“We don’t normally write media history in terms of compression,” says Jonathan Sterne, McGill University Communication Studies professor and author of MP3: The Meaning of a Format. “But it’s why records spin, tape and film spools, letters fold: it’s all about efficiency of storage and movement.”
Sterne’s new book, published this month by Duke University Press, is an important and timely cultural history of the most ubiquitous sound format currently in circulation, spanning 100 years to its origins in telephonic, cybernetic, industrial, and even feline research. His methods aren’t limited to a simple technical history of the technology; rather, Sterne maps a constellation of actors and agents involved in the culture and society around the mp3’s prolonged and often spasmodic development.
“Industries don’t imagine their own obsolescence very well.”
Charting the mp3’s course over the better part of a century – and across a wide swath of fields and disciplines – is apt, and Sterne carefully avoids the utopian technological determinism characterised by many of his contemporaries. “That’s why I spend the first 100 pages or so not talking much about mp3s,” he explains. “It’s all tied to what I’m calling a general history of compression.” Sterne argues, for example, that the iPod didn’t arrive in a vacuum, and wasn’t inevitable – the ability to cart around 25,000 songs in our pockets was shaped by myriad socio-economic and cultural forces: “In the late 80s, early 90s, the Walkman was already around,” Sterne recalls. “It’s not like no one thought of it. But at the same time, if you look at the industrial plans, industries have a way of imagining a future in which they’re bigger and more of what they already are, or where they incorporate other things. They don’t imagine their own obsolescence very well.”
Ironically, Sterne discovers that commercial research into squeezing more and more audio down phone lines led to the kinds of compression that the mp3 puts to use today. The mp3’s modes of compression are based upon perceptual coding: determining and subsequently removing frequencies a listener is less likely to miss should they be absent. The format’s perceptually based compression also operates under the assumption that modern listening most often takes place in less-than-ideal conditions: on a train, in a car, through little white earbuds. It seems counter-intuitive to think of sonic technologies actually moving backward with regard to quality and definition, but Sterne notes that this isn’t necessarily new: “Nobody said cassettes sounded better than LPs,” he says, “at least I don’t remember ever coming across that argument. But they were way more portable, and had this compact quality, and it was all about this kind of portability, flexibility, ease of use, manipulation, storage, etc. You could say that the mp3 is the cassette to the CD’s LP. It’s not exactly right, but it’s that kind of thing.”
“Lots of people are making lots of money off of the fact that you want to listen to music. But you’re not paying for the recordings. That’s not where the money is going.”
During the late-20th-century shift from vinyl to CDs, music listeners were motivated to switch formats due largely to concurrent moves by the music and technology industries. Yet, as Sterne concedes, the balance has tipped in favour of those players vying for much higher stakes: “The vast majority of mp3s for the vast majority of people are acquired not for pay. They’re not free, because you’ve bought a computer, you’re paying an ISP, you’ve spent a bunch of money on consumer electronics, maybe headphones – you got your Beats by Dre or whatever. Lots of people are making lots of money off of the fact that you want to listen to music, and you’re spending lots – possibly more money on a month-by-month basis – to enjoy music. But you’re not paying for the recordings. That’s not where the money is going.”
So the question remains: how will artists benefit from, or even subsist upon, their creative works in an era when most of the value now skips several rungs on the traditional music industry ladder? Sterne contends: “It’s not a perfect system at all, but I think putting a levy on things like internet service – especially for people who use a lot of bandwidth – and then that money goes back to the cultural producers. How the money goes out after, someone will have to make judgements, and inevitably some people would be unhappy with those judgements.” Still, he reaffirms that one free download in so-called pirated waters does not de facto equate to one lost sale: “What the RIAA tends to take as normal are those inflated numbers when baby boomers were replacing their vinyl collections with CDs,” Sterne reminds. “So those numbers were kind of artificial, because you can’t sustain sales of people replacing their old stuff forever. It’s a great business model if your business is consumer electronics; it’s not a great business model if your business is music.”
“The only people I know who actually maintain old computers to run old software are artists and musicians.”
Truth be told, I’m a bit of a soft touch for hard wax and, for various reasons, have argued elsewhere for its importance. Personally, the ultimate question is less what the future holds for the mp3, and more what it holds for more obviously physical forms: I’m curious to finally ask Sterne whether there is a possibility that mp3s could, paradoxically, become obsolete faster than vinyl. “You could get rid of mp3s a lot more easily,” he admits, “if there was some kind of collusion where everybody says we’re going to stop selling equipment and software that play mp3s. But there would still be a residuum of five to ten years where people will still be using their old computers and software. But then, the only people I know who actually maintain old computers to run old software are artists and musicians. So theoretically, mp3s would be easier to get rid of than anything else. As long as there are people releasing records, and selling equipment to play records, I think they’ll be fine.”
Ryan Alexander Diduck
MP3: The Meaning of a Format is now available through Duke University Press.