The Social History of the MP3.
August 24, 2009 8:03 AM   Subscribe

The Social History of the MP3.
posted by chunking express (75 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

 
Yet one particular thing I noticed amidst the nostalgia surrounding the latest (and likely last) Beatles CD reissues, and Jackson's sudden passing was a sense of resignation that the eras within which both stars emerged seem highly unlikely to happen again. The Beatles, in 1963-64 and 1967, and Michael Jackson in 1983-4 arguably represented for pop music what World Cups, the Olympics, and Super Bowls do for sports, and what blockbuster summer hits do for movies: the ability to command everyone's attention at once.

britney spears your argument is invalid
posted by DU at 8:10 AM on August 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


We've all read the trend pieces and editorials lamenting . . . the fact that kids don't value music anymore

Separating music from money is completely good.
posted by ND¢ at 8:15 AM on August 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


Separating music from money is completely good.

Indeed. Separating vegetables from money would be completely good, too, except the farmers would probably stop tilling their fields and we'd all get kinda hungry.

Musicians will keep playing through all manner of poverty and deprivations, though, not to mention the fact that you can download most any music that musicians had originally intended to sell (doesn't work with vegetables) so... lucky you! The music won't dry up!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:20 AM on August 24, 2009 [4 favorites]


My Senior Thesis: Let Me Show You It.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 8:20 AM on August 24, 2009 [16 favorites]


Separating vegetables from money would be completely good, too, except the farmers would probably stop tilling their fields and we'd all get kinda hungry.

If farmers are going hungry, then you haven't separated vegetables from money.
posted by DU at 8:21 AM on August 24, 2009 [6 favorites]


Music that is good can be like crack. If you give the kids the first one for free, they will come back and pay next time.
posted by Pollomacho at 8:23 AM on August 24, 2009 [2 favorites]


more eclectic tastes than a teenager should be capable of,

I haven't been a teenager since Clinton's first term, but this kind of withering condescension still rubs me the wrong way.
posted by box at 8:25 AM on August 24, 2009 [4 favorites]


My first MP3 player was a Diamond Rio. It ran on a single AA battery. I remember transcoding tunes down to something like 96 kbps to try and get a reasonable amount of music on there using the built-in memory and a smartmedia card. Back then 128 kpbs was virtually considered "CD quality." Now I wish ipods would handle FLAC.
posted by exogenous at 8:26 AM on August 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


> If farmers are going hungry, then you haven't separated vegetables from money.

Indeed. Same goes with musicians and MP3s.

It's a business model problem, not a social justice one.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 8:26 AM on August 24, 2009


a few decades from now, we'll most likely find ourselves nostalgic for the mp3 decade

Yeah, I'll really miss the swishing, flangey sibilants.
posted by uncleozzy at 8:31 AM on August 24, 2009 [13 favorites]


In what way have the major labels "collapsed"? A lot of the writing in this feels like a fantasy piece about what the record industry might look like in 10 or 20 years' time.

Sorry, Pitchfork readers, but you're going to have to put up with the existence of major label music for a little while longer.
posted by cillit bang at 8:35 AM on August 24, 2009


You'd think people in the music industry would eventually tire of freaking out about about relatively slight differences in the way their products are delivered, especially since recorded music has only existed for, what, a hundred years?

I'm sure people screamed and yelled and rent their garments when they stopped making wax cylinders, too.
posted by Copronymus at 8:37 AM on August 24, 2009 [2 favorites]


I think it's lucky that music was the medium to play the universal easy piracy game. It worked out pretty well. Because good music doesn't need an industry. Good music can be made by hobbiests. Good music can be made by disorganized people with little capital who support themselves maybe by touring or maybe by having a day job. This isn't to say I don't value the work of making good music, but I think we can to a very real extent get by with paying attention instead of paying cash and still have good music made and find it.

But other mediums like film require too much capital, cooperation, and people doing boring unglamorous work to expect things to just work themselves out on their own. Fortunately I think the movie industry is figuring things out pretty well and has acted to make legal digital rentals and ownership available without lots of hassle for reasonable prices in the time it took for 70 megabyte albums to become 700+ megabyte movies.
posted by I Foody at 8:38 AM on August 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


Same goes with musicians and MP3s.

Are musicians literally going hungry?
posted by shii at 8:39 AM on August 24, 2009


But other mediums like film require too much capital, cooperation, and people doing boring unglamorous work to expect things to just work themselves out on their own.

Software. I rest my case.
posted by DU at 8:43 AM on August 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


Yeah, I'll really miss the swishing, flangey sibilants.

I'm sure they'll have a ProTools plug-in (or whatever the future equivalent is) that replicates them.
posted by acb at 8:44 AM on August 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'm sure people screamed and yelled and rent their garments when they stopped making wax cylinders, too.

