Let us now praise old music-file formats, and the music cultures that begat us.
The Internet is spilling many pixels over the fact that the MP3, the music file used on the original iPod, has been abandoned by its inventors at the Fraunhofer Institute. The German organization, a division of the group that helped develop the MP3, is letting its licensing hold on the format expire. The group is also responsible for the MP3’s successor, the AAC file format used widely by services such as iTunes.
But the “death” of the MP3 is really not much of a death at all. The files will not spontaneously combust. You’ll still be able to buy and use MP3s. They will not suddenly stop playing. (Your ripped Hootie & the Blowfish tracks are safe.) All this really does is move the classification of MP3 from being recognized as a file format of the moment to being a file format of the past.
Still, some nostalgia is understandable. The MP3 was, in its day, the spark of a revolution. The file format, created in 1993, changed the way we listened to music as it liberated people from tapes and compact discs.
It wasn’t just about the equipment we used to enjoy our music that changed with the MP3, though the MP3 hastened the abandonment of many a Walkman and Discman. The MP3 let mix tapes give way to playlists. Albums, and the order in which artists laid out their songs, didn’t matter quite as much. You could carry thousands of songs with you at all times, without having to lug around a CD wallet. (Millennials, ask your parents. Or even just slightly older millennials.)
And, of course, you could share. Arguably, more than anything, the MP3’s cultural mark comes from the way it enabled sharing — especially, let’s face it, illegal sharing. With the rise of Napster, LimeWire and their ilk came the philosophy that music should be freely shared between friends and strangers more easily than one could lend a CD. From that backlash came cheap digital music downloads. It helped build Apple into a juggernaut, laying the foundation for the iPod and iTunes, and eventually as a selling point for the iPhone — a music player that you could make calls with!
The MP3 radically changed how the music industry made money (or didn’t) — a shift it never seems to have quite caught on to. But the MP3 fell out of favor with companies steadily through the early 2000s. The iTunes store adopted the AAC standard in 2003. In 2014, Amazon MP3 was rebranded as Amazon Music. As streaming picked up steam, so did newer formats.
Still, even with streaming, you can still see how the idea toward music that the MP3 kick-started shaped the value proposition that we still see today: that it should be cheap, flexible and plentiful.
So, all that’s really happened to the MP3 is that the Frauenhofer Institute has said that it’s ready to move on, let its patents expire and relinquish its licenses. That’s certainly not a death knell. In fact, having the licensing of a file format expire can be liberating. The company that made the GIF gave up its licensing in 2006, and we all know those have only gotten stronger.
It’s hard to say what, if anything, will happen to the MP3 now. While it was a revolutionary in its day for compressing music without losing too much of the sound, it certainly isn’t the best audio format out there today. The licensing decision doesn’t kill it, but it does give us a good moment to stop and think about how much the file changed the way music fits into our culture.