MP3 has had some far-reaching effects that few could have predicted. In 1997, the MP3-playing computer software Winamp became available. Allowing users to easily organize their music files and create playlists, Winamp was a harbinger of players to come. That same year, Microsoft's Windows Media Player began to support MP3 playback. Expensive portable MP3 players, like Diamond Multimedia's Rio 100 and Saehan Information System's MPMAN, also appeared in the late 1990s. They could hold a limited number of songs via flash memory, but those made way for hard drive memory players with higher storage capacity, like the original iPod, introduced in 2001, which played MP3s, AIFF and WAV formats. Newer iPods play advanced audio coding (AAC) natively, which is included in both the MPEG-2 and MPEG-4 standards, and is purported to have better audio quality, but other formats are still supported. MP3s are so ubiquitous that portable music players are often called MP3 players even though most play a variety of formats. Most CD and DVD players can also play MP3s.
Peer-to-peer music sharing service Napster was introduced in 1999, and it caused the popularity of the MP3 format to explode by making more digital music available than ever before. It also caused a great deal of controversy related to copyright infringement, illegal music downloads and piracy. The Recording Industry Association of America, among others, sought legal recourse against Napster as well as individual music downloaders. Napster was shut down in 2001, but other similar services popped up in its place, although perhaps none as brazen.
This newfound availability of music whetted the public's appetite for digital music, which has caused big changes in the music industry. The studios continue to fight piracy, but eventually embraced online digital music sales. Studios began licensing much of their music to companies such as Apple, whose iTunes store paved the way for a new music consumption model. Amazon is also a huge seller of digital music. And digital music sales have overtaken the sale of physical CDs. Digital music has even allowed some artists to break away from studios by giving them a means to easily distribute their own work, democratizing the system a bit. These changes have also paved the way for legitimate music streaming services that make money from advertisements and subscriptions.
MP3 also helped change how and where we listen to our music. We can record larger numbers of songs to writable CDs than could be traditionally held on pre-recorded CDs. And modern players allow us to carry thousands of songs around with us (either purchased digitally or ripped from our own CD collections). The MP3 and its successors have made entire music libraries portable.
There is some debate as to whether MP3s sound particularly good compared to other, less lossy codecs, but despite great increases in Internet speed and storage space, MP3 is still the most common digital music format, and it shows few signs of going away. There have been subsequent MP3 innovations, such as MP3Pro and MP3 Surround, both backward compatible with original MP3. People are even working on things like embedding secret messages or other hidden information in MP3s (MP3Stego, for instance). MP3 has become the norm for digital music, and until something groundbreakingly different comes along, it may remain so for a while.
Author's Note: Who invented MP3s?
How MP3 came about and what encoding the files entails made for pretty fascinating research. I've always been a fairly heavy consumer of music, first on vinyl, then tape, then CD, and I think it's fortuitous for music lovers that MP3 and other digital music formats came along and spurred the widespread distribution of music online (sound quality debates aside). I still like owning physical copies, but back in the days when in-store purchasing was our only choice, there was always a good possibility of disappointment. I shelled out for quite a few CDs often to discover that I only really liked one or two of the songs. Many of those disks are gathering dust on my shelves.
At some point I made a rule for myself that I would only buy an album if I knew I liked at least three of the songs (unless it was by one of my very favorite artists), and that seriously curbed my music purchasing. It's not like entire albums routinely get radio or music video play. But then things like Napster came along that allowed us to sample a wider variety of music than we'd been able to encounter by chance on the air before. And then Internet radio followed. I cannot tell you how many new artists I've discovered via my Pandora stations, and how many of their songs I've downloaded from iTunes.
There is probably some charm missing because we no longer get surprised by the b-side songs (before long, no one is even going to know what that means). But it is nice being able to spread the money around on tunes I know I'll listen to more than once. And now I can also digitize those lonely songs from the poor mostly-rejected CDs and listen to them just about anywhere without having to carry a bunch of disks with me, thanks to MP3 and its cousins.
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