The 14th July 2020 is the 25th birthday of the MP3. We spoke with artist and curator Dr John Kannenberg about its impact and legacy.
1995 was a mixed year for music releases. In the UK, the pop charts featured the likes of Celine Dion, Oasis, Robson and Jerome and Cotton Eye Joe, but also Everything But The Girl’s ‘Missing’, Josh Wink’s ‘Higher State of Consciousness’ and Grace’s ‘It’s Not Over’. In the middle of the year, an event occurred that was to have way more impact than Celine or indeed Cotton Eye Joe. On the 14th of July, the mp3 was given its official filename extension and thus, was ‘born’. Twenty-five years later and a digital format for storing audio has turned out to be one of the most disruptive and revolutionary technologies to ever hit the music industry.
The MP3 was developed as an audio format as a solution to the problems of bandwidth and data storage that resulted from the relatively large file sizes of digitised audio. Music files used up lots of bandwidth and required high processing and memory power. The idea behind the MP3 was to create a good sounding audio format that was substantially smaller, making them easier to stream, store, download, email and generally move around. But once music could be easily transported digitally, it quickly wrought several high impact changes on the music industry as well as instigating larger cultural trends too.
It could be argued that discussion around audio formats was one of the key defining features of dance music’s journey from the real world and onto the internet throughout the 90s and the 2000s. The MP3 destroyed the old vinyl record industry model, making the process of releasing music vastly more accessible. This in itself was such a far-reaching change that it’s difficult to evaluate – on the one hand it democratised the process of releasing music giving access to a whole new demographic who previously could never have done so. On the other hand, it facilitated the release of huge quantities of average-to-low quality music, while vastly reducing the potential earnings for producers and songwriters.
Breaking Down The Barriers
For DJs, the birth of the digital file signalled a new approach to the art of DJing that brought with it new mixing techniques along with the new level of availability of music. Digital files were the one single factor in making DJing widely accessible as they were affordable (or indeed ‘free’), easily transferable and allowed for software to automatically beat match them. In one single technology, every barrier to DJing – the cost of equipment and records and the practical challenges of learning to DJ on vinyl – were blown away. Now anyone with a laptop could DJ. It was a huge cultural democratisation, a tearing down of barriers that empowered as many new DJs as it angered older DJs. For us in dance music, this is perhaps the single biggest impact visible change that the digital file enacted.
But this was just one of the many effects the MP3 has had on the music industry. Dr John Kannenberg is Director and Chief Curator of The Museum of Portable Sound and a multimedia artist, writer, and researcher:
“The digital file, it had such a vast impact on all musical culture and all visual culture, it worked its way into so many different areas. The biggest one is opening the door for the shift to streaming as the platform for listening to music now.”
Music was one of the first cultural products to be digitised and Kannenberg argues that the mp3 was in some ways a testing of the cultural waters:
“That was sort of a testing ground for media in general in terms of things like films, TV shows and so on – once it became clear that consumers were willing to accept digital as their standard for music, that meant that they were also willing to accept it for cinema, for television, for all these other forms of creative content delivery that had always been rooted in something tactile.”
“There’s been this tectonic shift from having something in your hands to accepting it as something that you subscribe to and you don’t own anymore. I think that’s helped to destroy the personal relationship between a listener and their music collection in ways we haven’t fully processed yet. The mp3 definitely had a massive shotgun effect in that it splintered the consumption of media into an infinite number of particles that are no longer easily contained.”
From Ownership To Rental
This shift within music consumption from ownership to rental involved the rise of technology companies becoming the gatekeepers of how we listen to music, and taking an ever greater role in choosing our music for us. But, on the surface at least, consumers seem to have got a great deal: they can listen to anything they want whenever they want. But this shift to rental from ownership is not without its downsides. For us in dance music, aside from the negative aspects of the proliferation of DJs and labels (and there are many positive effects of this increase too), the loss of earnings for artists and producers is the single biggest downside of the MP3’s legacy.
Not only is artist income from the market-leading streaming model of Spotify substantially lower when compared to physical sales but larger artists tend to benefit at the expense of smaller acts. The money that users pay to Spotify doesn’t even go directly to the artists they stream, it goes into a central pot to be paid out to all artists who get streamed on the platform that month The extremely low royalty rates on streaming services (an estimated $0.006 and $0.008 per play for Spotify,£0.007 for Apple Music, $0.00069 on YouTube) have created a crisis for all but the very biggest artists. This has changed how artists can earn a living, which in turn has driven the festival and DJ gig market as artists and DJs try to make up the royalty shortfall through touring.