Ten Years of mp3

Or How Digital Music Has Changed The Way You Listen

Diez años de mp3 Néstor Parrondo First, a Little History

Mp3, the format (and those initials) that symbolises the idea of absolute evil to the music industry, is having the tenth birthday of its popular use just about now. It would be better to say its first ten years of (intensive) abuse, as the invention dates back to 1987, but it wasn’t until 2000 that the majority of humanity knew that it existed. Created, like the Marburg virus, in a German laboratory by engineers who were looking for a way to compress and digitalise audio data, the explosion of mp3 began to circulate with greater speed at the turn of the millennium, thanks to the democratisation of high-speed Internet connections, as well as the expert skill of two American youths, Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker, two young guys as rambunctious as a can of Coca-Cola in a seismic fault, who had the bright idea of creating Napster, a program to exchange Peer 2 Peer music files directly between users, without intermediaries. Napster’s history was short but intense, like falling in love on public transportation. In the space of a year, it accumulated nearly 27 million users, only to end up dragging on and on endlessly, with the entire record industry, the RIIA, and Lars Ulrich of Metallica suing Parker and Fanning for infringing on copyright law. As you know, the suit ended up in front of a judge. In that trial, Fanning and Parker just kept repeating a single argument constantly: the good thing about Napster was that it was managing to quantify for the first time, with a high level of accuracy, what volume of music was moving on the Internet. Their argument was that Napster could be the definitive chart, a fabulous tool for music promotion. It didn’t work, and they had to sell Napster in order to be able to pay their fines. The story had two consequences: the first, nothing is what it used to be in the musical arena (creation, distribution, business, consumption); the second, the spectacular documentary “Some Kind of Monster” starring Metallica, the initial intention of which was to show the world how hard it is to make an album, and in which you see that the only thing that the four masters of thrash metal do is prolong an interminable jam session (two years) until their producer catches a good riff off the cuff, to then cut and paste it in Pro Tools. Good job, dudes.Napster was the tip of an unstoppable iceberg. An endless list of programmes with the intention of replacing the original model arose: AudioGalaxy, Kazaa, Ares, eMule... In all of them you could (and you still can) download anything: TV series, films, programs, videogames, and, of course, mp3s. In the second phase, BitTorrent download programs were created: trackers where the download was shared among various users, taking the maximum advantage of everyone’s band width. This is how Oink’s Pink Palace was born, an absolutely delightful website—which could only be entered by invitation—in which users could download all sorts of files, but especially music by the bushel. The inflexible rules of Oink (which obligated users to maintain a certain ratio between the upload and download of data, as well as facilitating high-quality music, even encouraging users to post reports on the mp3 sample frequency quality), made it into the Library of Alexandria of on-line audio. Absolutely everything was there: the list of the 100 best albums of a specialised Polish publication, ALL of the discography of Aphex Twin (which took up a total of 6 GB of data), incunabula (like the harsh original mix of Nirvana’s “In Utero” done by Steve Albini, without the varnish of Scott Litt), and all of the references of labels that mattered and didn’t matter (you can make your own mental list however you like). Oink was also the sieve through which all of the new releases on the recording market were leaked. Hits? There were too many to count, like the appearance of Beck’s “Guero” (2005) unmastered and without the definitive mix, six months before its release, or the advance leak of practically all of the new releases of the moment. But this enormous epic came to an end in October of 2007 when the Dutch police confiscated the servers. At that time, the media assured us, no mistake about it—Oink was like Mordor, the epicentre of the evil of music downloads on the Internet. Alan Ellis, administrator of the website, was declared innocent of the accusation of massive fraud by a court in the United Kingdom. During the trial, he declared: “It wasn’t my fault that people downloaded all of the music, or my website’s either. If anyone should be held accountable, it’s them.” The information on his users was studied, but finally no action was taken against them. Among them were the employees of record companies who were considerably pissed off—what better way to screw your company than to leak its products?—and even artists and producers who uploaded music, such as Trent Reznor. The heart and soul of Nine Inch Nails went so far as to publicly declare his love for Oink, arguing that it was the online equivalent of an enormous record shop. And an even more important detail: that he would have happily paid to use it. Free Music or Business?