"Rent" their garments? You kidding? Man, I had to sell my garments once wax cylinders went out! My whole fan base was all about the cylinders, man. Once everything went 78rpm shellac (remember how everybody whined about how brittle they were?), it was all over for me. Lucky I invested wisely, though. I'll always have cylinders to thank for my current comfortable lifestyle.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:44 AM on August 24, 2009 [3 favorites]


I live in a shack made of 8-tracks.
posted by box at 8:46 AM on August 24, 2009 [2 favorites]


people doing boring unglamorous work

It's true, drum and vocal edits are both exciting and glamorous.
posted by uncleozzy at 8:50 AM on August 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


I recall 1998 being the year that mp3s really proliferated. I was a freshman in college, and I had this beautiful T1 connection in my dorm room, which was faster than anything I had ever used. Everybody was sharing mp3s over the network. I was downloading bootleg concerts off the Internet and using Napster. It was really like a golden age.
posted by sswiller at 8:50 AM on August 24, 2009 [5 favorites]


Shawn Fanning was a hard guy to root for, but it still holds that what he instigated with Napster at the turn of the century-- and more importantly what others have done with his idea since-- is the most important innovation in musical distribution since the 45 rpm record.

Meh. I thought an article about the historical impact of the MP3 format would have a few more historical details, but instead it's just a few offhand references to obvious things like Napster. No, Napster did not invent online music distribution, it just invented a way to do ad-hoc file transfers without having an explicit client/server setup. Music sharing had existed online for years by that point in the form of the scene, FTP sites, IRC channels, newsgroups, etc. P2P sharing was actually a lot more primitive and disorganized compared to the existing distribution methods until it matured into BitTorrent.

I think it's lucky that music was the medium to play the universal easy piracy game.

Actually the computer games industry was probably the first one to see widespread and easy piracy. Although the games industry didn't call it DRM, they went through most of the unsuccessful copy protection schemes in the 80s that other industries didn't even think about until the last ten years or so. But without the massive game copying network that existed in the early 1990s, Doom probably wouldn't have been able to go from an obscure shareware game to one of the biggest hits of the decade. Part of the reason the widespread piracy went more or less unnoticed to the public was that since personal computer ownership exploded and has steadily risen since then, the industry as a whole has been able to grow based on the increasing userbase alone. When a mature industry like the music industry starts to see their profit margins get hit, a crackdown seems to be inevitable.
posted by burnmp3s at 8:50 AM on August 24, 2009 [3 favorites]


So 6pt font is in? Good to know.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 8:51 AM on August 24, 2009 [5 favorites]


"Because the song depends on very subtle nuances of Vega's inflection, the algorithm would have to be very, very good to select the most important parts of the sound file and discard the rest. So Brandenburg tested each refinement of his system with Tom's Diner. He wound up listening to the song thousands of times, and the result was a code that was heard around the world. When an MP3 player compresses music by anyone from Courtney Love to Kenny G, it is replicating the way that Brandenburg heard Suzanne Vega."
posted by kid ichorous at 8:51 AM on August 24, 2009 [5 favorites]


I recall 1998 being the year that mp3s really proliferated ... I was downloading bootleg concerts off the Internet and using Napster.

Napster wasn't released to the public until mid-1999, and it didn't really get popular until toward the end of the year.
posted by burnmp3s at 8:54 AM on August 24, 2009


As I have said before on the topic of freely-distributed music taking away the incentive for musicians to strive to create new work: until the day comes when you can download pussy, guys are still gonna form bands in droves. It's not all about fortune.
posted by Senor Cardgage at 8:54 AM on August 24, 2009 [5 favorites]


People made music for the non-monetary rewards of status, fun and just because it is a natural part of the human condition to want to make pretty sounds for thousands of years before we turned music into a commodity and they will go on doing so after it has stopped being one.
posted by ND¢ at 9:00 AM on August 24, 2009 [2 favorites]


Are musicians literally going hungry?

Farmers don't go hungry if they choose to quit being farmers and go get another job that pays, or if they farm just enough to feed themselves. Musicians don't go hungry if they choose to quit being musicians and go get another job that pays, or if they play just enough to feed themselves (consider the large number of stellar jazz players who barely got by hand-to-mouth.) Mechanics and carpenters don't go hungry if they choose to quit being mechanics and carpenters and go get another job that pays, or if they fix just enough stuff to feed themselves. And so on, and so forth.

Then again, any one of us can go and become a farmer to keep ourselves fed, and also be a musician to keep ourselves entertained, and also a mechanic and carpenter to keep our farming equipment and musical instruments in tip-top shape. It's a matter of time and resources, really; if you want to be all those things, it's in your power (mostly) but it's also far easier to get really good at one thing, and pay other specialists for their thing in return for them paying for yours (or do the whole thing through barter, if you like.)

That's where musicianship falls apart, a bit; you can't deny the need for room and board, food, keeping machines and tools working, and so on, but when times are tight (in a barter economy or a money one) the musician or other artist becomes the casualty, as they produce a want, not a need. So then whole groups of people all chip in their little pennies to get a musician to play for 'em on a stage, each paying very little but the artist making enough to get by. Eventually middlemen have to get involved because of the size of the audiences, the level of quality expected for the price, and the profits to be made by doing a good job of being a middleman. Then someone figures out how to record stuff and bypass the middlemen who were managing the in-person shows...oh yeah, that's how we got here, wasn't it?
posted by davejay at 9:01 AM on August 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


When I got to college in 1997, I heard about MP3s, but the only one I could find to download was "Enter Sandman." My 486 wouldn't play it at any better resolution than 22kHz mono without skipping.

This Saturday morning I woke up after a night of, perhaps, a few too many beers, to an iTunes receipt in my inbox for "Pop Goes the Weasel" by 3rd Bass.

