You Call the Tune
Hear an intriguing new song? With a tap or click it’s yours—thanks partly to MP3s.
By creating smaller audio files, MP3s helped make music instantly available and easily shared. You could download tunes from the internet and fit your collection on a pocket-size player.
MP3s transformed music distribution, creating industry winners and losers. But some questioned if we were sacrificing quality for convenience.
Instant, Cheap, and Portable
The ease and speed of downloading MP3 files revolutionized how people buy, listen to, and profit from music.
MP3s made it easy to purchase songs individually and cheaply (or trade them—often illegally). Portable devices let listeners carry entire collections with them.
But as online inventories grew, brick-and-mortar stores began to vanish, along with the industry’s traditional business model.
Left: By Caldorwards4 at English Wikipedia, GFDL 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons Right: d8nn/Shutterstock.com
Left-Tower Records, Portland, Oregon, 2006 Right-iPhone
MP3s gained popularity in the late 1990s as they spread over the growing internet. Digital music eventually put most brick-and-mortar music stores out of business.
More Choice...Less Chance
Traditional music shops offered limited inventories and hours. Few let you sample music before buying. Online stores, by contrast, have virtually infinite capacity. Popular or obscure, recent or vintage—it’s a click away, 24/7
Yet online shopping does limit one thing: chance discoveries, whether from a clerk’s quirky advice or eye-catching album covers
Left-October 1952 Decca Records catalog; September 1952 Columbia Records catalog Right-May 1919 Columbia Records catalog; July 1917 Columbia records catalog
Before online music stores, record companies published catalogs with their upcoming offerings. Customers could pick up their favorites at the local store. Columbia Records released catalogs on the 20th of each month.
Left: Photo by Nina Leen/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images Right: Courtesy of Amit Chowdhry
Left-Teenagers shop for the latest records, December 1, 1944 Right-Screenshot of The Beatles 2010 release on Apple iTunes, November 16, 2010
Before MP3s and digital storefronts made buying music a solo experience, sampling and purchasing music was often done with friends at the neighborhood record store.
Seeburg model 201 jukebox, ca. 1958, The Pontiac Grill, Santa Cruz, California (original location)
Downloadable music challenged the music industry. Then transformed it.
The challenge came from the ease of sharing (and stealing!) music, bypassing retailers. The transformation came from Apple’s sleek iPod players and iTunes store, which made Apple the world’s biggest music vendor…and squeezed publishers’ profits and artists’ royalties
Credit: Apple Computer Inc. v. Burst.com, Inc. California, Northern District Court, January 4, 2007
Court document citing the IXI digital audio system
IXI was an iPod-like device, developed by Kane Kramer and James Campbell in 1979. The plan was for customers to download songs from a virtual store. During a 2008 legal battle with other manufacturers, Apple acknowledged IXI as the first digital audio player.
Taylor Swift Tumblr letter to Apple, June 21, 2015
Many musicians protest that streaming services squeeze their income even further than iTunes. Taylor Swift’s letter to Apple got the company to back down from offering music royalty-free during a 90-day trial period.
MP3 Software Makers and Users
Can't Hear it? Don't Save it!
Travel is easier when you pack light, taking along only what you’ll use. MP3s use a similar principle.
In the pre-internet era, when huge file sizes didn’t matter, CDs offered high fidelity and hours of music. MP3s, by contrast, “pack light.” They discard tones too high or low for human ears to hear, or that are masked by other sounds.
Tricking Our Ears
MP3s fool our ears by discarding sounds that enter our ears…yet aren’t heard.
Hearing combines physical structures that capture sound waves, and neural systems that interpret them. Our brains suppress sounds that follow each other too closely, or are drowned out by louder sounds. MP3s exploit these psychoacoustic principles.
Derived from scienceaid.co.uk
Sound waves, frequency, and amplitude
As sound waves travel through the air, they cause air molecules to vibrate. Frequency refers to how often the air molecules vibrate. Short waves make them vibrate more frequently, producing high-pitched sounds. Amplitude is the intensity of the wave; taller waves sound louder.
Size vs. Sound
Your favorite delicious dish probably includes ingredients you don’t notice individually, yet which enhance the overall flavor. Is the same true of audio recordings?
MP3's “lossy compression” discards tones you’re unaware of. But some audiophiles argue that they’re not completely inaudible and that they enrich the overall sound.
Photo by Adam Berry/Getty Images
Optimal record plant in Roebel, Germany, February 11, 2015
In 2014 US consumers bought nine million vinyl records, up 52 percent from the same period the previous year. Companies like Optimal that kept their old pressing equipment are basking in the vinyl revival glow.
Russell Yip/San Francisco Chronicle/Polaris
Four Barrel Coffee, San Francisco, February 2, 2015
Vinyl records are making an unexpected comeback after almost disappearing in the early 2000s. The vinyl trend has made its way into cafes and public listening events. Hipster hangouts proudly display shelves of records and baristas take turns spinning their favorite albums.
Pono Player, 2015
Phoning It In
Could digital phone lines become a new medium to deliver on-demand music?
Karlheinz Brandenburg’s thesis advisor hoped so. In 1986 he challenged the German engineering student to compress music files sufficiently for delivery over digital phone lines. A week later, Brandenburg had developed the code that blossomed into MP3.
Courtesy Fraunhofer IIS
Audio team in 1987 (Brandenburg with headphones)
Brandenburg’s first MP3 patents were as a graduate student in 1986. But years of refinement lay ahead, with help from colleagues at Bell Labs and especially the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany. Brandenburg heads a laboratory there, at the Fraunhofer, where MP3 patents have earned the institute over $100 million.
While refining his MP3 code, Karlheinz Brandenburg heard Suzanne Vega’s hit “Tom’s Diner” playing on the radio. He realized that this a cappella song would be nearly impossible to compress successfully. Nearly.
“Tom’s Diner,” Brandenburg’s worst-case scenario, became his test song and Vega herself got dubbed the “Mother of the MP3.”
Suzanne Vega, Singer-Songwrite, Record Producer, “Mother of MP3”
Steal That Song!
Downloadable? Great. Stolen? Not so great—at least for music publishers.
Paralyzed by piracy fears, publishers couldn’t agree on a standard for online sales. Services like Napster.com filled the gap, letting users share millions of songs for free.
After industry lawsuits buried Napster, Apple’s iTunes satisfied demand with an affordable, legal alternative.
Joyce Naltchayan/AFP/Getty Images
Metallica's Lars Ulrich, July 11, 2000
Musicians Lars Ulrich and Dr. Dre sued Napster for copyright infringement, as did the Recording Industry Association of America. Not all musicians were upset—rapper Chuck D. defended Napster before Congress, and English band Radiohead credited Napster for its first US hit album.