Parallel to the birth of Oink, but entirely removed from its Alexandrine philosophy—because of how small and mainstream its original catalogue was– Apple launched its virtual store, iTunes. Along with high-speed ADSL lines and Napster, the iPod can be considered the third rider of the Apocalypse that the record industry has been undergoing lately. Apple might have created the store to avoid being demonised, as a way of being able to share a piece of the pie that Steve Jobs’ company was chomping on with the majors. During the introduction of iTunes, the president of Apple also defended his decision by declaring that “the problem with Napster or Kazaa is that they are illegal. Besides, people who buy music in a physical form have lost many rights. They are treated like criminals because they aren’t allowed to record a CD or pass music over to their mp3 players.” It was 2003 and he wasn’t wrong. It was the period when record companies failed in their efforts to impose an anti-copy system that made it impossible to listen to an album in the CD- reader of a computer or to rip its contents. As far as profits go, for A&R’s of all kinds and other music executives, this was beginning to be a period of hard times and small dividends. iTunes followed a philosophy close to that of mobile ringtone businesses: they offered songs for 99 cents in American currency (which is still the standard price) and they gave you the possibility of listening to 30 seconds of the song before buying it. You can also get albums for 9.99 euros independent of the number of cuts that they contain, whether it’s four or eighteen. So let’s do the numbers: to fill up a 160 Gb iPod with only legal songs, consumers would have to spend 40,000 euros, leading us to declare that whoever carried out this economic feat deserves a golden statue with diamonds set in for the eyeballs. After seven years in operation, this year iTunes reached a total of 10,000 million songs downloaded, a ridiculous amount in comparison with the nearly 40,000 million songs that are supposedly moved on p2p annually New Ways of ListeningHow has all of this affected ordinary people and their habits as devourers of music? The habits of music consumers—within the more hardcore sector of music consumer, so to speak—have become somewhat similar to those of a hummingbird or a child with ADD. Accustomed as they were, in days gone by, to handling a series of publications and stores that gave them control over the most bearable music, those collector and obsessive fans find that now anybody can get a hold of all of the titles put out by Def Jam, Sub Pop, 4AD or Cherry Red in just a couple of days. It took them forever to find all of those jewels, digging around in mangy shops, but now all of these wonders are within anybody’s grasp in less than a second. For some, it is a paradisiacal situation, and for others, it is the lowest circle of hell. Times are hard, then, for all of those people who had built their lives around music, dedicating themselves to compiling and sharing their knowledge: thanks to Google, Wikipedia and Shazam (the application for the latest mobile phones allowing them to recognise and identify songs played on television, radio, or in a club) there are no longer exclusive sources of information—which has led some to go Luddite as a way of life.Mp3 has also generated strange behaviours, such as the so-called compulsive digital hoarding syndrome: the accumulation of terabytes of music you will never listen to. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the entire catalogue of Motown or Lullaby Renditions of Tool, anything goes—even though later you end up only listening to the albums that were your favourites when you were 18 years old. On the other end of the spectrum, casual listeners have seen that they don’t need to spend a lot of cash on an unbearable album when all they really want is the single. URL is the new mp3: “The Long Tail” and Spotify

