How Neil Young’s Eccentric Online Home Was Born

January 8, 2020, 4:00 PM UTC
Neil Young

Neil Young mostly recorded his first masterpiece, 1970’s After the Gold Rush, in his Topanga Canyon basement, and nearly 50 years later, his monument to his life is being honed in a garage office in Pasadena.

This quirky project, the Neil Young Archives, cost “well over a million dollars” out of pocket, his late manager, Elliot Roberts, estimated last year. Earthy and tactile yet slightly surreal, it looks like an early computer game à la Myst. Most importantly—as Young is fond of saying—it “sounds like God.”

“Some people get right into it and others find it a little challenging the first couple of times,” Young’s technology assistant, Phil Baker, admits to Fortune. “But it’s all Neil. It’s his vision.” (Young was not available to comment for this piece.)

The archives began as a physical release series in 1989 and launched as a free website in 2017, before pivoting to a subscription service in 2019. The site contains Young’s entire catalog—from his 1963 single as part of the Squires, “Aurora,” to his 2019 album with Crazy Horse, Colorado—in the highest bit rate your system can handle. Soon, Young promises, his long-shelved 1975 album Homegrown will be revealed.

“I should have shared it. It’s actually beautiful,” he said about Homegrown in a post last month.

Like everything else on NYA, Homegrown will be streamable in the highest audio resolution your system can handle. This has been a long time coming—decades, even. In their 2019 memoir To Feel the Music, Young and Baker tell the story of how they’ve been trying to save high-resolution audio for years.

“High resolution = fine screen,” Young writes in the book. “Low resolution = chicken wire.”

The seeds were planted in 1989

The first Neil Young Archives release was a truncated 1970 show with Crazy Horse, 2006’s Live at the Fillmore East. Three years later, a much more expansive boxed set arrived: Archives, Vol. 1 (1963–1972), 10 Blu-rays, a DVD, and a CD that had been 20 years in the making.

Even Young found Archives, Vol. 1 cumbersome. “Those who got it went, ‘Holy shit, what is this thing? This is insane,’” he wrote in To Feel the Music. (At press time, a factory-sealed copy is hanging out on eBay for $995.95.)

Since then, Young has steadily put out Archives releases physically (the last few 1970s-era live albums: 2018’s Roxy: Tonight’s the Night Live and Songs for Judy, and 2019’s Tuscaloosa.) But he’s always been unhappy with the limited audio quality of CDs, MP3s, and Spotify. Seven years ago, he tried to fix the problem himself.

The rise and fall of Pono

In 2012, Young told his label, Warner Music Group, that he wanted to create a high-resolution music player and download service, using a DAC (digital-to-analog converter) system to restore the luster of good vinyl.

Despite preferring high-resolution music on his own time, Steve Jobs wouldn’t integrate it into Apple devices, citing a lack of demand. Young felt this was harmful to music and began publicly calling the audio “compromised.” “You’ve got to believe that if he’d lived long enough, he’d do what I’m trying to do,” Young said soon after Jobs’ death. (In life, Jobs was furious about Young’s anti-Apple crusade: “Fuck Neil Young, and fuck his records.”)

Young wanted his music player to support 24-bit, 192 kHz files, which is leaps and bounds beyond CD quality (16-bit, 44.1 kHz)—and to some naysayers, too high quality, surpassing what the ear is capable of hearing. But as Baker lays out in To Feel the Music, the pair have basic scientific truth on their side—by its nature, an analog master contains more information than a lossy digital file. 

To get his idea off the ground, Young recruited entrepreneur Mark Goldstein, software engineer Jason Rubenstein, and industrial designer Mike Nuttall. He also called up Baker, a veteran hardware developer who worked for everyone from Atari to Polaroid, designed gadgets like Apple’s PowerBook 1400 and the Stowaway folding keyboard, and wrote From Concept to Consumer, a 2008 book on how to develop products and bring them to market.

“It seemed quite interesting to me,” Baker wrote in To Feel the Music. “Of course, anything would seem interesting when it might involve working with Neil Young.”

Neil Young
Young’s quest to preserve high resolution audio included music player Pono.

Young has always been a techie at heart, captivated by classic cars and cutting-edge gadgets. In 1990 he began kicking around an idea called “DiscoChron—The Chronology of Music,” a “visual way to look at music in the context of time” that looks and works like a pinball machine. Four years later, Young cocreated Trainmaster Command Control, a mobile electronic system for model railroads, and made a website about his hobby under the name “Clyde Coil.” One section, the Hi-Rail Times, is a silly faux-newspaper sloganed “All the news that’s rail.”

