MP3 Is 25 Years Old!

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In the streaming era, music is accessed from a variety of online services, ephemeral in nature and never living on board the device. However, the online audio revolution really kicked off with the development of one very special format. The subject of bitter raps and groundbreaking lawsuits, this development from Germany transformed the music industry as we know it. Twenty-five years on from the date the famous “.mp3” filename was chosen, we take a look back at how it came to be, and why it took over the world.

Audio Big, Disks Small

1995 hard drive prices from an LA Trade ad in BYTE Magazine. The least expensive option rings in at $0.22 per megabyte, which means your 700 MB audio CD would cost $154 to store without compression (10x the cost of buying an album at the time).

The road to MP3 was a long one. The aim was to create a codec capable of encoding high-quality audio at low bitrates. Finding a method of compression that didn’t compromise audio quality was key. In an era where hard drives were measured in tens or hundreds of megabytes, storing uncompressed digital audio at CD quality — around 10MB per minute — wasn’t practical.

In the 1980s, researchers around the world were working on various encoding methods to solve this problem. Things began to pick up steam when, in 1988, the Moving Picture Experts Group called out for an audio encoding standard. The next year, 14 proposals were submitted. Four working groups were created, which began to work further on a variety of encoding methods.

Around the time the MP3’s name was decided upon, the Pentium was cutting-edge technology. Desktop computers at the time with clock speeds under 100MHz would struggle to play CD-quality files.

One of the main techniques to come out of the process was MUSICAM, which adopted a psychoacoustic model of human hearing to aid compression. This takes advantage of the effect of auditory masking, a perceptual limitation of human hearing where some sounds mask others from being heard at the same time. By eliminating data corresponding to these sounds that aren’t perceived anyway, it became possible to store more audio in less space without any perceived effect for the listener.

The MUSICAM technology became the basis for much of the original MPEG 1 Audio Layers I and II. A team of researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute took the psycoacoustic coding filter bank techniques, while mixing in some ideas gleaned from the competing ASPEC proposal to MPEG. The aim was to create the Layer III codec that could deliver the same quality at 128 kbps as Layer II could at 192 kbps. The final results were published in the MPEG 1 standard in 1993.

With the development of the Internet happening at a rapid pace, the Fraunhofer team realised their standard had the possibility of becoming a defacto standard for audio on the platform. With its small file size and high quality, it was perfect for sharing over the slow connections of the time period. In a fateful email on July 14, 1995, the team decided that their files should bear the now-famous .MP3 extension.

No Business Model Survives First Contact With The Enemy

MusicMatch Jukebox was a popular CD ripper and MP3 player. MusicMatch are notable for having actually paid Fraunhofer for their MP3 license.

The original business plan was to monetise the technology through sales of encoders. These would be sold at a high price to companies that wished to create software or hardware capable of encoding MP3 files. To drive acceptance of the standard, the decoders used to play the MP3 files would be cheap or free, encouraging consumer uptake.

Winamp was one of the most popular audio players of the MP3 era. Teenagers of the time like yours truly loved it, because it looked like a cool vintage stereo.

While this initially seemed feasible, things quickly fell apart, thanks to the very Internet that Fraunhofer had pinned their fortunes on. In 1997, an Australian student purchased MP3 encoding software with a stolen credit card, before quickly sharing it on an FTP server online. Suddenly it was readily possible for anyone to create their own MP3 files. With the files out in the wild, calls to stop the spread of the software fell on deaf ears.

Within a short time, it was readily possible to download free programs to rip audio from CDs and store it in nearly the same quality at a tenth of the size as an MP3. Websites quickly sprung up, allowing users to freely download the music of their choice. While FTP servers were the defacto file sharing standard of the day, 1999 then saw the launch of Napster, a platform that allowed users with minimal technical knowledge to directly share their digital music collections with others. The music industry had just been changed forever.

Cats Don’t Go Back In Bags

Napster was the progenitor of the file streaming movement. While it lived a short life, it inspired many services to come.

Suddenly the idea of paying $16.98 for a CD seemed ludicrous, when it was readily possible to get the same music for free online. Record labels and artists scrambled to file lawsuits and sue music fans huge sums to discourage downloading. Despite some high profile legal fights, attitudes towards music had already been irrevocably altered. MP3 players had also hit the market, allowing users to carry huge numbers of songs around without having to juggle fragile CDs. These were similarly met with legal challenges, but the juggernaut that was MP3 could not be overcome.

Even in the wake of Napster’s bankruptcy, other services bloomed in the vacuum left by its closure. Pirates learned from the case, and decentralization became key to avoiding legal troubles. This put the onus of criminality on those sharing the files, rather than those running a peer-to-peer service which merely facilitated file transfers.

The Diamond Rio PMP3000 was one of the earliest MP3 players, attracting the ire of the RIAA on launch.

Services to sell digital audio would take many more years to flourish. Initial offerings lost out due to high prices and restrictive DRM that simply gave customers a worse experience than a clean, unencumbered MP3 available for free.

MP3s dominance only began to wane in the 2010s, when a transition to streaming technology and smartphones began to offer a better user experience. Rather than having to manage a multi-gigabyte collection of songs, and shuffle them from device to device, instead users could simply call up virtually any music they wanted at the click of a button. In the same way Facebook defeated Myspace, the ease of streaming quickly relegated MP3 players and the format itself to the past.

The Format Broke the Business of Recorded Music

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!