Chris Anderson, head writer at Wired, turned the Internet upside down in 2004 with an article titled “The Long Tail”. In summary, Anderson explained that Internet, far from exterminating culture, was going to make it possible, thanks to the minimal expenses of storage and distribution, to generate an almost infinite number of consumer niches. That is to say, the market, instead of focusing all its resources on generating mega-hits—whether we’re talking about best-selling novels or radio-friendly albums—should take care of the middle and lower class, or at least guarantee a wide-ranging offer. So it wouldn’t be right to disdain an album of B-sides or a bluegrass anthology, to name two apparently unpopular examples. According to his reasoning, the market for mega-hits—these being, to say a number, 40 albums (a number that the charts seem to like)—would be equivalent to the sales of 400,000 minority artists put together, but in music there aren’t 400,000 outsiders, but rather 40 million. So what Anderson’s argument boils down to is that 20% of the music industry is based on hits, while 80 % of the production corresponds to what isn’t heard on the radio and doesn’t get onto the charts, just the opposite of what marketing, economics, and business students have been studying their whole lives (that is to say, that the most popular is the most profitable). But the rules of the game have changed with Internet. Mp3 music doesn’t take up physical space in an on-line shop, unlike CDs or records (and this is why you’ll never find a CD by, say, Silver Apples on the shelves in a shopping centre). Mp3 songs are nothing more than bits of information and data that take up the same physical space in a server as Shakira’s latest album. So this way it is logical that apparently strange albums are available for the whole world, and the marginal then becomes the real business: these are works that make a big profit, whether because producing them didn’t cost much, or because there’s barely been money spent on publicity, and the elimination of the physical format means that a new edition doesn’t need to be manufactured and shipped to stores. You only have to rip it, upload it, and put a price on it. .

Following the logic of “The Long Tail”, iTunes rectified its initial policy of putting only big hits on sale, and increased its catalogue—and consequently, its downloads—spectacularly. But it couldn’t break down the final barrier, which consists of negotiating directly with artists so that they upload their songs directly onto the server. For the time being, because Ping, Apple’s new social network that is embedded in the latest downloadable update of iTunes, hooks groups up directly with their audiences, with photos, musical recommendations, and other messages sent directly by pop luminaries that can reach our computer directly without the participation of any intermediary. It’s like Twitter, but under Apple’s wing.But if the formula for music to succeed on the Internet is for everything to be available and easily accessible, the winning horse is, for now, Spotify. Since its creation in 2006, this program has become the big menace for mp3 downloading, and this is because it offers all of the music that its owners have been able to negotiate with record companies, completely free to listen to, but not to download. Unlike other websites, the music is in a cloud, in the company’s servers, and we listen to it on our computer. Spotify gets its money from publicity and from premium accounts, which allow one to use the programme in other countries, on smartphones, and without the insidious publicity. In Sweden, its country of origin, it already generates more money than iTunes. Daniel Ek, president of Spotify, de clares that “What’s happened the last 10, 12 years, since the appearance of Napster, people listen to music more than ever, but the music industry has gone from a $50 billion industry to about 17 billion. The fundamental model of selling a record is broken.” He has got people who were striving to download anything that they felt like to be calmed by his cloud service and his 10 million songs. In any case, there is a reasonable doubt: does that mangy old publicity really generate so much money? The only income figures for publicity that are known are from last year, and they total 90,000 euros a month. Does this money provide enough margin for anybody to be able to listen to whatever music they want? Are those record companies who brought out their legal tanks to defend themselves against Napster so weak and desperate as to trust that this publicity and those subscriptions are going to save them? Daniel Ek is constantly repeating in interviews that “for us, it isn’t important to be a business with big profits, we only want to work for artists and labels.” Ek likes to talk about “labels” instead of “majors” to emphasise the revolution that he is supposed to be leading. But in the same BBC interview, when pressed about this surprising declaration, he said, to the contrary: “of course we want to be a profitable business… I’m pretty sure that once we start paying out a lot of money for artists, the money for Spotify itself will come. The bigger challenge is supporting all the artists around the world.” But for now, artists like Lady Gaga have only earned from Spotify a little over 100 euros for her mega-hit “Poker Face,” a song listened to over 1 million times on this streaming program. Or is it that Spotify is only a gigantic, valuable market study? The Money Cloud: from Spotify to Soundcloud

