The early 90s saw the dawn of the internet age. While this meant that people could bid goodbye to snail mail and also make use of new ways to interact, it was also realised that the internet could be a brilliant platform for sharing music. But there was a problem.
At that time, CD quality digital audio was popular, but it was too cumbersome to rip and share over the internet because of large file sizes. As such, it wasn’t possible to share entire albums or many music files at the same time, also considering that data speeds weren’t as good then as they are now.
The Birth of MP3
It was in 1993 that the Motion Picture Experts Group (MPEG) of the International Standards Organization sat down to decide a new music format which reduced file size and also could be used to transmit music over the internet. The challenge was immense, but so were the candidates. Following a protracted debate, the group decided to confer the crown to a few formats, but a budding format developed by a German not-for-profit research firm went on to dominate the space for the next two decades.
Mp3 was a result of years of devotion and tireless research for a digital music compression technology which could sound as good as an original and also took up much lesser space compared to existing audio codecs. Fraunhofer Institute’s team included the likes of Karlheinz Brandenburg who used Suzanne Vega’s Tom’s Diner as a base to improve his craft. Aided by a talented group of researchers, he ensured that he could achieve remarkable compression without compromising on audio quality. Thus mp3 was born.
The one basic advantage which mp3 enjoyed over CD quality digital audio was that it could reduce file sizes by about 75% to 90%. While retaining sound quality, mp3 codecs used a compression mechanism to do away with certain sounds which the human ear could not decipher, thus getting rid of excess baggage in the process. At the same time, while CD quality digital audio required 1411200 bit/s to work, an mp3 file ran on just 128 kbit/s, which was a 91% improvement in file compression.
For example, your typical 3MB audio file could be as large as 10MB or even 12MB had mp3 not evolved in the 90s. By drastically cutting down on the flab, mp3 made it simple for people to share music over the internet and also store them on their devices- a fact which has now resulted in drying up of CD collections and people storing their entire music collection in smartphones and laptops.
The Rise to Infamy
While AAC was the default codec in Apple’s iPods, the devices also allowed mp3 encoding, allowing mp3 to gain ground as a standard audio format in the 1990s. However, the real coup happened when Microsoft’s Windows Media Player started supporting the codec from 1997, paving the way for a surge in MP3 players in the next few years.
This was followed by the arrival of Napster, the world’s best peer-to-peer filesharing network which enabled internet users across the globe to share mp3 files with each other, resulting in explosive growth of digital music at the cost of cassettes and CDs. However, Napster also paved the way for widespread copyright infringement which resulted in severe losses for record companies. While Napster eventually shut down, mp3.com emerged as a legal destination for music lovers to download their favourite songs and albums.
As the new millennium arrived, mp3 licences were in hot demand from all over the world, fetching Fraunhofer Institute hundreds of millions in licensing fees as people got more attuned to digital music. The likes of Amazon, a reincarnated Napster, Rhapsody, Walmart and Beatport entered the digital music fray, offering unending options for music lovers to download their favourite beats.
The Eventual Farewell
As it goes in the technology world, mp3 had its shortfalls and over a period of time, gave way to other advanced codecs like AAC (also co-developed by Fraunhofer with others) and MPEG-H which offer better audio quality, especially at lower bitrates. With music streaming gradually replacing the usage of CDs and also enabling people to enjoy all the music they love without having to store them on their phones, the demand for better audio meant that mp3 had to go. On April 23, Fraunhofer Institute decided not to renew licencing for mp3-related patents, ending the codec’s long innings at the top.
Ultimately, mp3 has died a happy death not because it lost out to rivals, but because its creators realised that its time had come. The format may not mean much to the next generation, but it would always be remembered by the millennials as the one that paved the way for digital music, never to look back again.
Over the course of the last 24 years, mp3 has had its share of laurels, some of which benefited the entire music industry and fans alike. The first major achievement was the arrival of MP3 players which replaced large and clunky battery-operated CD players, letting music lovers store hundreds of songs in their tiny devices. Initially pricey during the late 90s, MP3 players evolved quickly, increasing in affordability, portability and their storage capabilities. While the earliest MP3 players came with 32MB or 64MB of storage, later versions supported several gigabytes of data.
The next big achievement was the arrival of music streaming services which allowed people to listen to all the music they wanted without having to purchase each one of them. Low-priced subscription plans allowed people to get rid of their own collections and save valuable space on their smartphones, tablets and desktops. At the same time, streaming services ensured that you didn’t have to buy CDs or even MP3 players anymore.
While the licences for mp3 patents no longer exist, those hundreds or thousands of mp3 files on your desktop, laptop or smartphone will continue as before. You can still revel in the music but as it goes, the stock will deplete over the next few years, making way for more advanced codecs which today’s artists will adopt. As of now, all major streaming services, radio stations and broadcasting companies have moved beyond mp3 and it will only be a matter of time before the rest of the world does, but the soul of mp3 will live on forever. As for your own stock of mp3 music, it’ll stay on with you forever.