The MP3 Format Has Turned 25 Years Old

The MP3 format is certainly something that has meant a lot to the file-sharing community. It is now 25 years young and it’s bringing back memories.

These days, streaming has really taken over as a way for people to get their music fix. As many people, including myself, have pointed out since the very beginning, attractive legal alternatives is the best response to copyright infringement in a digital age. As those alternatives continue to take over, it seems that the evidence is proving us correct on that assessment.

Still, the advent of the MP3 file format has been very much ingrained on almost every file-sharers mind prior to the streaming era. The longer you’ve been around file-sharing, the more you know how much the MP3 is such a big part of file-sharing.

Back in the late 90’s, hard drive space was much more of a premium. There was a time when the idea of a 500MB hard drive seemed like practically an unlimited amount of space. With no real legal alternative, people were simply file-sharing and having to store their libraries on a single hard drive. This is largely thanks to the famous file-sharing software, Napster. Of course, there is a problem. As so many know now, uncompressed, say, WAV format is very large. Trying to fit a large music collection on hard drives that were less than 500MB big just doesn’t work very well.

To make matters worse, most people were sitting on 28.8K or 56K modems. If you are downloading a large WAV file while capping your download speed at, at best, 7kbps, you’re looking at running that connection day and night to get a single track. As I type that download speed, I can only imagine just how horror struck people with modern connection speeds are right now. Of course, that was the reality back then. So, bandwidth became a major problem back then.

The golden moment for most file-sharers back then was actually finding a T1 connection and maxing out that download speed. In that case, you felt like you seriously struck gold because you were going to get the maximum download speed possible.

So, methods were being employed to compress the file-sizes down. The emphasis of quality back then wasn’t so great because the novelty of downloading a song for free was just so revolutionary at the time. You mean you aren’t getting a MIDI rendition of the track? Like, the actual song? Mind blown! So, getting an MP3 at a bit rate of 128kbps was really no big deal. You got the track at all.

So, it really wasn’t a surprise that the MP3 format simply exploded. As time went on, people did gradually start to demand higher bitrates. This happened after Napster was sued into oblivion and when people started to get fed up with file pollution on FastTrack networks (KazaA). It’s about when Limewire, Morpheus, Grokster, and eDonkey/eMule took off. Still, the MP3 format continued to reign supreme.

The MP3 wasn’t the only game in town. There were efforts to try and normalize the more open source OGG Vorbis format. At the time, MP3 was pretty much synonymous with music and it was, at best, a struggle to compete against such a ubiquitous format. Everyone in the file-sharing world knew what MP3 was about. For a number of people, OGG was an oddball format that may or may not be compatible with their setup.

Of course, by the time we got into the era of LimeWire and eDonkey2000, technology did progress. We started seeing the advent of this magical thing called “broadband”. Do you seriously mean you can download something faster than 7kbps? Now this I gotta see! How many oldschool file-sharers out there remember that moment when you saw your download speeds over a broadband connection for the first time? What a freaking magical moment that was, right? Seeing it, for real, go past 10kbps for the first time just felt like the whole world was just opening up even more. Possibilities just felt endless at that point.

The practical benefits are that those small MP3 files took just minutes to download instead of hours. That started raising interesting questions about how one downloaded music in the first place. Do you have to download individual MP3s or could you get whole bundles in one shot. Sure, that would once again take hours, but at that point, you are used to waiting hours for a single MP3. Why not wait a few hours to get a whole pack of MP3s and be done with that.

That leads us to another effect. People didn’t necessarily exclusively look for just higher quality MP3s. It became a question of how much more you could download. Hard drive space became less of an obstacle as space grew to 1-10GB each. So, storing this became less of a problem. As a result, the knock on effect is that other formats started to see benefits from this.

A technical limitation that many file-sharing applications had is that you are only able to download one file at a time. Many applications allowed users to share the contents of their shared folder, but at the end of the day, you’re still downloading individual files.

What some people did to work around this problem is to compress whole albums into compressed archives. That way, people got the whole album in one download. Space and bandwidth is still a limiting factor, so MP3s still became a must. As such, you saw more use of the .zip, .rar., and .7z formats. The compression itself did very little to decrease the actual space. However, it was a method to share whole directories in a single file, routing around the one file download limitation so many file-sharing applications had. Because of that, file-sharers gradually became more efficient in their file-sharing. We’re sure some file-sharers remember the magical moment when some of you out there discovered the magical keyword “discography” as well. The whole artists musical portfolio on a single one shot download? Heck, you’d be happy to wait days for something that awesome!

Other knock-on effects for other formats included the idea that someone could download whole collections of pictures and video formats. It’s a logical step forward. As a result, .avi also rose in prevalence (along with the DivX and, eventually, XVid) as a way to share music video’s, movies, and TV shows. Another format is the .iso format for game images. The .PDF rose in popularity for e-books and comic books. Another format is the .jpg which many used for downloading comic strips. Really, the question started to become, what couldn’t you get through file-sharing anyway?