Spotify’s connection with the social network Facebook brought a surprise with it: people who have linked their profile to the blue network have accepted the ceding of their personal information to Spotify in the terms and conditions. And no, the personal information in 2010 isn’t what they ask you for on the raffle advertised on the back of your cereal box: the data is a sticky trail, like that left by a snail, marking our trail through the Internet, an enormous amount of information that will be used to adapt products for consumption to the public’s needs. That is to say, a shitload of money. Big Brother is out there. Guess what: Google and Apple, the masters of these business disputes, have already offered a billion dollars for Spotify. If they don’t manage to buy out the company, it is rumoured that one of these two companies will put out their own streaming service. In the case of Steve Jobs’ company, which is becoming the main obstacle for Spotify entering the United States, it would be an improved version of iTunes. And for the browser, whose slogan is “Don’t Be Evil”, its expansion could be the possibility that songs to download appear in the search results, as well as songs to listen to in streaming. All of these options are imminent, and will materialise during the coming year.

The data gathered on Spotify could also be pure gold if it is applied in neuro-marketing strategies, a discipline that studies the physiological responses of consumers to certain publicity or products to see if they really “get through” to the consumer. There are few things as emotional and personal as the relationship that a person has with their favourite song or group: they can get us in a good mood, excite us, or leave us drowning in melancholy. If we tend to spend more money when we are happy, and music is an emotional trigger, then the songs listened to on Spotify, conveniently linked to demographic characteristics and other information facilitated by the Spotify-Facebook marriage will be an information package that is highly interesting, at the very least. That is to say, do you think that H&M plays Best Coast because she’s really cool? Can you imagine Zola Jesus’ voice echoing through a Nike Store?Having reached this point, the German initiative SoundCloud goes further than iTunes and Spotify, thanks to the possibility that it offers everyone to upload any song to its server. Its creator, Alexander Ljung, designed this service thinking of the great forgotten group of the whole mp3 craze: “the subject of music on the Internet has always been approached from the consumer’s point of view. With Soundcloud, emerging artists can share their creations, get an audience, and use it as a basis for sharing their creation with other websites, creating an ecosystem in which creators can share without bothers.” With common sense and the communal spirit behind it, SoundCloud offers its users different types of accounts: first there is the free one, so that anyone can upload songs with limitations on sharing them, or so that third parties can download them; then there is the service for artists, which allows a greater number of downloads; lastly there is one for record companies, with an unlimited number of downloads and songs uploaded. The first account is free and the others have variable prices. So far, SoundCloud is the most serious attempt to get rid of the middlemen between the creator and the public, and in the future it will offer the possibility of using its own software to create music in the “cloud.” This proposal has been embraced by a million people who only want to share their creations and receive feedback in exchange.

The FutureMp3 and its small byte size, transmitted lightning-fast over the ADSL network, has been a focal point in the transformation of the way that we relate to music. In this irreversible scenario, the future therefore belongs to the new mobile phone networks and evolved streaming. In a couple of years, 4G networks will allow download speeds of up to 100 Mbp/s on any compatible device, anywhere in the world, a speed that is more than enough for high-quality music and film streaming to be carried out without any type of interference on a mobile, in a car, or on an OLED device. Whoever stocks up the greatest amount of music possible, and can design a selector capable of effectively identifying the tastes of those who use the application so that it can offer oddities and groups similar to the ones that the user already knows will be the big winner. This is where the battle for the future of music consumption is being waged. It won’t be necessary to store any mp3s, since the music will always be available anywhere to be enjoyed in the highest quality. Downloading will come to an end, both legal and illegal, and the physical format will remain to serve the function that it has today: luxurious limited editions that tend to arrive by mail in boxes from Amazon. The worst possible scenario is that such an enormous work will fall into the hands of a single company, and it will launch a policy of abusive monopoly, setting the prices and the percentage to be divided between the artists and the record companies, which is what has been happening since the dawn of the record until now. In this scenario, that monopolising company could have complete control over what is listened to and what isn’t, as well as when, where, and how. Along the way, it could link all of this data to other information facilitated by any other futuristic device, something that can happen if we have accepted certain terms and conditions for use. The dream that the creators of Napster claimed to have started to move towards, the definitive chart, would finally have come true.

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