Since the 1980s, Neil Young has been telling fans he is close to releasing an exhaustive, interactive archive of music, photographs, video footage and other material from his storied career. The project achieved legend status, not for the music it contains but because it has never appeared, despite Young's periodic promises. Young attributed the delays to technical shortcomings and sound-quality problems in media ranging from CD-ROMs to DVDs.
Last week, he announced his most concrete plans yet for the long-awaited project, using a medium few people can play and fewer still associate with music: Blu-ray.
Mr. Young's first, five-disc installment is due this fall, and is to cover his career from 1963 to 1972.
Among the memorabilia and artifacts to be digitally reproduced are letters from Young to his parents while on tours with his first band, the Squires, and business records. Some gigs in bars and high-school gyms around Canada paid the Squires as little as 10 Canadian dollars apiece.
Larry Johnson, the project's producer, says the first installment is to include about 128 songs, 18 of them never released before. There are to be 200 photographs, 160 lyrics manuscripts and more. Among the 90 articles and reviews are some less-than-favorable ones.
Young has long been one of the audiophiles, including Bob Dylan, who complain about the sound quality of CDs, saying it is inferior to that of vinyl records and the reel-to-reel tape still used in some recording studios. Young's "Archives" is the first major use of Blu-ray as an audio medium. (Other performers, including Céline Dion and Shakira, have released concert videos on Blu-ray.)
Even DVDs, which theoretically offer higher-quality sound than CDs, have drawbacks, Young said last week. "It wasn't really quite good enough. You couldn't go through the archival materials and listen to the high-res music at the same time, which is what I thought that most of my users would want to do." Blu-ray's audio "sampling rate," a key factor in digital-sound quality, is more than four times higher than that of a standard CD.
Larry Johnson, who has worked with Young since the two met at Woodstock, says Youngr talks of "Archives" as a near compulsion. Thanks to his love-hate relationship with technology, Young has obsessed over the project for years but had been unwilling or unable to complete it. "When we get it out," Johnson says, "he won't have to think about it anymore."
In Blu-ray, Mr. Young found a medium that resolved his two main problems, thanks to higher-quality audio and an animated, on-screen interface he says is "sort of like a videogame." The format addresses other issues, too. For instance, a purportedly exhaustive undertaking like "Archives" is bound to leave out material that surfaces later, or for which there isn't room. Thanks to a feature called BD-Live, Young and his collaborators can add material later, via Internet download, which can be stored on a hard drive in the Blu-ray player itself, where it will appear to a user as though it were part of the disc.
Still, not many fans own Blu-ray players. There are around six million Blu-ray players in North America, more than half of them in the Sony PlayStation 3 videogame systems. (That's equal to 0.8% of the 750 million CD players, including those built into PCs, in North American homes and vehicles.
Peter Standish, senior vice president for marketing at Reprise and its sister label, Warner Bros., says the company is working out how best to balance Young's concern with sound quality against the reality that few consumers can listen to Blu-ray discs. "We want to do right by Neil and by his fans," Standish says. "We're still formulating a decision" about whether and when to release the set on DVD and CD. As for plans to issue Blu-ray music releases for other artists, the executive adds, "It hasn't come up yet, but why not?"
The track record for physical music formats that purport to improve on CDs has been mixed at best, even as digital downloading has taken off. An alphabet soup of would-be successors have come and mostly gone without making a commercial dent. It's unclear whether a Blu-ray music disc can gain traction where SACD, HDCD, CDVU-Plus, DualDisc and DVD-A have not.
Young's collaborators say they are at work on volumes two through five of "Archives." Among the gems set for inclusion in the second volume is footage of Young jamming in a Northern California Chinese restaurant/nightclub with an early incarnation of the band Devo.
The footage includes some of the "warts" the rocker has opted to leave in. Devo's punked-out fans, apparently unimpressed by Young's legendary status, mocked him with a play on his name, according to Johnson, who filmed the episode. He recalls with a laugh that they welcomed Mr. Young to the stage chanting, "Real Dung!" (info & photos from The Wall Street Journal
Friday, May 16, 2008
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