How far we have come.
posted by uncleozzy at 9:04 AM on August 24, 2009 [4 favorites]


But other mediums like film require too much capital, cooperation, and people doing boring unglamorous work to expect things to just work themselves out on their own.

Software. I rest my case.


Except that the creation of software requires very little in the way of capital inputs. These days a developer workstation sufficient for almost all development tasks costs less than a thousand dollars. The primary input for software is labor.

Compare that to film. Sure, you can shoot certain kinds of films with naught but actors, natural sets and lighting, and a $1000 digital video camera. But what if you want to shoot on location? What about a location that requires permits or the (paid) assistance of police? What if you want to use artificial lighting that doesn't look awful? How about boom mikes, steadicams, tracks, costumes, props, pyrotechnics, etc?

Lots of kinds of films, and not just special effects-filled blockbusters, require significant capital inputs in a way that music and software do not.
posted by jedicus at 9:16 AM on August 24, 2009 [2 favorites]


When I got to college in 1997, I heard about MP3s, but the only one I could find to download was "Enter Sandman." My 486 wouldn't play it at any better resolution than 22kHz mono without skipping.

Oh, well, if we're going to do that... Savage Garden, I Want You. I took it home at the end of the year (June '97?) on two floppies, and sat there playing my only MP3 over and over again, via the command-line decoder, on a P200.

It took over 12 hours to encode an album with the Fraunhofer app... and that's what my PC spent the rest of the summer doing. Definitely a watershed moment - I went back to university full of plans for self-modifying digital jukeboxes, hooked up to each other via ISDN, and books-on-MP3.
posted by Leon at 9:24 AM on August 24, 2009 [2 favorites]


True, but I think this is why film is rapidly cannibalizing comics. Here's a medium with imagination, and talent, and (as they boasted in the Golden Age, still true) all the colors a dime can buy. And (depending on how you look at it) a fresh storyboard already laid out for Hollywood to throw into production.
posted by kid ichorous at 9:26 AM on August 24, 2009


The mp3 is still "recorded music"-- that's not going to change until Apple unveils the iBrain

Why did I just know instinctively that this article was by an Apple fanboi.

Also, 6pt gray on black? Really? (Ctrl++)
posted by lumpenprole at 9:37 AM on August 24, 2009


I remember when I first heard about mp3s and being shocked at how big the files were. A 5 meg file compared to a 100k MIDI? Preposterous! I couldn't see why I would ever need to move on from my giant collection of TV theme and classical music MIDIs.

Then again, I also felt the same way about Gopher -> WWW, Lynx -> Mosaic, and Mosaic -> Netscape. I should probably never try to be a technology prognosticator.
posted by kmz at 9:42 AM on August 24, 2009


Metafilter: swishing, flangey sibilants.
posted by Cookiebastard at 9:50 AM on August 24, 2009 [3 favorites]


I should probably never try to be a technology prognosticator.
Maybe not, but to be one of the great technology procrastinators...
posted by bdc34 at 9:59 AM on August 24, 2009


One thing that the article touched on that I have noticed is that people seem to have more wide-ranging tastes these days, which I think is directly related to the increased availability of music and the decreased importance of the middleman.
posted by vibrotronica at 10:03 AM on August 24, 2009 [2 favorites]


No talk of FTP ratio sites? Taking over the family phone line after 10pm so you could upload whatever random tracks you could find to try out "Antiloop," just because you liked the sound of their name? Or maybe you had to try that "Aphex Twin - Popcorn" song you saw. Either way, you woke up and had a bad day, because you were disconnected after uploading 10 songs and only downloading 2, and you got banned from the site for trying to log back on and download the songs that you no longer had the credits to get the rest of your queue.

Circa 1996, there was a website that had a lot of Prodigy. I listened to Breathe on a loop for hours. It was years before I could listen to that track again. Sure, I could have worked after school or on the weekends and gotten money to buy music, but most electronic music came from Europe. When imports cost 3 to 4 times as much as a domestic CD to import, and then I might spend $40 to find out that Pete Namlook makes very slow music, waiting a few hours to download random tracks was fantastic. The fact that you can listen to so many songs INSTANTLY on YouTube is fantastic, and the proliferation of sites where anyone can sell their own collection and name their own price means that I'm no longer tied to costly imports.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:11 AM on August 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


From the article:
commemorated the ritual of paying for it. It's a way of framing these events that could only happen now, at a time when mp3s and file-sharing networks have allowed millions of disparate global collaborators to create the largest shadow economy in history, which has eaten away at the music industry like termites on the foundation of an old house
There's more to it then that, though, It's not just that people can pirate music, it's the fact that pop culture itself is so fragmented due to the internet. Even if file sharing had never caught on, you would still have a lot more 'long tail' stuff, you would have everyone off in their own little sub cultural niche. There's no monolithic pop culture anymore.

Take, for example the band Metric for example. They're one of a number of bands that have decided not to go with major label representation and go it alone. They cell CDs (and "collectors edition" Records) on their website. There are examples of major artists dropping their labels and going it alone (like Trent Reznor), but that's after the success on major labels in the past.

On the other hand, you do still have the Disney cultural behemoth, so you still see that kind of thing with their acts. Which is probably why the "biggest" acts out right now are all promoted by the network, like Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers.

Software. I rest my case.

Um, perhaps you could state your case before resting it, maybe?

