x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 24 November 2017

Does the release of Neil Young’s full back catalogue represent a fresh model for musicians?

Never before has an artist made such a loving, comprehensive bid to control the destiny of their recordings in the digital age

Neil Young is one of the artists who have tried varying ways to control their archives. C Flanigan / FilmMagic
Neil Young is one of the artists who have tried varying ways to control their archives. C Flanigan / FilmMagic

When Neil Young revealed plans to release every song he has ever recorded, on his own online streaming portal, it was the latest, ­greatest ­mindful self-curation from an artist who has historically enjoyed a contrary control over his archives.

Young’s interactive depository also surely represents the most determined bid by any artist of any age to regulate, and presumably profit from, their back catalogue in the digital era.

Unveiled by the 71-year-old ­Canadian rocker in a rambling open letter – ­posted on neilyoungarchives.com earlier this month– Young promised fans the chance to hear “every single, track or recorded album”, from early teenage recordings alongside high-school band The Squires in 1963 to his irascible present-day output.

Eyes widened and appetites were whet in anticipation of the reams of unreleased albums, out-takes and live recordings said to populate one of the richest alternative back catalogues in rock – all made available at the same time, in the same place.

“I must admit I built this for myself as much as everyone else,” Young wrote, explaining how his life’s work will be presented on a zoomable timeline, with album art, credits and notes.

More committed completists have been promised the chance to rifle through virtual “info cards” assembled for every song, offering photos, videos, press clipping and memorabilia.

And it will get bigger and geekier – the archives will “evolve” over time, as fresh resources or music surface and technology improves. Listeners are even invited to contribute factoids – highlighting the perverse likelihood that devoted Young scholars know more about what happened at a given recording session than the players.

Such a monumental digital tome will doubtless bewilder and bemuse listeners less than familiar with the 39 Young studio albums already readily multiple streaming platforms ­online – never mind the 16 existing live and archival releases, nor assorted ­compilations and soundtracks.

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Whatever their author writes, it’s hard not to perceive a financial motive behind his all-in bid to assert ownership. While no pricing scheme, or even launch date, has been confirmed for the archives, it seems inevitable either a one-off fee, or more likely a rolling subscription, will be paid to ­access this niche material. It may be akin to having a Spotify account to listen to the works of a single artist.

Young is a fitting subject for such an unprecedented project. Historically, he has displayed a ­perverse pleasure in the wilful curation of his commercially available output – ­he is renowned for scrapping several completed albums, refusing to reissue certain vintage LPs on CD, while instead cherry-picking unused archive material for release decades after it was recorded.

The most recent example is ­Hitchhiker, a shelved studio album from 1976 set to be made available for the first time in September – a timely taster of the gems likely to emerge when the archives goes live.

Cynics might point out that Young’s offbeat curational approach has done little to harm his bank balance. In the past decade, the musician has dug eight archived live albums from the vaults – stretching, so far, from 1970 to 1988 – as part of a planned 20-volume “Performance Series”.

The online project’s spiritual ­forefather was The Archives Vol. 1 1963-1972, a mammoth 10-DVD ­rarities collection housed in a lavish brick-like box, currently retailing for about Dh800 on Amazon (a slimmed down, audio-only, eight-CD ­version ­remains a comparative steal at Dh572).

Rumoured to be in the works for more than two decades before its eventual 2009 release, plans were in place for four further volumes – now ­presumably sidelined, consumed into the online archives project.

The intervening eight years have seen a sea change in the way we consume music – and Young’s ahead-of-the-curve technological embrace may prove a persuasive model to be ­replicated by any vintage act in ­possession of a sizeable back catalogue and loyal following.

Never before has an artist made such a loving, comprehensive bid to control the destiny of their recordings in the digital age; an age when unreleased material – and especially fan-­recorded live footage, often captured on smartphones – freely circulates on the internet, for free.

The battleground may be new, but the war is an old one. Fans have been making unauthorised recordings of artists for as long as tape recorders exist – at times, catching lightning in a bottle as history is made.

Amateur saxophonist Dean ­Benedetti made reams of live ­recordings of Charlie Parker in the 1940s and 1950s – meticulously capturing only the jazz pioneer’s solo improvisations, not whole song performances, to save tape (his tireless efforts were eventually made commercially available in 1990 via a seven-CD box set).

But it was in the 1970s when ­illegally pressed live recordings of A-list acts began to make a serious dent on record company profits. ­Amusingly, a video clip recently surfaced on ­YouTube of Young record shopping in 1972, berating the store staff when he finds unauthorised recordings of his own work in the racks. Even in his state, a business sense, or at least strong moral code, pierced Young’s youthful hippy streak.

It would be close to two decades later, in the height of the compact-disc era, that record labels seriously began to get their own back at the bootleggers.

Released in 1991, Bob Dylan’s ­pointedly titled The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961-1991 handily collated three decades of widely circulated studio out-takes for the first time.

Earning gold-record sales figures for what were previously discarded ­recordings, the release is credited with setting the industry trend of archive-digging to come. In 2015, the series rolled into its 12th edition with The Cutting Edge 1965-1966 – the full 18-disc version offered obsessive ­listeners no less than 20 different takes of the Dylan anthem Like a ­Rolling Stone.

Sony subsequently lavished the same honour on jazz legend Miles Davis, with four “Bootleg Series” multi-disc live box sets joining the label’s back catalogue of more than 20 “official” live albums.

Labelmate Bruce Springsteen made a late but hurried start to the live archive-digging game, with 16 albums emerging in his Archive Releases series in the past three years, the latest additions two previously lost ­recordings from an undocumented 1977 tour. The Boss’s studio out-takes have meanwhile been collected in ­numerous, luxurious box sets – ­starting with 1998’s Tracks – often ­devoted to commemorating the ­sessions of a single “classic” albums.

In each case, this old music is presented in lavish new packaging, ­bulging with “previously unseen” photos, scans of memorabilia and lyric sheets “from the vaults”.

They are uniformly beautiful ­products, with as much tactile joy as audio. Which is precisely why Young’s project could prove so precipitous. By relegating all the same curios to the digital realm, the archives ­curiously overlook the materialistic urges that haunt so many serious music ­collectors – and bypass the gift-­giving potential nostalgic that box sets ­wilfully exploit.

But one suspects that even the most ­consumeristic brand of Young fan will not go totally hungry. It seems no coincidence that, following ­earlier rumours, the physical release of Hitchhiker was confirmed on the same day Young’s archives project was announced. Then, two weeks later, five vintage Young albums from the 1970s enjoyed a fresh repressing on vinyl, the most nostalgic of formats.

Typically for Young, the messages are mixed – should we be looking forward or back? Perhaps all that truly matters is that, five decades later, we are still listening – and buying.

Go to www.neilyoungarchives.com. Hitchhiker is out on September 8