Neil Young, who was right in the middle of the Woodstock revolution, has always tried to retain his hippie state of mind, relying heavily on the collective spirit rather than that of the individual. By the 1980s, however, that idea had all but evaporated as consumerism swept through the music industry.
In recent years, even Young has conceded to the notion that the economics of music has changed, and, as a result, he has stubbornly adapted to the new landscape. In the age of streaming, making money through album sales isn’t even applicable to astronomical talents like Shakey. In 2021, Young cashed in by selling 50% of his back catalogue in a deal worth $150million, offering the clearest indication yet of his change in mentality.
There was a time when it was unthinkable to hear a Bob Dylan song soundtracking a television advertisement, and now it doesn’t even raise an eyebrow. During the ’80s, artists truly began looking elsewhere for additional financial incomce, and it didn’t sit right with Young seeing his peers associate themselves with the corporate world.
At the very same time, Eric Clapton was subsiding his income by flogging Michelob beer, a decision that Young decided to parody through his music video for ‘This Note’s For You’. Elsewhere on the track, Young pokes fun at Michael Jackson and international conglomerates including Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and Budweiser.
‘This Note’s For You’ was Young’s lighthearted way of taking the piss out of his contemporaries for what he perceived as selling their souls — and it landed the Canadian in hot water as MTV refused to air the video. In a moment of anger, Young wrote to the broadcaster and said: “MTV, you spineless twerps. You refuse to play ‘This Note’s For You’ because you’re afraid to offend your sponsors. What does the ‘M’ in MTV stand for: music or money? Long live rock and roll.”
Fortunately, the letter had the desired effect, and MTV saw the error in their ways. Ironically, the video even surpassed Michael Jackson to win the ‘Video Of The Year’ award at the 1989 MTV Awards. Young later admitted during an interview with Village Voice Rock and Roll Quarterly that he considered turning down the award, given his outspoken nature. However, instead, he thought “that’s almost the predictable thing to do. You can’t get money to make videos if MTV won’t play them. In accepting the award I thought I’d be able to make more videos and get ’em played.”
Although he has now sold the rights to half of his back catalogue, Young is still very particular about the brands he chooses to align himself with. In 2019, when he and Bob Dylan performed a joint co-headline show at London’s Hyde Park, Young forced promoters of the British Summer Time festival to remove Barclaycard as a sponsor from the event because of their links to the fossil fuel industries.
Unlike many ageing rockstars, Young still has a fierce moral compass that is recognisable to his younger self, and long may it continue.