---

On the whole farmer derail, Agriculture is such a small part of our labor now that the government could easily pay every farmer a salary to work the fields rather then operating the farms as a business. Hell, they're practically doing that already through farm subsidies.
posted by delmoi at 10:14 AM on August 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


As I have said before on the topic of freely-distributed music taking away the incentive for musicians to strive to create new work: until the day comes when you can download pussy, guys are still gonna form bands in droves. It's not all about fortune.

Unless all the groupies stop going for rock-star wannabes ("Rock stars? My grandma was into those. Ewww.") and start taking an interest in someone else. Like, say, augmented reality game designers or something.

History is littered with the fossils of art forms which used to be youthful and charged with Dionysiac sexual energy. Take most forms of folk dancing, for example. (Morris dancing wasn't always for paunchy middle-aged men with a penchant for real ale, you know.)
posted by acb at 10:42 AM on August 24, 2009 [3 favorites]


Unless all the groupies stop going for rock-star wannabes ("Rock stars? My grandma was into those. Ewww.") and start taking an interest in someone else. Like, say, augmented reality game designers or something.

In which case people will stop stealing their music as well. ‘I swear, I just downloaded this rock and roll crap ironically!’
posted by Think_Long at 10:54 AM on August 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


It's not all about fortune.

Yeah, and the interesting thing about what's happening to music right now is that, for the vast majority of the music making populace, it never has been.

It's only really been from the late 70's/early 80's that there's been this feeling that anyone can start a band and get picked up by a label. A feeling the music industry encouraged because it essentially set itself up as a giant pyramid scheme.

With the way young bands were setup, they were going to get a decent return off of them whether or not they made it. If the band didn't hit big, they just ended up owing the record company directly.

A lot of musicians either recognized that that was a terrible deal, or made the kind of music that would never see huge returns, so just decided that they were going to do it no matter what. There are probably thousands of these people/bands around your area right now.

The question is whether or not file sharing is going to ultimately be a benefit or a hazard in the long term. At the moment, it's a benefit because most bands in this situation use the recordings as a loss leader or promotional tool. But the idea in that case is to pass a critical mass where selling recordings works enough that you can tour or play more often.

The economic model is in flux, and it's not clear what's going to come of it. Interesting times.
posted by lumpenprole at 10:54 AM on August 24, 2009


I think the argument that musicians can just get a day job and keep producing is only being put forth by people who've never tried it. If you have a real, honest to god, job that requires concentration and energy, going out at the end of the day and then getting up the next morning can take their toll, and the art and the job will suffer. Also, touring is close to impossible if you only have 10 vacation days a year.
Also, as much as i despise what the music industry has become, it's hard to argue that most of the music we consider "great" didn't come from it and that a lot of it would have gone undiscovered without it. I think the best example of this is the Beatles, whose best work wasn't even performed live and likely wouldn't have occurred without the input of George Martin, their producer.
Then there's the argument that no one needs expensive studio time and anyone can set up a reasonably good home studio and record their own albums. The truth is anyone can set a cheap a studio and make reasonable recordings for an audience like youtube. This is particularly true for electronic music. For acoustic music or amplified music, it falls apart pretty fast. The amount of a equipment to record a traditional rock band in a studio setting is huge. Knowing how to make it work well, is an art in itself. The cost of a good studio today on the cheap would still be somewhere upwards of $30-40K and that would not include the actual space/property, and would not be a first class studio that major label star would record at.
So yeah, if you want to give up your entire life, savings and vacation time, you too might just be able to become a touring musician who might even be able to afford medical insurance. Thanks, but no thanks.
posted by doctor_negative at 10:56 AM on August 24, 2009 [3 favorites]


My first exposure to MP3s was via Hotline, sometime in '97. Hotline was Mac-only at the time, and it felt very much like the way 'underground' BBSes had for years. In retrospect, I think Hotline was the last gasp of BBS culture, and it died out as something I could recognize and trace back to the 80s around this point.

MP3s took over Hotline very quickly; within the space of a few months it seemed like they went from something of interest only to a fringe within the already fringy Hotline community, to something everybody wanted to get in on. I assume the rapid uptake must have been connected to the release of a Mac encoder, but exactly what sparked it I'm not sure of.

But initially, the only things I remember seeing or downloading were all fairly obscure techno/dance tracks, mostly European. I'm not sure whether this was representative of the first people to get their hands on the encoder, or if people just didn't want to bother encoding (at extreme cost in terms of machine time) and uploading pop music that many downloaders would have on CD anyway.

I discovered a lot of bands that I probably never would have heard otherwise, just because they were the only thing available to download and the band or track name sounded interesting. It was really hit or miss—you could queue up a bunch of stuff overnight, hope your modem wouldn't get disconnected or that your ISP wouldn't drop your connection for being abusive, and in the morning you'd have 5 or 10 new tracks if you were very lucky.

I'm still unconvinced that the music labels and industry in general lost as many sales to MP3s as they claim, at least during the early years. I don't know anyone who was downloading music at that point and wasn't also buying CDs. If it belongs anywhere, the blame for disconnecting "buying" from "music" lies with the CD burner, which became widespread around the same time. I don't have any figures, nor do I think it's really possible to compute any, but I'm quite sure that far more tracks were traded via direct CD copying than via MP3s and the Internet, at least prior to Napster.

