aug 24

The Social History of the MP3

Here's something I think about a lot: In the span of my life, I've seen the coming and passing of many music formats. I vaguely remember 8-tracks, cassettes populate all of my high school memories, walls of CDs took off in college, and records seemed to persist steadily through that entire era. But then there's the MP3. After all of that change in so few years, it now seems likely that I will die with the MP3 as the dominant format. Anyway, this new Pitchfork thing is long, but it's highly recommended: The Social History of the MP3.


Caveat: It's possible that the MP3 advances to include some bjillion-channel hd format, but I don't think those will ever become dominant, and they're not really a significant change anyway.

posted by Rex at 12:56 PM on August 24, 2009

All the cool kids use AAC. Or so I like to believe.

That WMA/Ogg/APE/&c. stuff scares me.

posted by CRZ at 3:48 PM on August 24, 2009

Wow, I'm going to read that!

Meanwhile, "mp3 will stay the dominant format for a long time" seems like an odd prediction. With players that support multiple formats, anything with a tangible improvement stands to have a huge marketshare of new files fast, since there's no hardware to replace.

Also the trend (which I hate), ala iTunes, seems to be that whatever files you have disappear into one big container files that the player controls.

posted by alesh at 4:59 PM on August 24, 2009

"With players that support multiple formats, anything with a tangible improvement stands to have a huge marketshare of new files fast."

I concur. I just don't think there will be anything to advance. Even compression (which no one cares about) or quality (which no one cares about enough to overtake the standard) will do nothing to advance the cause of a new format.

Who wants to take the bet? I predict we'll all be listening to MP3s in a decade. (Which would have been the WRONG bet to make about cassettes, cds, etc.)

posted by Rex at 5:02 PM on August 24, 2009

A better title for the essay should have been "A Social History of the Compressed Audio File", because what you guys are nitpicking at doesn't seem to me the point of the essay. :P

posted by JayCruz at 8:30 PM on August 24, 2009

If the bet is that sometime in the next ten years the majority of _new_ music files will be something other than mp3s, then yeah, you're on.

I'm not thinking about compression/quality (although a substantial improvement there could lead to a switch). It'd be more about some improved functionality. What about a format that finally solved the cover art fiasco, or the difficulty of genre tags on mp3?

Most likely of all though is that 99% of the music you'll be listening to will be in the cloud, and you will have no idea (nor care) what format it's in. You may not care about small improvements in file formats, but a corporation that's hosting files for hundreds of millions of people will.

posted by alesh at 7:47 AM on August 25, 2009

You're on.

(Cover art will be addressed, and soon I think but it will get embedded inside the mp3. And you're generally right about the cloud, but it still won't be pervasive in 10 years. In 2019, I still won't have wifi on the L train to Brooklyn, I'm afraid. So we'll still be talking about mp3s.)

posted by Rex at 8:44 AM on August 25, 2009

I think the bet is a moot point because I'm already listening to AACs instead of MP3s when I can - it's also my format of choice when I'm converting over CDs I probably actually paid for at some time. (Maybe this is just another symptom of Mac snobbery?)

I also think alesh is right in that when I'm REALLY ambitious enough to move outside of my own library and hop onto (for example) for a few hours, I have no idea what the format is. I'm just listening to the music that's being delivered to me via their player.

On the other hand, I also agree with you - as soon as the quality level reached "good enough" for the critical masses, how hard were people going to try to improve upon it?

posted by CRZ at 1:09 PM on August 25, 2009

Well, sure, and there are people who insist on lugging around LPs still. This is about dominant format.

I like this idea that the future of formats is no formats though.... it's just in the air.

posted by Rex at 1:12 PM on August 25, 2009

I'm siding with alesh, most of the music will be streams from the cloud - on that point, I've seen rumours on the web recently that facebook is talking with spotify about some type of a deal (e.g., see techcrunch). As for mp3's, given huge amounts of cheap, small (form factor) storage, the need for compressed files will be dramatically reduced (e.g., if your ipod has a TB of storage, who needs mp3's versus wav, aif, FLAC, etc.).

posted by j.r.mchale at 3:31 PM on August 25, 2009

Wifi on the L train?! Give me a break ... I stream music over G3 no problem, and somewhere in the first half of the new Wired they casually toss off that when G4 comes we'll all be swimming in bandwidth, and the phone companies will be competing on how many features they can throw at us.

You and I will still have our cache of mp3's, but they'll seem just as silly to an 18 year old in 10 years as cassette tapes do to 18 year olds today. (and probably a lot less cool)

posted by alesh at 3:41 PM on August 25, 2009

In the early days, it built its popularity with MP3 downloads. Many of its popular applications are built around a community.
More likely, it will take a while, as it did with radio and the phonograph, for mp3s to steady and accomplish a point where the old ways of doing things learn from the new tools.

posted by Ravi palla at 7:21 AM on August 26, 2009

In ten years, there will be no music.

posted by Taulpaul at 11:54 PM on August 27, 2009

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