Not dead yet: how MP3 changed the way we listen to music



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MP3 compression of digital audio files made music more portable.
Shutterstock?Roger Jegg Fotodesign Jegg.de

Yanto Browning, Queensland University of Technology

First developed almost three decades ago, the MP3 format made large digital audio files relatively small and easy to pass across an internet that was largely accessed via a very slow (by today’s standards) phone dial-up connection.

Now the companies behind the file compression format, Technicolor and Fraunhofer IIS, have decided to end their support for the licensing program for MP3. The last patent for the tech format is due to expire at the end of the year.

So the MP3 is dead. Again. Or is it?

What is MP3?

MP3 is a form of codec, a way of compressing (co) and decompressing (dec) the data in audio files.

The organisation responsible for defining the standards for audio and video compression and decompression is the Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG), a working group of several authorities. So MP3 is just short for MPEG-1, Audio Layer 3.

The development of MP3.

Full resolution digital audio files are relatively large, around 10MB per minute of stereo, CD-quality sound. Today, streaming 10MB/minute might seem trivial but in the early days of digitally transferred data it was a lot.

MP3s were initially developed with the goal of a 12:1 compression ratio achieving acceptable sound quality. A 60MB song could therefore be compressed into a 5MB file. Other compression ratios can be used, with higher ratios yielding more obvious sonic artefacts (unwanted sounds) and lower ratios resulting in higher file sizes.

Hear the quality (or not) of MP3 compression at different bit rates.

A “lossy” compression codec works on the theory that, as the human ear is already discarding a lot of information in the perception of sound, you might as well simply not encode this redundant information.

The term lossy comes from the fact that this data is lost, discarded and gone forever. MP3 and rivals AAC (Advanced Audio Coding) and WMA (Windows Media Audio) are all lossy formats.

The audio that gets edited out in MP3 compression, in this case from Suzanne Vega’s version of Tom’s Diner.

Conversely, lossless compression reduces file sizes, but does not reduce quality. Something like a compressed zip file is an example of lossless compression. Uncompressed files are a straight 1:1 transfer of the digital file.

MP3: dead or alive?

Developed in the late 1980s and standardised in the early 1990s, MP3 was first pronounced dead in 1995 and nearly abandoned as a technology. It was deemed commercially unsuccessful despite heavy investment from the Fraunhofer institute and a decade’s development by the project’s leader Karlheinz Brandenburg.

It was the victim of a format war, led by Dutch manufacturer Philips. Fraunhofer’s MP3 was consistently overlooked in the early 1990s by the MPEG standards group in favour of Philips’ MP2.

The MP3 format only found early commercial success in the sports broadcast market, with the compressed digital audio saving broadcasters thousands in satellite transmission costs.

So deeply unpopular was MP3 in commercial music applications that the developers effectively gave it away for free.

As a result, the format was close to being abandoned by its developers again towards the end 1996, in favour of the AAC format still patented and supported today.

The AAC format was developed initially by the same team behind the MP3, in part as a way to circumnavigate technical limitations imposed by Phillips on the MPEG-1 standard.

AAC generally performs better than MP3 at higher compression ratios, and the patent does not require a user to obtain a license to stream or distribute AAC encoded audio.

Listen carefully to the cymbals.

It was only the proliferation of filesharing internet sites, built around the distribution of pirated content, that revived interest in the MP3, first as isolated “warez” sites, and then as peer-to-peer networks such as Napster.

Stephen Witt’s 2015 book How Music Got Free (a source for much of this history) says that the first time the term MP3 was used by mainstream press was May 1997, with a USA Today article detailing how college students were uploading bootlegged albums onto university servers via file sharing sites.

By this stage, the first time most people had even heard of the MP3 format, the horse had already bolted, and the music industry would never be the same again.

The first portable MP3 player, the MPMan, debuted less than a year later, and Apple’s move into the market in 2001, through the release of iTunes and the iPod, cemented the ubiquity of both compact music players and compressed digital formats.

Music sharing

Early MP3s didn’t sound great and were generally disliked by audiophiles and record producers alike.

But they allowed consumers to stockpile music to an extent that had not been possible before, heralding a new relationship between digital information and ownership.

A market model based on scarcity had been turned on its head. While copying music had been around for decades, each copy was physically coupled to the medium – a vinyl record or magnetic tape cassette, for instance.

