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The Digital Music Revolution: From The MP3 To Music-Is-Free

From the advent of MP3s to the births of Napster, iTunes and the streaming revolution, the shift to digital music forever changed the way we experience music.

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Digital Music revolution

She may not think so herself, but Suzanne Vega just might be the most influential figure in the past three decades of music. That’s because ‘Tom’s Diner’ was the very first song to be digitised when a German engineer, Karlheinz Brandenburg, unveiled a new audio compression tool in the early 90s, pointing towards the future of digital music.

The MP3 hadn’t been named yet, and the idea of sharing or selling this piece of data was a long way away. This, however, was the first indication that you could compress a (nearly) CD-quality version of a song into a tiny bit of information that would take up minimal computer space. A two-minute song like ‘Tom’s Diner’ would be a scant three megabytes. Brandenburg was enraptured with the sound of Vega’s unaccompanied voice, and thought his format had potential only if he could accurately reproduce that. Thus, the digital music revolution began with the simplest kind of musical beauty.

The advent of digital music

By now it’s hard to remember a time when you only owned an album if you could hold the physical copy. The advent of digital music did more than reinvent the music industry, it forced music fans and collectors to forget everything they knew about music ownership – where their collection lives, what form it takes and how to access it. Even in the 90s, the idea of fitting every album you owned on a pocket-sized portable device was straight out of The Jetsons.

Though the MP3 was in the works as early as 1995, the two most game-changing events in digital music took place at the turn of the millennium. Apple launched iTunes and its portable device, the iPod, in 2001, marking the moment when digital music truly entered the marketplace. But, of course, digital music entered the black market first, through a downloadable file-sharing app that hit the web in June 1999: that notorious entity known as Napster.

The rise of Napster

Most of us remember Napster as something akin to Playboy magazine: an illicit thing that your friends told you about. As introduced by 19-year-old inventor Shawn Fanning, its logic was fiendishly simple: the app allowed its users to raid each other’s digital music libraries, browsing collections and picking and choosing what they wanted to copy from them. In other words, it was the very thing that the music industry feared the most: home taping on a grand scale.

Artists were quick to denounce it. As the first and most vocal Napster opponents, Metallica took much of the heat, with drummer Lars Ulrich getting especially miffed when ‘I Disappear’, a song they’d recorded for a soundtrack, leaked to Napster before its release; the group subsequently filed the lawsuit that ultimately shut the free version of Napster down.

They were, however, far from the only band to go up against Napster. The Who’s Pete Townshend was also a vocal critic, and sometimes it was indie bands that saw the bigger picture: if everybody downloaded Metallica’s latest blockbuster for free, the labels would lose the funds they’d use to sign those very indie bands. Hüsker Dü frontman and alt.rock pioneer Bob Mould, for one, often made this point in interviews.

That, sadly, turned out to be the case. Even if people downloaded the music only of bands who could theoretically afford it, the heat was usually felt by those who couldn’t. Some artists, it must be noted, were far more irreverent. Drive-By Truckers’ singer/guitarist Mike Cooley was once asked if file-sharing meant the end of the music industry. He replied, “Man, I hope so.”

Killing the music industry?

Leaving aside the fact that it was stealing profits from your favourite bands, Napster had a lot of other problems. Nobody was minding the store, because there wasn’t one. Downloaders invariably wound up with songs that were full of CD skips, encoded at a lo-fi bitrate or cut off in the middle. Forget about essentials like artwork and lyric sheets, and remember that this was the era of dial-up modems, when it could take up to 20 minutes to download a single song.

You couldn’t even depend on Napster to tell you what a song or artist was. The best example has to be the Austin, Texas, roots-rock band The Gourds, who were playing an unlikely, country-styled version of Snoop Dogg’s ‘Gin And Juice’ at their gigs. Somebody uploaded it, after which it became one of the most-shared tracks on Napster, with at least 200,000 likely downloads (there was, of course, no official tally). Trouble was, almost nobody attributed it to the right band; most of the downloads credited it to Phish, Camper Van Beethoven, or anyone else it sort-of sounded like.

The Gourds still got a boost out of it; sales of the album they were promoting at the time doubled. But they would have done far better if everyone knew that the Snoop cover was them. Phish, Camper and the others were less happy about having to dodge requests for it. By the same token, live versions of Sublime’s underground classic ‘Smoke Two Joints’ were regularly credited on Napster to virtually any reggae band you could name.