Maybe things were different in areas that got broadband Internet access earlier, but all throughout the late 90s, the bulk of music-sharing that I saw took place via copied CDs. A couple of people would go in on a CD together, and then pay a friend with a burner (which at the time was a $500+ investment) or access to one at work to run a few copies. Or people would go through each others' CD collections and pick out albums they wanted and copy them.

A CD-to-CD copy on a 2x SCSI burner was slow, and there was the cost of the blank (several bucks a pop) to cover, and you had to know someone with the equipment, but it was a lot faster than trying to download MP3s online. And because what you ended up with was an actual CD, it really did take the place of going to a store and buying one, in a way that downloading didn't.

I don't know if CD copying scared the industry in the same way that MP3s did (I think it did, at least for a while; they tried all sorts of tricks to make discs 'un-copyable'), and maybe MP3s and the iPod will turn out to be more significant in the long run, but I definitely remember the day when I watched a friend burn a disc on his Panasonic 7402B as the day when I thought that the music industry was going to be in trouble.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:00 AM on August 24, 2009 [2 favorites]


The other thing that's not mentioned in the article - not all music is equal and this inequality defines uses and audiences. Mass market pop - destined for 14 year old females (by far the biggest market in music) has been effected differently by MP3s than more mature markets.

Do you want to talk about the social impact of MP3s? IMHO you can't do so while maintaining the myth that music is a fungible commodity.
posted by Samuel Farrow at 11:01 AM on August 24, 2009


Also, touring is close to impossible if you only have 10 vacation days a year.

Oh, silly United States. Land of the free and home of the overworked. Not that 25 or 35 days is enough to tour, though.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:04 AM on August 24, 2009


Either way, you woke up and had a bad day, because you were disconnected after uploading 10 songs and only downloading 2, and you got banned from the site for trying to log back on and download the songs that you no longer had the credits to get the rest of your queue.

That's why if you were smart you would stagger the uploads and downloads in your queue rather than uploading all at once and then downloading. That way if you dropped in the middle of an upload, you'd bounce on the next download but then get back on track with the next upload. So you might have a failed song or two in your queue the next morning but nothing major. Also, setting up your FTP client to not hammer or retry too much on failed downloads was a good way to avoid getting banned, especially since most FTP clients did not have very server-friendly default settings.

Of course most stuff that uploaded to public ratio sites were garbage anyway, because it was relatively easy for someone to upload some random crap and download what they wanted before the admin would notice. And even if the admin found out and banned them, a lot of people had dynamic IPs that changed every time the dialed into their ISP, so they could just come back tomorrow. The ratio kept the complete n00bs from trying to download through Internet Explorer or otherwise completely fail at grasping the concept of FTP of course, but it wasn't a great way to actually encourage people to upload good music. A lot of the better sites moved to being invite-only, usually with a list of requests that could be uploaded for unlimited access or download credits. Really, modern invite-only ratio-based BitTorrent sites are not much more than big fancy centralized FTP sites, even though the technology involved is P2P rather than client/server.
posted by burnmp3s at 11:11 AM on August 24, 2009


I think the argument that musicians can just get a day job...

Day job? Pssshhh. I think allowing them to work 10 hours a day grinding at a minimum wage job, then go to rehearsal or a show after, then sleep four hours and do it again, is entirely too generous.

Why not just shackle them in a basement studio, next to a server that puts their work on Bittorrent as soon as it's done? There could be a guy from the "pirate party" to whip them when they don't write indie hits fast enough.
posted by drjimmy11 at 11:13 AM on August 24, 2009


I think the argument that musicians can just get a day job and keep producing is only being put forth by people who've never tried it

Nope. It's being put forward by me who's been doing it for years.
posted by lumpenprole at 11:25 AM on August 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


I think the argument that musicians can just get a day job and keep producing is only being put forth by people who've never tried it.

i'm trying it - success as the industry defines it probably won't happen, but then it doesn't happen too much with people who quit their day jobs

i don't think it's impossible to do quality work part time

Then there's the argument that no one needs expensive studio time and anyone can set up a reasonably good home studio and record their own albums.

a home computer and the right software can give you a better recording set up than most professional studios had in the 70s - and acoustic or amplified music isn't as difficult or expensive to record as you think
posted by pyramid termite at 11:25 AM on August 24, 2009


Are musicians literally going hungry?


As a group? No. That's the point. MP3s are an infinite good. While the value may be high, the price is going to trend toward zero, since your buddy can easily give you a copy. This is the dark lining on the silver cloud.

However! It is a silver cloud. If you tour, you're more likely to have a fanbase that will (a) support you, and (b) know what the call-and-response portions of your songs are, etc., which makes the experience better for everyone.