The rise of peer-to-peer file sharing networks, most famously Napster, meant that now anyone with a computer and internet connection could access another person’s entire music collection. A single file could by copied by thousands, all at the same time.

This changed listening patterns: instead of buying perhaps one album per month (depending on what you could afford), and then listening to it several times, music fans could constantly scour the internet for new music. Some would even stockpile music that they would never even listen to.

From share to stream

Today, playing MP3 files is increasingly being superseded by the ubiquity of streaming services. With fast and cheap access to mobile internet, services such as Spotify, Apple Music, Google Play and others now all offer extensive music libraries that can be accessed for a subscription fee.

Just one of several online music options.

Presciently, Brandenburg’s mentor, Dieter Sietzer, had suggested as early as 1982 that the most effective delivery of digital audio was through streaming, as a way to make use of Germany’s new digital telephone lines. His patent was refused.

If it was the increase in portable MP3 players and the proliferation of pirated content that cemented the role of the MP3 in youth culture, it is the rise of streaming services that define current habits.

Despite Fraunhofer’s termination of its licensing program for the MP3 format, the MP3 file will continue to live on, unsupported by the developers, but now unrestricted by patents or licences.

While better codecs now exist for compressing digital music files, it’s interesting to note the revival of the old format of vinyl.

Today, events such as Classic Album Sundays are emerging as an attempt to reclaim focused listening experiences through the use of analogue technologies that have been nominally obsolete since the late 1980s.

The ConversationI believe it very unlikely that similar listening parties will develop in an attempt to celebrate the early MP3.

Yanto Browning, Associate lecturer in Music and Sound, Queensland University of Technology

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Adele’s new album is not available to stream, but she may be swimming against the tide


Steven Caldwell Brown, University of Edinburgh

Adele has joined Taylor Swift’s ranks in the war against the streaming culture of Spotify and Apple Music. Her latest album, 25, will not be available on these services. A record shop in Tennessee is to open at midnight in anticipation – but I shouldn’t expect any queues.

The timing is auspicious: the Mercury Prize is about to be awarded, an annual prize which crowns the best album of the year released by a British or Irish artist or band. The continuance of such a prize and Adele’s stand against the emphasis on single tracks privileged by streaming calls into question the contemporary relevance of the album format as an artform.

Think about it. When was the last time you listened to an album? Really listened to an album? Perhaps with headphones, not when jogging, or commuting?

At least as far back as 2004, scholars have proposed that music listening is becoming more passive. Certainly, smartphones and streaming services have encouraged a more song-oriented way of music listening, with tech companies keen to develop the latest and greatest new music subscription service. It is also evident that YouTube is a particularly popular way of discovering and listening to music, which also suggests a disconnect from conventional ways of engaging in the album format. Notably, much of the music on YouTube is in breach of copyright.

Sign of the times?
David Molina G/Shutterstock.com

But a series of studies from Amanda Krause and colleagues directly challenge the notion that streaming means that music fans are becoming more passive. For instance, active use of shuffle and playlist functions was evident. The authors argued that the more control technology affords, the more complex the patterns of music listening. As reported by the Guardian, a quarter of all songs listened to on Spotify are skipped in the first five seconds. So people clearly know what they don’t want to listen to. But does this active interest in music extend to entire albums?

Tech by-product

Despite the appearance that digital music dominates the marketplace, the most recent report from The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry reveals that digital and physical revenues are matched. That is, people are still very much engaged in buying physical albums. But which albums are being bought is clearly changing: the top-selling album of the last year was the official soundtrack to Disney’s animated film Frozen.

And the album isn’t as embedded in musical culture as we might think. If we rewind a few generations, it was all about singles. The album format only came along later, exemplified with the concept records of the 1970s. This was not an artistic step forward but merely a result of technological advancements, affording musicians more room to create longer recordings.

So it’s intriguing that with digital music no longer imposing any time-related barriers, new releases still tend to last roughly around as long as they did when music was primarily consumed on CD. Despite an increasing lack of public interest in albums, the industry hasn’t changed its colours. Things do look as though they might be shifting, but this is happening slowly: recent releases from the likes of Godspeed You! Black Emperor and The Smashing Pumpkins (both known for long albums) suggest that musicians themselves are finally buying into the notion that their fans no longer wish to commit to an hour (or more) of auditory indulgence.