Napster’s defenders always insisted that anyone who really liked an album would still wind up buying it, and to some extent they had a point. Given all the kinks, it’s no wonder a lot of users had already quit in frustration when the illegal version of Napster was shut down in 2001.

MP3: sound of the future

Since portable MP3 players weren’t in common use yet, there was also the question of where to play those downloaded MP3s. Computers didn’t sound as good as stereos, and storage space on a 1999-era desktop was also a real issue. The obvious solution was to burn everything to CD-R, which could get expensive. And CD-Rs were never the most durable medium, as anyone who left one on a windowsill near the sun can attest. Matters got worse if you tried to make them look sharp by putting an adhesive label on them. Labelled CD-Rs tended to stop playing altogether after about a year. Once your stockpile of MP3s started vanishing, you’d likely be ready to ask for your old cassette player back.

So that was the paradox about Napster. While it was charged with killing the music industry, it was really too primitive to do the job. Meanwhile, the MP3 itself came in for plenty of debate, with many audiophiles swearing it sounded nothing like a vinyl record played on a good system. Neil Young in particular hated MP3s so much that, on the Psychedelic Pill track ‘Driftin’ Back’, he sang about them with the venom he once reserved for President Nixon. We would argue, however, that if you came of age playing vinyl on dodgy dorm-room stereos – and if you haven’t been onstage playing with Crazy Horse for the past 50 years – the MP3 sounded more than fine. There was a reason it became the industry standard, while higher-end options like WAV files were always available for fussier ears.

File-sharing culture

One phenomenon that gets forgotten is that the rise of MP3-sharing coincided with the heyday of the HORDE (Horizons Of Rock Developing Everywhere) tours and the jam-band circuit, with many of these bands first embracing the new medium.

In particular, Phish launched its Live Phish website in 1999, becoming one of the first bands to sell strictly digital music. This was an extension of Grateful Dead’s policy of taping sections at its shows; Phish and others allowed fans to record and trade live shows (the one rule being that you couldn’t sell them), while putting band-recorded tapes up for sale. During the grey-area days after the free Napster shut down and other copycat sites sprung up, numerous bands – not only jam bands, but grass-roots heroes like R.E.M., Sonic Youth and Wilco – allowed live shows to be distributed online. It was a step toward shutting down CD and vinyl bootlegging, which pretty much disappeared as file trading caught on.

iTunes: a full-fledged revolution

It’s safe to say, however, that digital music didn’t become a full-fledged revolution until Apple launched iTunes in January 2001. Technically, they didn’t invent it, they acquired an indie-produced, Mac-only application called SoundJam MP and tweaked the hell out of it. The first version of iTunes was also Mac-only, and all it could do was rip CDs, so it wouldn’t even take those Napster downloads. But refinements came fast, including now-familiar features like “smart” playlists (which would give priority to your favourite tracks) and the “gapless” playback that maintained the flow of an album.

The iPod was released later that same year, and that also grew up in a hurry. The first iPods could only hold ten gigabytes’ worth of music – a couple hundred albums, more or less – and couldn’t handle a lot of metadata. The classic iPod was in place by 2007, with a healthy 160gb capacity and the ability to display album covers, a subtle but crucial tweak that changed the way digital music was experienced. If you could see the cover art on your pod and your computer, the digital version was no longer just a copy of the album – it was the album itself.

A seismic change

For life-long collectors this amounted to a seismic change, forcing them to let go of the need to own a physical copy of an album. For many, though, this was a change that happened over time. Most collectors kept the CDs and vinyl around while digitising the music, then learned to let go once the digital rips became the go-to versions. Even though it wasn’t tangible, a digital file was an ownable object; if it lived safely in a computer (and, ideally, was backed up in a couple of places) then it was part of a collection. Besides, the iTunes format gave collectors new ways to organise and play with their music.

The iPod was perhaps the only piece of technology that’s ever been designed with serious music fans in mind. Not only could they hold a few roomfuls’ worth of albums in their pocket, they had endless options for listening. Albums could be played straight through; one particular genre sound soundtrack an entire week, or a whole collection could be put on shuffle, endlessly surprising the listener with deep album tracks. The 160-gigabyte model could hold anywhere from 20,000-30,000 songs – depending bitrate, and how partial you were to 20-minute prog epics – and some music lovers needed every bit of that space.