And yeah, you can bemoan the fate of bands that just wanted to live off of CD sales, but recorded music is an anomaly in the history of music.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 11:26 AM on August 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


Napster was popular enough by the start of my senior year at university (1999) that the first week of my media law class was given over to a case study of it. I didn't start using it until early 2000 when I got a full-time job at a design firm and there was a collective mission in the office to basically download every song possible off Napster and put them on our own server. This type of activity might indicate the problems that led to the company crashing and burning by the end of Summer (I quit at the end of June).
posted by autodidact at 11:33 AM on August 24, 2009


The Beatles, in 1963-64 and 1967

That's a weird distinction. The Beatles' music in 1965 and 1966 was much better than in 1963-64 and it's not like people forgot about them. In 1965 they released Help! (which included "Yesterday," the song with the most cover versions of any song ever written), Rubber Soul, and the non-LP "We Can Work It Out"/"Day Tripper" single. In 1966 they released Revolver and the non-LP "Paperback Writer"/"Rain" single.
posted by kirkaracha at 11:34 AM on August 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


I want to make clear that I invoked the musician with a day job as a counterpoint to the studio and independent movie system. It was not a moral judgement but a practical one. And by practical I don't mean actually practical for everyone. I mean practical for plenty of people, and frankly practical for probably as many people as the studio system today is. I'm not saying that musicians shold work for free. I am saying most musicians do work for free and a few very lucky and maybe talented acts make a good amount of money. But even with people only buying music and no one pirating it a most musicians are going to be pretty much working for lottery tickets.
posted by I Foody at 11:35 AM on August 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


The article seriously lacks any argument for why the MP3 became as popular as it did, especially for a "social history". Napster absolutely blew the doors off music collection as it was previously known: not that it was without precedent in many ways, but the absolute scale and proliferation was amazing. Without it I can't imagine the mainstream adoption would have ever happened the way it did. MP3 players wouldn't have become nearly as prolific without illegal trade providing a faucet with which to fill them.

Its hard to say in this era of monster drives and prolific broadband if the format would still make sense had not an absolute avalanche of format been previously loosed upon society: we'd all be FLACin' it. Napster put the lock on MP3 as the format of choice, as well as opening collectors up to possibilities beyond the single. The democratization of distribution gave audience recordings and otherwise unreleased content the same potential as anything the industry could shove at is. I remember watching the proliferation of an odd track popularized by Kottke and thinking that I was watching the future unfold as peers joined the stream.
posted by Ogre Lawless at 12:02 PM on August 24, 2009 [2 favorites]


However! It is a silver cloud. If you tour, you're more likely to have a fanbase that will (a) support you, and (b) know what the call-and-response portions of your songs are, etc., which makes the experience better for everyone.

As a music fan, I can only attest thunderously to the truth of this. When I like a band, I tend to really, really like them, enough to get friends to listen to their music and convert them into fans, enough to want to drag scads of people to shows, enough to go far and wide for them, and enough to buy the band's merchandise at concerts, even if they're overpriced, just to support them. And I say this as a shameless downloader of mp3s.

During the 90s, when I liked a lot of "alternative" and "indie" music, I could hardly find CDs of bands I was looking for in brick-and-mortar shops in Manila, because guess what? To get a return on their investment, music chains would mostly import the Top 40 or Billboard chart-toppers. You want Poe or Pavement? Sorry, the rare store that might import them will price them at premium, or you can try mail-order, or go to labels directly. As a student, I had neither the money nor the resources to carry that out and thanked the heavens for the Internet and IRC, later Napster, AudioGalaxy, and SoulSeek. And you know what? If I hadn't downloaded those mp3s, I never would've discovered so much non-mainstream music or gotten obsessed with any not-that-famous bands. Obsessed enough to not only convert friends and acquaintances, but also strangers on the Internet, into fans. Fans who would jump at the chance to see these makers of music perform live, if they had the chance. (True story: I and friends I converted totally flew to Singapore to see Stars. Yes!)

mp3s are the greatest thing ever.
posted by Lush at 12:07 PM on August 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


I think the first mp3 I encountered was on the nascent "Smashing Pumpkins Audio Archive" in late 1996. The song was "Drown". It was 96kHz/s, and it sounded better than anything I'd ever heard on the internet. I think the player I downloaded was called "AudioActive"...and I remember when it updated to v1.1, it would no longer play "non authenticated" files, ones you hadn't ripped yourself. Very early DRM pushback.
posted by anazgnos at 12:27 PM on August 24, 2009


mp3s are the greatest thing ever

Well that's why it's weird being a musician now. If you're any kind of a musician you're also a giant consumer of music. And there's no two ways about it it's a golden age for the music consumer.

Whether or not it's more of a guilded age for the creator is, as I was saying, still up for debate. For someone like me that has to scratch and pull just to get a little bit of local radio play, the field has leveled considerably. There are pirate radio stations playing my tracks all over the country. That's sweet, sweet milk to my soul.

I am, however, typing this from a cubicle. And I expect that to continue.
posted by lumpenprole at 12:27 PM on August 24, 2009 [2 favorites]


For those of you straining your eyes over the article, try running it through Readability.
posted by sgranade at 12:32 PM on August 24, 2009 [2 favorites]


As for the article itself, I think it missed the forest for the single container format. I'm much more interested in the story of how we turned music into small digital files that could then be traded around a burgeoning network of people, driven in part by the explosive growth of available bandwidth and disk space. And yet, for all the talk of how democratized music is now, it's still largely hit driven. Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead may be able to release albums for free and still make a goodly amount of money, but that's built on the attention they'd already banked.
posted by sgranade at 12:42 PM on August 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


"I think the argument that musicians can just get a day job and keep producing is only being put forth by people who've never tried it."

