When MP3 was young

In early 2000 I got a call from a producer at Fresh Air, asking if I’d like to contribute some technology commentary. Fresh Air is, to my mind, one of the very best shows on radio, so yes, I was excited. For my tryout, I wrote a brief piece about this newfangled thing called MP3 that was just beginning to gain popularity. We’d been covering the MP3 scene at Salon since 1998, but it was still a novelty to much of the American public. I went down to KQED and recorded it. As far as I knew everyone liked it. But it never aired. I had four-month-old twins at home and a newsroom to manage at work. I forgot all about it.

In a recent file-system cleanup I came across the text of the piece and reread it, and thought it stood up pretty well. The picture it presents — of a future for music in which its enjoyment is divorced from the physical delivery system — has now largely come to pass. But at the time I was writing, the iPod was 18 months or so in the future; the iTunes store even farther out; the “summer of Napster” still lay ahead; and the record labels’ war on their own customers was still in the reconaissance phase.

Here it is — a little time capsule from a bygone era, looking forward at the world we live in today:

The phonograph I had as a kid played records at four different speeds. 33 was for LPs, 45 was for singles. There were two other speeds, 16 and 78, but I had no idea what they were for — they made singers on regular LPs sound like they’d sunk to the ocean floor or swallowed helium. Later I learned that the 78 speed was for heavy old disks, mostly from the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s; I’m still not clear what 16 was all about.

These old-fashioned playing speeds represented what, in today’s era of rapid obsolescence, we’d call “legacy platforms” — outmoded technologies that are no longer in wide use. The phonograph itself became a “legacy platform” in the 1980s with the advent of the compact disk. Now it’s the CD’s turn, as the distribution of music begins to move onto the Internet.

Music consumers today, led as always by college students, are beginning to distinguish between music itself and the physical object we use to store the sounds. Once upon a time, “having” the latest album by the Beatles meant owning 12 inches of vinyl in a cardboard sleeve. More recently, if I said I “have” the new R.E.M. album I meant I owned five inches of plastic and aluminum. Today, though, “having” a new music release is beginning to mean something as vague as having a particular file on your computer’s hard drive.

There are lots of competing schemes for distributing music files online. By far the most widely used is the MP3 format. For popular music, MP3 sounds just fine, and only perfectionist audiophiles turn up their noses at it.

With MP3, you can squash fat music files down to a manageable size. Send them across the Internet. Convert your old LPs and CDs into MP3 files. Program the computer as your own personal jukebox. And trade your tracks with others across the Net using a program like the phenomenally popular Napster — as long as you’re not too passionate about the copyright laws.

The folks who created the MP3 standard never expected it to be used in any of these ways. So while other online music formats have built-in tollbooths — schemes that force you to pay before you can play — MP3 is a fee-less free-for-all.

That’s probably why music fans have adopted MP3 as their digital tool of choice. It also explains why the old-line music industry keeps filing lawsuits to block its spread.

In a world of easy file-swapping across the Net and casual disregard of copyright, the recording industry fears for its profits and says it won’t be able to support new artists. MP3’s fans instead imagine a utopian future where every garage band finds its following online.

Both visions may be right. The Net is already opening the distribution door for a million unknown talents, wannabes and should-never-bes. But even the most avid fans have a hard time figuring out which is which, and finding their way to the good stuff.

All this, naturally, means there are some big opportunities for creative entrepreneurs. As old ways of making money run dry, new ones will surely kick in.

But the lawsuits the recording industry is launching against the MP3 movement say something else: they suggest that the music business is simpy unwilling to adapt. It’s as though the record companies in the 1950s decided to try to squelch the LP because they feared what would happen to their profitable trade in 78s.

The industry claims it can’t do right by artists in the brave new online world unless it can clamp down on MP3 and force people to use more tightly controlled formats. But the record conglomerates have hardly done such a great job of nurturing new talents and widening the spectrum of musical choice. And rebellious music makers have always chafed at the corporate yoke; the Clash denounced “Complete Control — even over this song!” and the Sex Pistols wrote a whole tune kissing off their label, EMI.

If MP3 can survive the legal assault, it just might smash the music companies’ “complete control,” once and for all. But no one can predict how the economics of music will shake out. What’s certain is that the physics are changing: Music is becoming incorporeal.

With LPs, the grooves still retained a physical relationship to the original sounds. As a kid, I could push a sewing needle through the end of a cone of rolled-up paper, plunk the needle onto a record and hear a tinny approximation of music. No such homemade Victrola can reconstitute sound from a plastic CD and make all that data, those zeroes and ones, sing.

Once we leave disks behind and store the music we love as computer files, we end up with a whole new relationship to it. We can catalogue and program it easily. We’re free to rent it and swap it, and alter it in profound — or irritating — ways. But we’ll lose something, too, as the objects that house the music fade into collectible history. You can do all sorts of cool things to a digital music file — but you’ll never spend a rainy Sunday afternoon in a store thumbing through a used MP3 bin.

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  1. Takes me back. Around 97-98, I was still in high school. The same friend that taught me HTML two years earlier called to tell me about some new type of music file called an MP3. He said it was going to be the next ‘big thing’. After failing to understand the benefits of audio compression, I wrote it off as another one of his crazy ideas.
    Not sure what he’s up to these days but it’d better be something that puts me to shame.

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