It wasn’t until the rise of BitTorrent that the need of compressed archives started to ease. In fact, compressed archives was frowned upon because you couldn’t see what you were downloading so easily while in a swarm. By that point, 320kpbs started to take over as the expected format. Countless file-sharers started to either begrudgingly take 256kbps if they were particularly enthusiastic about a release, but it was mostly 320 or bust. 320kbps is widely considered near CD quality as far as the MP3 standard is concerned.

Still, even in the BitTorrent age where high speed networks became normalized and hard drives grew into the hundreds of gigabytes in storage, MP3 was still quite ubiquitous.

As the BitTorrent era continued, we also saw the rise of one-click hosting (sometimes referred to as cyberlockers). This is through sites like RapidShare and MegaUpload. Whole archives were posted on blogs and forums. After that, links were set up and directed to these sites. By this point in time, FLAC was rising in prominence. FLAC, of course, is a lossless compression of audio. It’s much bigger than MP3, but you got the lossless compression that simply wasn’t offered from the MP3 format. Still, this was generally seen as something for audiophiles who are really keen on high quality audio. Otherwise, most people could easily stand the highest quality MP3 file. So, MP3 never really went away in the first place.

Of course, MP3 isn’t exclusively tied to file-sharing either. Legal sources also pushed the MP3 format. This includes iTunes, Napster 2.0, and a few other legal alternatives. DRM was pushed onto the formats at the behest of major record labels, so the legal alternatives struggled because they were offering an inferior product. Independent legal alternatives like SoundClick, Jamendo, BeatPort, AudioJelly, and countless others also offered MP3’s. Many of them ended up thriving. Still, even the legal sources admitted that MP3 is the way to go if you want to provide a legal alternative.

Really, it just seemed that the universal use of MP3 didn’t seem to be going away any time soon. That’s when things started going to a screeching halt. First, there is the rise of YouTube. Music could be heard on that platform. Other services like Spotify cropped up. The problem with many of these services is that those crisp sounding MP3s became less ubiquitous. People, naturally, still share MP3s, but the general public started to get less and less interested in the MP3 format.

Of course, the practical benefit that seemed to attractive about streaming is that you could simply click a few buttons and listen to the music immediately. There is no need to download files. You just went to the site (possibly logged in), performed a search, find what you are looking for and pressed play. Suddenly, you didn’t need a monstrous amount of storage to have the music collection of your choice. Bandwidth was reduced because it was lower quality. Much to the dismay of people who emphasize quality, quality started to seem more like a luxury and less of a requirement.

In some respects, as far as quality is concerned, we somehow managed to come around full circle thanks to streaming. Suddenly, even 256kbps MP3 is higher quality then what the public was used to. That convenience factor simply played out and pushed even private BitTorrent sites to the periphery. As a result, the reign of the MP3 started to actually see a sunset as far as the general public is concerned. There is, of course, many BitTorrent communities out there and plenty of cases of people sharing MP3s via FTP and a few other sources. That sense of the MP3 being universal, however, started to wain in recent years.

Still, it’s hard to make the case that the MP3 was simply a small part of digital history. The reign was quite long and went through many era’s of technology. As Hackaday suggests, it became a catalyst for so much about the digital revolution. From Hackaday:

While few of us still trawl file sharing networks looking for the latest albums, the MP3 was key in forever altering how people expected music to be delivered, and the price people were willing to pay for it.

The pay structure for artists and labels changed monumentally throughout this turbulent time. While post-MP3 services like iTunes once sold tracks at 99 cents a song, artists now receive fractions of a cent per stream. However, the lower importance of physical media has also, at least in theory, made it possible for artists to break out without needing a record label to shift product internationally. Genres like Soundcloud rap and Vaporwave sprung up organically from services that allowed budding musicians to share their music online. It’s easy to draw a direct link between such subcultures and the dawn of music sharing online spawned by MP3.

While Fraunhofer may not have gotten the business win they desired from the technology, the MP3 undoubtedly changed the face of music forever. Artists likely still weep at the diminishing returns from stingy streaming services versus album royalties of years past, and record labels will still grate at unlicenced copying as they have since the cassette era. However, MP3 remains a technology that democratized the access to and creation of music, and for that, it should be lauded. Happy birthday MP3, and here’s to another 25 years of quality compressed music!

I think I speak for a lot of people when I say that it doesn’t even feel like the format is 25 years old. How unreal is that? As we pretty much covered, it represented a key pillar in a sort of time of wonders for many teenagers of the late 90’s and 2000’s. Suddenly, we’ve gone from a world of scarcity to a world where almost every form of entertainment was at your fingertips. Yes, there were legal issues along the way, but most people simply saw a world where everything became available.

So many were completely unaware of the legal issues surrounding file-sharers. Instead, people were just finding more and more types of entertainment. Nothing was really obscure any more and people formed their tastes as a result. Music fans were no longer compartmentalized into “rock”, “pop”, or “rap” fan much to the dismay of major record labels. If your tastes weren’t found to be offered by the stranglehold of major music labels, you just went onto the web and got what you wanted.

Could that have happened without the MP3? Maybe, but it might have been much more difficult. It’s really hard to imagine the file-sharing revolution happening without the MP3. That’s what most people looked for when it came to audio files. So, that is a large part why the MP3 format meant so much to people. From all of us here on Freezenet, happy birthday MP3!

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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