SXSW 2009: Neil Young’s archives, finally here and absolutely amazing

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For devoted followers of Neil Young–and, really, what rock fan with a modicum of taste isn’t?–the long-rumored, long, long-anticipated first installment of the singer and songwriter’s massive box-set career overview has been something of a Holy Grail–and quite possibly just as mythical.

But it’s here. It exists. (I’ve seen and touched it!) It’s a got a firm, no-kidding release date (June 2). And not only is it absolutely amazing, it quite possibly is a model for the only kind of recorded product that independent and chain stores alike will still be selling in the post-CD future.

For as long as I’ve been coming to SXSW, I’ve never seen a panel devoted to discussing a single new release. But then “Neil Young Archives, Vol. 1: 1963-1972” isn’t just any piece of product, and Saturday’s session and demonstration was more than just hype.

Quite simply, “Archives” is Young’s life in a box, with not only every studio album and every important concert he played during the first decade of his career (so long as they were captured in quality recordings), but every song he wrote and recorded, lavishly augmented with extensive histories, rare photos, the original hand-written lyrics, live concert, interview and behind-the-scenes video footage, recording notes, diary entries, postcards to his mom and just about anything and everything else he ever collected during his storied career.

Though the 10-disc box will be available as conventional CDs and DVDs, the ideal format is Blu-Ray, and panelists Elliott Roberts, Young’s legendary manager, and Larry Johnson, director of his Shakey Films company, said that, in addition to the artist’s infamous obsession with hi-fidelity, development of the Blu-Ray technology is what has delayed the release for so long. Young wanted a format that would not only allow his fans to simultaneously listen to the music while scanning all of the archival material from the relevant era–the high-tech version of lovingly lingering over a 12-inch album cover while listening to the tunes–but to connect via the Internet to receive even more material (newly unearthed photos or concert recordings, for example) as it comes to light in the future, with the result being a collection that is constantly updated shortly after the musician adds something to his own personal stash.

The Blu-Ray price tag is steep at $299, but it literally is complete-at least for the relevant time period. (And Roberts said he envisions 50 discs by the end of the project, 10 per decade for four more boxes, released every two or three years from this point forward.)

To encourage sales at old-fashioned, God bless ’em mom-and-pop record stores, Young’s team is providing retailers with posters and other incentives to drive walk-in traffic. And the model is one that could ensure that record stores still have something worthwhile to sell (in addition to newly resurgent vinyl pressings) even after CDs become extinct within the next five years, as almost every speaker at the conference has predicted.

After the session, Roberts noted that the technology the team has developed to make this kind of set possible is going to be made available to other artists, and the mind reels at the possibilities of similar all-encompassing collections from other giants who’d be worthy of the treatment–say, Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin or Brian Eno.

In short, this may be the biggest reason music obsessives could imagine for the economy to rebound as quickly as possible. Though truth be told, collections this great might even be worth forgoing inessential niceties such as food, clothing and the rent.

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