This is not the type of book that we usually review at the Singapore Review of Books.
Questionable literary merits aside, To Feel the Music, is a challenge to categorise – indeed possibly difficult to find a market for, outside of the core of Neil Young fans, as witness his two previous, similarly rambling (not droning, we might hasten to add) though far less genre-bending books, Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream (2012) and Special Deluxe: A Memoir of Life & Cars (2014).
Like those last two, To Feel the Music, is a memoir of sorts, although it is one co-written with Phil Baker – technology and electronics developer – Young’s partner in the failed audio technology business that is the central subject of the book. In fact, Baker writes more of the chapters than his headlining co-author does. Still, one mustn’t quibble.
Part business case study, part tech manual, and part crusader’s manifesto, To Feel the Music is not exactly the sum of its parts. Yet, in its quaintness, the book has a kind of appeal for those with some passing familiarity with some of its main concerns: technology has killed the audio quality of music; technology can save the audio quality of music.
The book extends Neil Young’s legendary fight to preserve the audio integrity of recorded music. It details this quest through his venture into creating and selling Pono, a music player meant to rival portable devices such as the iPod, using technology that far surpasses the industry convention of MP3 and AAC formats.
Young’s argument has all along been that, with the advent of digital technology – particularly with the ascendance of the Compact Disc, the data-isation of music had traded off sound quality for the blandness of technological homogeneity. This was made worse by (at least up to only a few years ago) capacity-limited streaming processes through the internet.
To him, digital sound is an affront to the listener’s senses, and cheapens the entire process from music making to music consumption.
The book alternates between these invectives against music labels and other culprits in the business – that now includes, to Young, tech giants such as Apple and even Amazon (the latter about whom Young has since changed his opinion, after the company announced its high-quality streaming service, Amazon Music HD) – and some very detailed and intricate discussions about audio technology. The latter, fronted by Phil Baker and more controlled, sets a counterpoint to Neil Young’s more polemical tones.
To their credit, the two writers’ collective efforts do not alienate the reader despite the rather niche subject matter. It helps that their ear for a conversational manner means also that their ability to water down the technical jargon sustains the attention.
It also helps that the story of a failed business, with all its lessons of how not to run a tech start-up, is filled with so much drama, so much comically bad decisions and worse timings, but so much passion, that we find ourselves willing a miracle for Pono despite what we may already know of its ultimate demise.
Is all of this – the book, the raging against digital sounds – a vanity project? Is the rock star acting out of a sense of entitlement?
Certainly, there has to be some hubris that stems from someone with the means to achieve his vision. There is also a kind of odd nostalgia involved in trying to return the arguably subjective experience of sound quality to the good old days of analogue – which is the logical conclusion of Young’s argument. This is helped in no small way by his rigidity and refusal (at least up to the Pono setback) to accept that there is more than one way to engage with technology as far as sound resolution is concerned.
But we forgive an old man his little quirks and indulgences. After all, his intentions are well placed.
And it helps that his strong beliefs are validated by the changes of heart by the tech companies: the aforementioned Amazon Music HD, as well as Apple’s Digital Masters, all announced around the same time that To Feel the Music was published. Of course, these come at a time when the costs of producing, maintaining and consumption of high quality digital products have become truly affordable.
But Neil Young has shown them how to do that first.
Unfazed by Pono’s failure, he and Baker continued in their search for a viable way to make very high audio quality music available to fans. This, they found in a little known company called OraStream who shares Young’s vision of saving music from audio purgatory. OraStream’s technology (Young names his version of this XStream by NYA) provides adaptive streaming that can adjust to the speed and bandwidth of the listener’s computer network. What it means is that, regardless of the quality of tech, the best quality of audio will always be available, up to the highest fidelity available – that is to say as close to the original source product, recorded with the best available studio equipment opted by the musicians, as they are intended. This was Neil Young’s original mission, and with OraStream, which he piloted using his entire Neil Young Archive (NYA), he has probably come as close as he ever will to success.
Oh, and OraStream is a Singaporean company, so you can see why we were so drawn to this story. You are welcome, world.
File under: Special Interest
Neil Young and Phil Baker. To Feel the Music: A Songwriter’s Mission to Save High-Quality Audio. Dallas, Texas: BenBella Books, 2019.
Lim Lee Ching