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MP3s are very convivial technology
Last week, Joel Rose wrote about the compact disc on its 30th anniversary, but it could have been an obituary. In the last decade, CD sales in the United States have dropped by more than two thirds, fulfilling a cycle that dates back to wax cylinders and 78 rpm discs: the 20 to 30 year lifespan of a format, followed by the rise of a new technology. So we decided to look at the format that usurped the CD’s place in music listener’s ears and hard drives, if not always hearts.
The MP3’s history is one of innovation and betrayal. Invented in the 1990s by engineers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Digital Media Technology in Germany, it took years of work to create, but its widespread adoption as the CD’s successor was triggered by an act of theft. Jonathan Sterne, a professor at McGill University in Montreal, dives into that history in his book MP3: The Meaning of a Format. The MP3 — a format that so many of us now play through technology embedded in our mobile phones — stands on the shoulders of research that began as a way of limiting the sonic reproduction of the human voice over telephone lines nearly a century ago.
As Sterne follows the developments that led from that innovation, he takes into account two factors that intersect at a different point on each new format: (A) how we experience the playback of a format (what he calls its “sensual dimension”) and (B) the standards of technology and infrastructure that enable it to reach an audience. In the late 1990s, the CD was a high-quality format and the music industry was built around its distribution. CD players were portable, programmable and cheap. Early MP3s, by comparison, sounded terrible and there was virtually nowhere to get them legally. So how did the the upstart come to dominate the marketplace?