Pono was his more high-profile—and high-stakes—concept to date, but it had a rough ride from design to shipment.

As Young’s recording and touring schedule took him away from his corporate duties, Pono’s company, PonoMusic, cycled through prospective CEOs, eventually finding its man in Silicon Valley investor John Hamm in 2013. Company partner Bob Stuart of Meridian Audio never delivered promised memory-saving software, according to Baker, leaving the team in the lurch.

Pono also needed to build an online storefront from the ground up—fast. (Baker compared this to “creating iTunes in six months.”) Despite a successful Kickstarter campaign and early enthusiasm from users, some of the reviews were less than kind. 

Ars Technica called it “a tall, refreshing drink of snake oil.” 

“Buying a Pono means paying for sounds you’ll never hear,” Slate claimed in 2015. 

In May 2016, as outlined in To Feel the Music, the back end of the Pono store, Omniphone, filed for bankruptcy—and a month later, Apple bought it up and ordered it to shut down all operations. In December 2017, Pono shut down.

“I may end up going to my grave and be banging my head against my gravestone trying to get somebody to understand about what’s happening to music!” Young wrote in To Feel the Music.

Young relents on streaming

All through PonoMusic’s ups and downs, former board member Gigi Brisson had suggested a pivot to streaming. At the time, Young wouldn’t budge, a decision he later regretted.

“That was one of my biggest mistakes, not listening to Gigi,” he wrote in To Feel the Music. “She was not limited by her technical knowledge and recognized that high-res streaming would be of huge value…I was blind to that.”

During Pono’s tailspin, one of its software engineers, Kevin Fielding, bent Young’s ear about Orastream, a Singaporean high-res audio service that pioneered adaptive streaming, which detects the limitations of the listener’s audio system and sends the highest possible bitrate.

Young invested out of pocket to keep Orastream going and worked with its engineers to make alterations, calling the new version XStream. (Later, he renamed it “XStream by NYA,” inspired by Beats by Dr. Dre.) While banging his head against the wall trying to drum up XStream interest from executives, Young had an epiphany. 

“Why not use it on just my own music to show that it could be done?” he wrote in To Feel the Music. “High resolution could be streamed, and I could prove it on my own turf, with my own music.”

The Neil Young Archives website is born

In 2016, Young began developing the Neil Young Archives website with project leader and archivist Hannah Johnson and Toshi Onuki, a Tokyo-based art director.

“I’m responsible for the look and feel of the site and app,” Onuki tells Fortune. “I pretty much touched every single corner of the site.” 

Early on, Young asked Onuki to make NYA “[not] look like a website.” Onuki was forced to break basic rules of user interfaces and experiences and saturate the site with graphics. Coated in vivid browns and beiges, the site is the online equivalent of a comfortable leather boot.

“I have to say that Neil’s approach is not conventional,” Onuki says. 

Neil Young Archives
Young requested that the Neil Young Archives “[not] look like a website.”
Neil Young Archives

Then it all had to work on mobile. “Figuring out how best to represent that information on a small screen, as well as make it intuitive, was very challenging,” Scott Andrew, the founder of New Wave Digital Media, tells Fortune. (He ultimately had to skip the site’s file cabinet visual, info cards, and user playlists for Android and iOS.)

Neil Young Archives was originally programmed by A Different Engine (A.D.E.), a Berkeley-based web application design firm that joined on a “friend of a friend” basis via Onuki. “I just came into work, and that was what I got to do,” A.D.E.’s former engineer, Jason Aeschliman, tells Fortune. “Which was amazing.”

A Different Engine was asked to incorporate anachronistic physical machines, like switches, needle-dials, and a keyhole, and realistic paper and metal textures throughout the UI. There are few images that Young, who was born in 1945, wouldn’t recognize as a child.

“We designed NYA with images of real analog objects I grew up with that I can relate to,” Young wrote in To Feel the Music. “I know it’s a throwback. I am too.”

“But,” he stressed, “the real meat is the sound.” 

Pull any Young album from the file cabinet, flick a realistic-looking switch between its “320 [kbps]” and “master” settings, and hear the difference for yourself.

Since the 1970s, Young has directed idiosyncratic movies under the name Bernard Shakey. NYA’s Hearse Theater, which plays concert films and documentaries on a schedule, represents this side of him. At press time, the feature presentation is Hometown, a documentary of a Young 2017 solo concert directed by wife Daryl Hannah under the name “dhlovelife.”