Guided By Voices started to suck after Bob Pollard gave up teaching elementary school.
posted by klangklangston at 1:50 PM on August 24, 2009 [2 favorites]


And yet, for all the talk of how democratized music is now, it's still largely hit driven. Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead may be able to release albums for free and still make a goodly amount of money, but that's built on the attention they'd already banked.

Well, on the flip side, for all of the talk of downloading music is still largely run by the giant record companies. The industry as a whole is definitely drifting away from a business model that doesn't seem to be sustainable when music distribution costs next to nothing and sharing is uncontrollable, but we're not in that brave new world we're heading to yet.

Bands that are already popular like NIN and Radiohead are experimenting with new distribution methods, but so are small unknown bands and artists. Kickstarter, for example, is an interesting business model that some people are trying as a way to get funded in advance for producing music rather than (or in addition to) charging for copies after the fact. The Kind of Bloop project was a surprise success in that format, especially considering that the chiptune genre mostly consists of free music posted online. The music industry is still for the most part functioning on the same old business model of selling records, but we haven't really seen what all can be done with the alternatives yet.
posted by burnmp3s at 2:09 PM on August 24, 2009


I'm sure some bands can survive with day jobs, and some bands don't mind, or even like, having their MP3s thrown about the place.

Pity everyone feels the need to make a single decision for all of them, en masse.
posted by adipocere at 2:11 PM on August 24, 2009


Is there any indication, any indication at all, that hardscrabble just-starting-out musicians are having to quit and go back to their job's at Costco because of mp3s? Surely piracy/filesharing is first and foremost a tax on success?
posted by Sebmojo at 2:23 PM on August 24, 2009


I've been riding the MP3 train since around '98. I had worked in record stores for 6 years and had already defined myself as the king of music knowledge. I was very foolish. I did own a shitload of cds though, and (it's sort of funny to me now) the artist I spent the very most money on would have HAD to have been NIN. I had every Halo, every version, every import, everything. I spent money back then at record stores buying bootleg live and/or rare albums for $30+ sometimes.
By the time I first really started utilizing Napster, I was working at CDGB's, a small-but-awesome record store in Phoenix, AZ. The guy who owned it was a huge Frank Zappa fan and he wisely allowed a store credit policy with the people who worked for him, allowing me to eat into not just my paycheck coming up, but the one after that too. I needed that Weird Al boxset, damnit. NEED. As the internet got faster and computer space got bigger, I was able to start reclaiming my paychecks from the junky grip of my musical craziness and my desire to know 'all' about every genre in the world.
Napster, then Soulseek, and now torrent engines allowed me to grow from the 600 cds I owned to thousands. I have 3 TB's now and every time I hear a song I like, I don't bother with downloading the single - I go for the discography. I haven't bought a CD or an mp3 in years, but I will say that back in the early days of my piracy I bought a lot of stuff I never would have thanks to the internet and the mp3 format.
BUT
I still buy records. I love vinyl. I proudly display my record player in my living room flanked by huge bookcases filled with Cat Stevens, Simon and Garfunkel, Journey, Radiohead, Atmosphere, and all the other musicians I love who put their shit out on wax. My biggest gripe is that there are still so many who don't. I would seriously go back and buy all of the cds I had originally spent money on if they were on vinyl. Guster, Barenaked Ladies, Stabbing Westward... come on man. Please. Whether it's a myth that music sounds better on vinyl or not, it's certainly a different experience. There's no fun in putting a record on for a single track. You put it on, you listen to it all the way through, you flip it. I've spent hundreds of dollars for a single record (Deftones, White Pony). I had already downloaded that album for free years ago. Doesn't matter. If I can ever get my hands on Beck's Mellow Gold album or Tool's Aenima, I'll be a happy man, regardless of the cost. Seems silly and I don't really know what the lesson is behind it all except to say that, at least for me, mp3 only killed the medium I was buying and how quickly I was spending my money. I might only buy 20 records a year, but I still spend a good deal on music, no matter how much I download.
posted by Bageena at 3:31 PM on August 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


Pitchfork: making the NME seem modest & reasonable for over ten years.
posted by koeselitz at 3:37 PM on August 24, 2009 [2 favorites]


Is there any indication, any indication at all, that hardscrabble just-starting-out musicians are having to quit and go back to their job's at Costco because of mp3s?

I was speaking to someone who worked for a small UK indie record label, and they reckoned there'd been a massive drop in physical sales due to downloading. Basically at some point a few years ago enthusiasts just stopped handing over money for product. It depends whether you consider these labels important, or just the musicians.

(indie labels must have a much larger proportion of their market that use P2P. Major labels have a large demographic base who don't, which is why the hyperbole in the article about the internet having killed them is such utter bollocks)
posted by cillit bang at 3:49 PM on August 24, 2009


Okay, I'm trying to read this through and give a good assessment. Thankfully I have Virtual Magnifying Glass installed, so I can read this even if it makes me feel like an old man (those PF kids sure love their tiny font, no?)

But this doesn't strike me as very cultural - it's more trying to be an explanation of how things happened, I guess.