But other artists including Radiohead have gone on to release albums after experimenting with the extended player format despite publicly expressing concern over the contemporary relevance of the album. And the Pixies confused fans by bundling songs from three EP’s into their comeback album Indie Cindy. The strategy was seen to be a “craven cash-in”.

Out of date?

So perhaps the album is a lost and meaningless relic of the past. Stephen Witt goes so far as to argue that it is the album format that is killing the music industry – not music piracy. Reflecting on hip-hop in particular, he argues that albums with filler actually encourage piracy. Why pay for a whole album when you only like a few songs?

Legal services such as Spotify now cater for curious music fans, and Witt explains that though consumers are now less likely to pirate music, they are also less likely to buy albums. Recent research highlights that Spotify in fact decreases both legal and illegal downloads. And, the hoo-hah surrounding Adele’s new album suggests that some people have forgotten that music lives in other corners of the internet than just Spotify.

Nevertheless the question marks hanging over the album format are wide-reaching. It has even been proposed that it might be more profitable to release songs than albums.

But although the album format appears to be in crisis, it has appeared this way for over a decade. With the increasing popularity of playlists, it may be that people are strapping in for a different type of long haul, or that the criteria of a “good album” now varies.

If there has been any major shift it has been the emphasis on live concerts rather than recorded music, with established musicians happy to give their albums away for free – this is an effective way of promoting live concert attendance, where most musicians now make most of their earnings.

In any case, it is likely that musicians will continue to create albums and consumers will continue to listen to them simply because that is what was established many years ago. They will also continue to be celebrated with industry awards. And though the artists shortlisted in the Mercury Music Prize are likely to receive a boost in popularity, it will be Adele’s new album which will dominate, particularly considering her dismissal of streaming culture.

The Conversation

Steven Caldwell Brown, Teaching Fellow in Social Psychology, University of Edinburgh

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Spotify Will Launch Limited Free Mobile Access At Dec 11th Event, Source Confirms


Interesting.

TechCrunch

Spotify plans to make mobile access to its music service free, The Wall Street Journal reports. Now a source confirms with TechCrunch that the free mobile tier will launch December 11th at a press event in New York. We’ve also learned users won’t get unlimited on-demand access, but will be less restricted if they listen to playlists or collections they’ve previously created.

Spotify sent out invites for the December 11th event on December 3rd, but didn’t say what would be launched. It simply noted “We’re having a media event. Like to come? There will be donuts.” But now we’ve confirmed that unveiling limited free mobile access is a big part of the show.

Until now, Spotify has only allowed premium subscribers paying $10 a month to stream music from mobile devices. Free, ad-supported access was available on desktop and laptop computers, and for $5 a month users could remove the…

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How Spotify Became the McDonald’s of the Music Industry


Flavorwire

Thom Yorke and Nigel Godrich caused quite a stir last week by pulling their music off Spotify, demanding that the service pay more to up-and-coming musicians. The thing is, however, that Spotify is already losing money hand over fist, despite expanding its user base dramatically over the last couple of years and only paying out pitifully small per-stream fees to artists. If Spotify can’t make things work paying artists these pissant royalties — and the consensus seems to be that it can’t — then it’s got a problem, especially if the slow trickle of artists moving away from the service starts to speed up and/or emerging artists decide that it’s not worth the time or effort to essentially give away their music for free via the site. So, is Spotify doomed?

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Music: Huey Lewis and the News


Have you ever wondered what happened to a favourite band or singer – perhaps from a decade or two ago? I have. For me, the 1980s were my younger years and they were full of 1980s music. I often wonder what happened to Hall and Oates, Huey Lewis and the News, etc. Today I came across an article that caught my attention – Huey Lewis and the News. I was a big fan of this group. The link below is to an article that takes a look at Huey Lewis and the News, with a good look at their greatest album (which I have) – ‘Sports.’

For more visit:
http://www.grantland.com/story/_/id/9419191/the-life-career-80s-pop-star-huey-lewis

‘Happy Birthday To You’ is Copyrighted?


This one takes the cake (poor pun I guess) – apparently ‘big music’ claims to own the copyright for ‘Happy Birthday To You,’ which means every time we sing it we are potentially breaking the law – unless we have an arrangement for paying royalties. However, this all seems very dubious and someone is finally challenging the ‘copyright.’

For more visit the article linked to below:
http://www.teleread.com/copy-right/is-happy-birthday-still-under-copyright/