A.D.E. programmed the Archives website up to the point of its paywall. “The winds can change quickly on that project,” Mike Ryan, the founder of A.D.E., tells Fortune. “They were expecting fairly low profit from [launching the subscription service], but we got 200,000 sign-ups in the first 48 hours.”

“I think the popularity of it has blown everybody away,” Gordon Smith, the company’s executive producer, tells Fortune. (A Different Engine is no longer involved with Neil Young Archives.)

Today, NYA is run by roughly half a dozen employees who work remotely or in “a couple of offices,” including the Pasadena location, according to Baker. 

“We’re focusing on finding the archive material, cataloging it, and putting it onto the website,” Baker says. “It’s just a lot of curation that goes on day-to-day.”

‘A newspaper life’

Perhaps foreshadowed by the Hi-Rail Times, Neil Young Archives sports the NYA Times-Contrarian, a cranky newspaper focusing on music and politics. And, yes, Young usually plugs the copy into the site’s back end himself.

“I know someone that helps him occasionally, but for the most part…” Baker tells Fortune, trailing off with a laugh. “There’s no hierarchy behind it. It’s Neil.”

In his paper, Young keeps fans abreast of new Archives releases, wrings out his environmental anxieties, and writes touching tributes for loved ones, like his ex-wife, Pegi Young, and manager Roberts, who both died in 2019.

Besides, journalism runs in the family: His father, Scott Young, was a prolific Canadian novelist and sportswriter who wrote over 45 books as well as articles for Sports Illustrated, The Saturday Evening Post, The Globe and Mail, and other publications. 

“I spend a lot of time on [the TimesContrarian],” Young writes in To Feel the Music. “Perhaps living my father’s dream of a newspaper life.”

New tiers

These days, Young is thinking of putting out everything in the can at once. Last year an anonymous fan wrote a letter to the Times-Contrarian about their “Uncle Eddie,” concerned that the ailing 76-year-old won’t live to hear all of the music.

“He wants to know why you don’t just put all this material out now. Just dump it all out on the NYA website,” they entreated. “He wants you to know that he can’t buy it if he’s dead.”

“That really bums me out,” Young wrote in response. “I have been talking with our team about releasing them all here in 2020.” (This wouldn’t just mean Homegrown, but other shelved solo and Crazy Horse albums, like 1976’s Chrome Dreams, 2000’s Toast, and 2012’s Alchemy.)

“He wants to accelerate the release of a lot of content,” Baker says. “He’s got lots of people working on it in the studio and the archivists working full time.” At press time, they’re thinking of creating a special “Uncle Eddie” tier, or boiling everything into one tier for a slightly higher price.

A ripple effect

In the long run, Young wants the Archives to be more than a curiosity shop, a memory box, a time capsule. Eventually, he sees the whole planet as preserving its music like this.

“Sometimes I imagine NYA as the first step to a World Music Archives,” he wrote in To Feel the Music. “WMA Universal, WMA Warner Brothers, WMA Sony, WMA Blue Note, WMA Vanguard, WMA Folkways, each with their own little place…wouldn’t that be nice?”

A look inside the Neil Young Archives.
Neil Young Archives

In the now, the music industry is quietly catching up with Young.

“He’s been influencing the streaming world,” Dan Hesse, the former CEO of Sprint who’s credited as a “sage” on the NYA site, tells Fortune. “Tidal came out with a higher resolution—still not high resolution—but higher. Then Qobuz came out with even higher still. And then the big gorilla, Amazon, came out with high-definition streaming music.” (Young appeared in an ad for Amazon Music HD in 2019.)

Shouldn’t “the big gorilla” and its ilk be seen as competitors? “Neil doesn’t think so,” Hesse says. “Neil couldn’t be more thrilled to see the ‘competitors’ bring the music to everybody. That’s why he’s doing it.”

“He was way ahead of the curve, spreading the gospel, the good news about 24-bit audio,” Dan Mackta, the managing director of Qobuz, tells Fortune. “Neil Young Archives is the realization of his dream. All he can do is put together the ultimate service with what he controls.”

“He’s demonstrating with the Archives that you can stream high-res,” Hesse says.

In “Driftin’ Back,” a 27-minute jam with Crazy Horse from 2012’s Psychedelic Pill, Young addresses how bad resolution affects his art. “When you hear my song now, you only get 5%,” he sings.

“You used to get it all!” he continues. “You used to get it all!”

But at the dawn of a new decade, Young fans are finally “getting it all”—and then some. Run your credit card, rifle through some yellowing documents, and crank a good set of headphones—and you’ll grasp the essence of a true giant.

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