little over a hundred bucks and only had 128Mb (yes, that’s megabytes) of space. It had room for, maybe, a single album of music encoded at 128K. And all it did was play that music. It didn’t even have a clock on it. Now our devices are measured in gigabytes and can now hold thousands of MP3s encoded at 320Kbps (or 256Kbps AAC in the case of Apple) which is CD quality compression. Our devices can connect to the internet with near 300Mbps download speeds. We can now listen to music while talking to someone while simultaneously looking something up on the internet; all on a single device. Now our only real hindrance is our monthly data plans so yes, we’re just fine with the default quality of the music we’re buying/downloading/streaming; anything more would eat up our data.

Very, very few care about Lossless compression. Even fewer are willing to pay what amounts to a huge fee to access these so called “better sounding files”. And only a few of those few can actually tell the difference.

So be honest Neil: It’s about the money isn’t it? I know it is for most of us. We already bought Harvest on vinyl (and you had no problem with us listening to it on shitty stereos). And then on cassette (and you had no problem with us listening to it on shitty Walkman’s). And then on CD (and you had no problems with us listening to it on shitty CD players). And then on iTunes… and now you want us to fork over $25 for a FLAC version, after forking out $400 for your Pono Player (which real people don’t really care about).

And now he’s having a hissy fit and pulling his entire collection of music from steaming services because of this supposed sound quality issue.

I actually question how Neil Young, after decades of making people deaf at Crazy Horse shows, can tell the difference between a cats meow and a dogs bark these days let alone the nuances of digital compression.

So, yes. It’s about money. He said it in that one quote, and I’ll repeat myself: “If you have to say it’s not about the money, then it’s about the money.”

Steaming does not pay as much as album sales. Welcome to the twenty first century. The old guard is no more. Everyone can have a slice, no matter now small, of the music business pie. There are new ways to make money.

Trying to convince people the quality of the accepted format is shit is not one of these ways…

… Especially when music has always sounded like shit.