It's somewhat different, and obviously it stops right around where a history of the mp3 era ought to start, but this is as good a time as any to recommend the John Peel and BBC Radio One radio documentary You'll Never Be Sixteen Again from 1985. A fantastically interesting retrospective in seven one-hour parts, it covers first-hand perspectives of the experience of the British teenager from the Elvis years through the new-wave-loving New Romantics of the early 80s. So far as I can tell, it's not commercially available anywhere (they rerun it every once in a while on on BBC 6 Plays It Again) but you can download the mp3s over at the johnpeeldotnet music blog.
posted by koeselitz at 4:18 PM on August 24, 2009


Is there any indication, any indication at all, that hardscrabble just-starting-out musicians are having to quit and go back to their job's at Costco because of mp3s?

My husband is an acoustic folk/pop musician (with a 25-hour-a-week day job and no kids, and he still doesn't have time to tour) and he knows quite a few people who used to make a significant portion of their living from record sales 25 years ago who now earn approximately zero from same, even though they're more "successful" in terms of playing bigger venues, and their work is all over the file-sharing sites.

Bob Franke talks pretty candidly about this stuff on his blog.
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:42 PM on August 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


Thank you, Sidhedevil. Whenever this issue comes up in a Mefi thread (and it does with great frequency) it's always the same... folks never fail to scratch their heads and utter some variation of "but is it really bad for musicians?" I'm happy that every now and then someone does drop into these threads with their own real-life experience and observation to share. It's simple, really. Why should it be so hard for folks to understand? It's like this: a former revenue stream for lots and lots of indie musicians has essentially dried up. And nothing is replacing it. I'm not saying it's not inevitable... hell, it's a cast-iron fact. It's HAPPENED, and a lot of musicians who depended on selling their music mostly just can't anymore, and surprise surprise, they're worse off for it. Everybody clear on that?

Good! Maybe some of y'all can stop asking the same question over and over again, now.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 9:26 PM on August 24, 2009


a lot of musicians who depended on selling their music mostly just can't anymore, and surprise surprise, they're worse off for it.

As with my anecdote earlier, as a music fan living in a third-world country, a large part of being driven to download mp3s was lack of physical availability of music. Now that I'm no longer a starving student, I would gladly pay for and go through lengths to support favored artists, but they would have to be available to me in the first place. iTunes and direct digital downloads officially from the artist seems like a reasonable compromise.

But I guess the availability of mp3s changes the game, both for record labels and musicians. Whereas before, musicians had to convince labels to sign them up and make a record, and not have to worry about the business side of things like exposure, distribution, marketing, and selling of those records. Musicians going the independent route are now having to worry about all of that themselves, and competing with all of the other musicians worldwide doing the same thing, risking saturation. It's definitely a different game now.

When people ask questions, I like to think it's because precisely because they don't understand and want to understand. I for one wish there were some win-win solution that means that musicians can still make money making records, and be exposed to and available to as many people in as many far-flung places as possible, who would subsequently willingly support them. The problem right now is that delivery systems and payment options are still severely limited and/or cumbersome and/or proprietary, which drives people to go the easier, more convenient route, free or not.

The true markers really are: availability, ease of acquisition, and convenience. And these days, free is easier than cheap.
posted by Lush at 11:18 PM on August 24, 2009


I still have the ten-MP2 INTERACD compilation BBC Radio 1 put up for download back in '95. Great stuff -- Orb, 808 State, Aphex Twin, The Black Dog...and mostly exclusive tracks at the time.

The one online reference I can find to the release proudly claims that "over 300" people downloaded it. Though to be fair, it wasn't exactly trivial to complete a 56MB download with a 28.8k modem.
posted by Lazlo at 11:23 PM on August 24, 2009 [2 favorites]


I welcome the death of pop culture but i still miss spending hours in record stores.
posted by Hastur at 2:09 AM on August 25, 2009



Is there any indication, any indication at all, that hardscrabble just-starting-out musicians are having to quit and go back to their job's at Costco because of mp3s? Surely piracy/filesharing is first and foremost a tax on success?


According to Tim O'Reilly, piracy is progressive taxation, mostly hitting the established and successful, and actually helping the obscure get heard.
posted by acb at 7:30 AM on August 25, 2009


According to Tim O'Reilly, piracy is progressive taxation, mostly hitting the established and successful, and actually helping the obscure get heard.

The thing is that "getting heard" through p2p downloads doesn't translate into any significant financial benefit for many full-time musicians. Again, see Bob Franke's blog for his personal struggles with this.

If you're 20 years old and your thrashpunkmetal outfit gets new gigs because lots of people are swapping your songs, that represents a financial benefit for you. When you're 60 and you've been doing the folk music thing for 40 years and the couple thousand dollars you made annually from your record sales dries up all of a sudden, it's a problem.

I am not saying that I am a great fan of the old model of the record industry. But labels like Rounder and Arhoolie used to pay their midlist artists royalties that aren't being replaced by the free-music marketplace in any way.

It may be that we can't make the omelet of new media without breaking some eggs, but I know some of those eggs personally, and they're having some serious trouble with the transition. This is not a bloodless revolution.
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:09 AM on August 25, 2009 [2 favorites]


The thing is that "getting heard" through p2p downloads doesn't translate into any significant financial benefit for many full-time musicians.

Thank you once again, Sidhedevil. Thank you. On a somewhat related note, I'm reminded of the many times I've heard: "well, there's no guarantee for this gig, you'll be playing for free, but it'll be great exposure!" It's generally been a good chance to use my stock reply: "hey, you can die of exposure".
posted by flapjax at midnite at 9:37 PM on August 25, 2009


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