On Christmas Day 2021, Neil Young released an album called Summer Songs exclusively via the Neil Young Archives—the quirky, glitchy, and ultimately awesome subscription streaming service he launched four years earlier. A previously unreleased collection of solo piano and guitar performances from Young’s mysterious era in the late 1980s, the record felt like a gift from the 76-year-old artist, hand-delivered to his most devoted fans. It arrived just weeks after his new studio album with Crazy Horse, which itself arrived just months after a new double live album from his most celebrated period.
Even before he removed his music from Spotify this week, in defiance of the streaming giant’s support of podcaster Joe Rogan and his COVID misinformation, Young’s freewheeling vision stood apart from his peers. Take Bob Dylan, whose archival work arrives in reliable, annual installments of the Bootleg Series; or Bruce Springsteen, whose obsessive approach sometimes involves re-recording vintage material to meet his present-day standards. (All three artists have recently sold their catalog rights to large conglomerates. It will be interesting to see how these deals affect their releases going forward.)
Compared to other legacy acts, being a Neil Young fan can feel like being invited into his home, where you can sort through the catalog, listen to his stories, and find the gems for yourself. It’s been a long time since he carried himself like a mainstream artist, if he ever did. Young has always expressed skepticism toward the industry status quo, instead following his insular, independent vision—even at the risk of challenging, or losing, his audience. Had he not invested the past decade into his own personal streaming service, Young might have felt just as at home becoming Bandcamp’s prolific poster child.
In other words, Young doesn’t need Spotify—in the same way he didn’t need MP3s (“Download this/Sounds like shit,” went a line from 2009’s “Fork in the Road”), iPods (Pono anybody?), or even CDs. When I was first becoming acquainted with Young’s music in the early 2000s, I was unable to hear what many fans considered his greatest album, 1974’s On the Beach, which for decades he refused to release on CD. I didn’t own a record player, and I was yet to find my way around MP3 blogs, so I just had to wait. (The previous year’s Time Fades Away, another personal favorite, has still not officially arrived on the format.)
Back then, I might have longed for something like Spotify, where I could access an artist’s entire catalog without ever having to leave my house. This was also Young’s dream for a while. “Technology is supposed to make life better for everyone,” he wrote, 10 years ago, in his memoir Waging Heavy Peace, suggesting that wider access to music wasn’t the problem—it was the compromised sound quality, and how the wrong people were making money. With his statement this week, Young escalates his grievances—to his mainstream audience, he is now framing Spotify as not just the latest extension of a morally bankrupt music industry, but also as a willing vessel for harmful misinformation. And so he began developing an alternative: “I believe in what I am trying to do and that good karma will come from it,” he wrote in his memoir. “It’s just a matter of time.”
His vision, then called PureTone, first saw life as Pono, which evolved into something called Xstream, and now exists as the Neil Young Archives. Is it the viable, utopian alternative to Spotify he described? Probably not. Because of his vast resources, it’s hard to imagine any other artists willfully abandoning traditional streaming for this kind of self-sustained method. But it also suits an artist like Young, who continues to work at his own haphazard pace, in his own world. In a recent Rolling Stone interview promoting his latest album Barn, Young unsurprisingly revealed he’s got another 10 songs ready to go—not to mention, you know, the science fiction book, the film projects, or the Archives III box set. And since he has no interest in performing live until he can be sure his concerts are COVID-safe, he’s got nothing but time.
So, in the spirit of Neil, please allow me a brief tangent. Back in September, I saw Yo La Tengo play one of my first pandemic-era shows at a Brooklyn venue called TV Eye. The set was droney and jammy and rad; the room was smaller than where they generally play; a couple near me was banging into everyone, wilding out like it was the dancefloor at their own anniversary party. Near the end of the set, the band broke into a thrashy, catchy cover of a song about the music industry. “That’s why we don’t wanna be good,” they shouted in the chorus.
It took a minute to place it. And then I realized, of course, it was Neil Young’s “Prisoners of Rock’n’Roll,” from a 1987 album with Crazy Horse called Life. I wanted to listen on the subway home, so I checked Tidal—the streaming service I’ve been using since 2016 because, at the time, it was the only one that had Neil Young’s music. Then I remembered that he was feuding with Tidal, due to their use of the term “masters” to advertise his releases: “If TIDAL referred to their titles as TIDAL MASTERS, I would have no problem,” he explained last year, “but they don’t… I had my music removed from that platform. They are not my masters.”
As a prank, however, he allowed Tidal to keep a select bundle of releases, all from his divisive period of genre experiments in the ’80s—at the time, its own statement toward an industry that tried to box him in. I scrolled to Life and pressed play on “Prisoners of Rock’n’Roll,” which sounded more celebratory and righteous than I remembered. “We don’t want to be watered down,” he shouts over the band. “Takin’ orders from record company clowns.” Since then, he has put his whole catalog back on Tidal and waged at least half a dozen other battles. But the message rings true: “Soon my music will live on in a better place,” he announced with this week’s Spotify decision, and the key word is “live”—that is to say, always in motion, burning on.