They might sound like great song titles, but "21st Century Record Player," "Earth Storage" and "Thanks for Listening" aren't new Neil Young tunes. They're trademarks that the rocker recently filed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, Rolling Stone has found, and they indicate that Young is developing a high-resolution audio alternative to the MP3 format.
According to the filed documents, Young applied for six trademarks last June: Ivanhoe, 21st Century Record Player, Earth Storage, Storage Shed, Thanks for Listening and SQS (Studio Quality Sound). Included in the filing is a description of the trademarks: "Online and retail store services featuring music and artistic performances; high resolution music downloadable from the internet; high resolutions discs featuring music and video; audio and video recording storage and playback." The address on file corresponds to that of Vapor Records, Young's label. (Young's representatives declined Rolling Stone's request for comment.)
Young faces about a year of paperwork before the government will register his trademarks. Last week, they were approved for publication in a public journal for 30 days, a step that allows competitors to challenge Young if they find his registration harmful. The journal is set to be published later this month; if the trademarks face no opposition or snags, Young must then file documents detailing how he intends to use the trademarks, which the government could register as early as the holidays, according to the filing schedule.
A press release issued last September by Penguin Group imprint Blue Rider Press, which is publishing Young's upcoming memoir, may have revealed the working title of Young's entire project. In addition to the memoir, says the release, "Young is also personally spearheading the development of Pono, a revolutionary new audio music system presenting the highest digital resolution possible, the studio quality sound that artists and producers heard when they created their original recordings. Young wants consumers to be able to take full advantage of Pono's cloud-based libraries of recordings by their favourite artists and, with Pono, enjoy a convenient music listening experience that is superior in sound quality to anything ever presented."
Such a service would allow music fans to download audio files that sound like the studio recordings of the past, as opposed to the über-compressed song files that are currently available at MP3 stores like iTunes and Amazon. (When reached for comment, a Penguin Group representative directed Rolling Stone back to Young's publicist.)
Young has a history of paying close attention to audio quality. His 1968 debut LP was one of the first albums to be mixed with the short-lived Haeco-CSG technology, which improved the sound of stereo albums played on mono equipment. Young has also been heavily involved with the remixing and re-mastering of his catalogue for years.
In the last year, the rocker has also been increasingly vocal about his frustration with the sound quality of digital music. On January 31st, during an appearance at the D: Dive into Media conference in California, Young proposed that "some rich guy" should create "a modern-day iPod for the 21st Century" featuring studio-quality resolution. "When I started making records, we had a hundred percent of the sound," said Young. "And then you listen to it as an MP3 at the same volume – people leave the room. It hurts...It's not that digital is bad or inferior. It's that the way it's being used is not sufficient to transfer the depth of the art." According to Young, a typical download contains only five percent of the data that an original analogue recording master offers, and the average studio-quality audio file requires roughly 30 minutes to download because of its uncompressed size.
Young also said that he met with Apple CEO Steve Jobs before his death last fall, and that the two discussed the possibility of developing a device similar to an iPod that could store roughly 30 studio-quality albums. "We were working on it," said Young. "Steve Jobs was a pioneer of digital music. But when he went home, he listened to vinyl. And you've gotta believe that if he'd lived long enough, he would eventually have done what I'm trying to do."