Steve Jobs vs. Neil Young
Updated: Sep 22, 2020
How uncompromising focus on customer value trumped artistic purity.
I love Neil Young. His face should be on Canadian currency. There are very few musical artists who have shared the sustained relevancy he has shown for over 5 decades. Still able to draw massive interest, he is a master in his field. As with many uniquely talented individuals, he is known for being somewhat cantankerous and difficult to work with…not unlike the reputation of Apple’s late CEO, Steve Jobs. Jobs’ legacy of human-centred design drives many of the innovations we’ve seen in the past decade. The experience you get from Apple products can be as powerful as a live performance of Down by The River. They make you forget what came before them.
This story is a reflection on what happens when two unstoppable forces of pop culture collide, owning two very different viewpoints. Neil Young, the musical purist driven by giving crowds an exceptional performance. Steve Jobs, the marketing master, focused on delivering what the crowd intrinsically values.
Dawn of Digital
Let’s go back to the early 1990s, at the dawn of a .MP3 craze that transformed the music industry. Neil Young was (and still is, I suspect) a powerful advocate for uncompressed, high-fidelity music as close to analog as possible. As an artist, he saw the digitization music of Apple’s iPod and iTunes as anathema to his worldview. He relentlessly (and sometimes publicly) lobbied Apple to improve the quality of recordings and components within the Apple music ecosystem.
But Jobs was playing to a different tune. Under his leadership, Apple was revolutionizing the accessibility of music, which he saw as much more highly valued by consumers than a mostly imperceptible improvement in sound quality. Young thought we needed better fidelity, whereas Jobs knew we wanted easier access.
Young thought we needed higher-fidelity, whereas Jobs knew we wanted easier access.
The debate between the two mavericks got ugly, as chronicled in Becoming Steve Jobs (Schlender/Tetzeli). Young, sensing that an olive branch needed to be extended, cheekily gifted a remastered vinyl collection of his entire body of work to Jobs. When Schlender, a journalist, asked Jobs for comment on the gift, Jobs responded “F*ck Neil Young, and f*ck his records.” Indeed.
Jobs responded "F*ck Neil Young, and f*ck his records.”
Shockingly, this pleasant dialog didn’t resolve into a meeting of the minds. Before his death, Jobs had completed his master stroke, having revolutionized the music industry from the outside. Young licked his wounds.
Perhaps in an attempt to prove himself right, Young launched his own Kickstarter-funded ecosystem of high-fidelity bliss through a short-lived endeavour known as PonoMusic.
The public responded to Pono with a whimpered “Meh”, and the service quietly folded in 2017. (See P.S., below)
A Difference That Matters
What iTunes and digital music have shown is that giving the customer what they want, where they want, and when they want can be more valued than the product itself.
...giving the customer what they want, where they want, and when they want can be more valued than the product itself.
Even iTunes itself has since pivoted, from on-demand purchases to all-you-can-hear streaming. The pervasiveness and ubiquity of today’s online music has shown how an outsider could teach new tricks to a mature establishment who thought they knew better.
The irony of describing Neil Young as ‘establishment’ is not lost on me.
The audiophile industry (a personal passion) is renowned for highly-disputable claims of sonic superiority – I’m talking to you, $20,000 cryogenically-treated speaker cables. Snake Oil is everywhere. Repeated studies have shown even music industry veterans could not discern the supposedly ‘better’ playback from higher-fidelity music formats. While perhaps an oscilloscope can show a difference, the human ear simply cannot. Turns out we are not a sensitive instrument. Test for yourself here.