In the ever-changing world of digital advances, the question and viability of how to preserve, enhance and share one’s music continues to be a conundrum for artists. From box-sets to anniversary concerts, documentaries to reissues, everyone is looking to find new ways to monetise their back catalogues. In recent years, the Neil Young Archives website has become an online gold standard.
Neil Young has long been a proponent of both technological advancements – in train sets, his brief mid-80s foray into electronically generated sounds (Trans), his PONO digital music player and his Blu-ray enhanced physical Archives box sets. At the core of it all he prizes and promotes the sonic quality of the music he records – both on vinyl and as high resolution digital files. At some point he and a team of web experts tackled the challenge of merging high quality music with a comprehensive, user-friendly web interface that covered all corners of his career, both musically and visually. The result is his hugely impressive Neil Young Archives website.
In the mid 2000s Young began releasing his Performance Series oflive concerts from the 1960s and 1970s, before the first massive box set The Archives Vol. 1 1963–1972 was released in 2009. Those releases set Young’s restless, forward-thinking mind in motion. The digital release of his music in high resolution and the desire to find an alternative to the MP3 and online streaming spurred on the development and release of his PONO player in 2014. It was a piece of hardware which was maligned by some but also celebrated by many audiophiles and hardcore NY fans. It had a short-lived life after the company that was running the store, Omnifone, was purchased by Apple in 2016. As he always does, Young saw that the future was online and pivoted to the development of the NYA site, which undertook a BETA test in 2018 before its official launch.
When you first arrive at the site, it quickly becomes clear how comprehensive the experience is to the user. For the casual fan, they can stream their favourite songs via the Timeline or Cabinet – a virtual filing cabinet in keeping with Young’s love of vintage music gear, cars and his homespun aesthetic. Find an album, listen to its song, read the credits and peruse historical documents and photos relating to the release. It’s a one-stop record store, library and museum. The near 60 year back catalogue covers his early band The Squires as well as Buffalo Springfield, CSNY, the legacy of Crazy Horse, various collaborations and of course his many solo releases.
Now featuring different subscriber tiers, the site has expanded to include documentary and concert films, pandemic home performances, features on his LincVolt electric car project and much more. The granular detail and the way NYA is so successfully at connecting visitors directly to Young is best exemplified by his NYA Times-Contrarian section. A virtual newspaper, it publishes Letters To The Editor with replies from Young himself; many of these letters have contributed to the development of the site, leading to the inclusion of unreleased live performances and Young’s new Offical Bootleg series. There are deep dives into albums, concert memories from Young and his producers and engineers, sub-sections on science, BLM, tech, religion, art and more. It’s become a living, breathing digital ecosystem and by accounts NYA is the biggest archival site dedicated to and operated by any major recording artist.
Young has expressed hope that other major artists will take his lead, and even use the same technology to construct their own wide-ranging online library, record store and newspaper where the control of how their music is presented is firmly in their own hands. As artists from the golden age of the 1960s and 70s reach their twilight years, the future and legacy of their music is more than ever at a critical stage. Neil Young has created an artist-driven, best-practice template that benefits the artist and their fans and one suspects he isn’t finished yet.