That’s really what the digital music revolution is all about: the change in what it meant to own a record. iTunes launched its music store in 2003, with Amazon soon following suit, and the two giants gradually cornered the market on music sales. In 2011, digital downloads outsold CDs and vinyl for the first time, starting a consistent trend until vinyl made a comeback in 2018. The CD, however, lost a lot of its allure, it gradually disappeared from physical stores and the price of used ones plummeted. That, perhaps, was the greatest irony of all: the download of a vintage album still went for full price, while a CD of the same album – which you could take home and rip – languished for pocket change in the bins.

The advent of streaming

But could you be like John Lennon and imagine no possessions – or, at least, imagine not owning your collection in any permanent sense? Apparently, the answer was yes. Launched in Sweden in 2006, Spotify presented a new model for digital music as something leased or borrowed. It wasn’t the first service to offer “tethered” music (that is, music that was still controlled by the company owner), but arguably the first to make it the industry standard. By 2018, 75 percent of all music revenue was shared by Spotify and other streaming services, including Pandora, Apple Music, and Napster (yes, that Napster, which is now owned by RealNetworks and continues to operate as a paid service).

What these services offer is variety and convenience, though arguably, not the same variety you’d get from being a lifelong music collector. And for that 75 percent of the population, the ability to have (theoretically) unlimited music at hand right now overcomes concerns about still having it ten years from now.

YouTube: the new MTV

At the moment, some of the real action for music fans is on YouTube. People use it for any number of reasons, but everybody uses it; with 1.8 billion visitors every month and five billion videos watched every day, YouTube now ranks with Facebook and even Google as one of the most visited internet sites (and outpaces Spotify for streaming). Instead of griping about people getting to watch music videos for free, the major labels got in on the action.

In 2009, Universal, Sony and Warner joined together and launched Vevo, which made a massive archive of videos available for viewing on demand with ads attached, essentially making YouTube the sleek modern version of MTV. And because music on YouTube can’t be downloaded, YouTube views serve to drive sales, not replace them. As of 2019, the most viewed music video on YouTube is Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s ‘Despacito’, at six billion views (and counting). It’s also one of the best-selling singles of recent years, with over three million paid downloads since 2017. The second most popular is ‘Shape Of You’ by Ed Sheeran, who’s not hurting for sales, either.

Yet there is a lot more on YouTube than the official releases. It seems that the world’s most serious music collectors have been uploading their most priceless records. Search hard enough and you can find the rarest tracks by your favourite artists. The very briefly and mistakenly released version of The Who’s ‘Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere’ where Roger Daltrey forgets the words? It’s on there.

Some truly priceless moments in music history have also turned up, like the 1963 clip from TV’s I’ve Got A Secret, where the guest’s “secret” was that he took part in an 18-hour performance of an Erik Satie piece. That pianist was a pre-Velvet Underground John Cale. Also easily findable is an old episode of What’s My Line where the mystery guest is Frank Zappa, not a familiar face on network TV in 1971. Hip panellist Soupy Sales unmasks him.

There’s no telling where this material comes from, though sometimes the perpetrators take credit. Perhaps your Facebook feed has included the hilarious, oft-shared clip of the Lawrence Welk singers cluelessly crooning Brewer & Shipley’s drug-inspired hit ‘One Toke Over the Line’? Brewer & Shipley still perform, and they’ve admitted at recent gigs that they uploaded that one themselves. But, of course, all of this material could still disappear tomorrow.

The end of an era

For serious digital-music collectors, especially those who adapted their collecting habits to Apple products, these are unpredictable times. The iPod Classic was discontinued in 2014 (prices on used ones have since skyrocketed), and there hasn’t yet been another portable music player with the same capacity. Anyone who’d want to own 30,000 digital songs seems to no longer be the target audience.

After a few years of indecision, Apple announced they’d be axing iTunes at a developer conference in June. Specifically, vice-president of software engineering Craig Federighi said that the familiar version of iTunes will be retired and split into three related apps. What form this will take remains to be seen. The old iTunes still functions and is still very much alive, while the digital library you’ve been amassing for the past 20 years isn’t going anywhere. Every song you’ve ever bought, imported or uploaded, and all the files that are already on your computer, will remain. Nothing is being liquidated, just reorganised.

Digital music is undoubtedly here to stay, and streaming will inevitably be a large part of the picture. But there are still collectors who want interactive playback, full control of their library and, above all, storage space for lots and lots of music. As the industry moves into its next phase, here’s hoping they won’t get left behind.

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