The Last Format

Streaming capitalizes on the utopian hopes attached to the mp3

A few months ago, Future, the Atlanta-based rapper, released his latest solo project, Beast Mode II, and my immediate thought was: I want the mp3s. I went to iTunes: Nothing. Amazon: Nada. Livemixtapes, a former go-to site for mixtapes: No dice. The songs readily existed in a streamable form, and yet I still wanted to own the mp3s. Why?

Holding music, either in your hand or on a personal hard drive, is a relic of Obama-era music consumption. Though vinyl sales incrementally increase year-over-year, the rapid freefall of CD sales continues, joined now by digital downloads. While over 223 million songs were digitally sold over the first half of 2018, overall numbers dropped over 27 percent in that same time period. This climate gives rise to the oft repeated (though never substantiated) rumor that Apple will shut down the iTunes store.

The rumor’s persistence highlights an unspoken anxiety among longtime supporters of digital music ownership. People who once saw a collection of mp3s as an ideal way to consume music relatively unbonded by the constraints of the record industry. An mp3 could be downloaded, copied, remixed; all without a tangible corresponding product it offered the music fan a nearly unencumbered way to access music. At their most radical, mp3s were supposed to break the record business.

This surveillance-based music streaming is advertising-supported and treats music not as a good but as a data point for better targeted ads

In his book How Music Got Free, Stephen Witt recounts how Karlheinz Brandenburg and the German team of engineers who developed the mp3 format struggled for years to find investors. The issue wasn’t that prospective parties from within the music industry didn’t understand the technology; it was that they quickly saw how outsiders might tap into the format’s potential and undermine a business built on selling discrete objects. But before the broader music industry could wrap its head around how to market and sell the mp3, the internet freed it to the masses.

In 2000, a year after Napster debuted, Prince, a persistent critic of the record industry, wrote a post on his website arguing that it was the labels who should shoulder blame for fans flocking toward free music: “Yes, young people need 2 be educated about the fact artists should be compensated 4 their work, but they don’t need 2 be educated about how 2 hypocritically exploit artists by forcing them to participate in a system designed 2 sell product instead of sharing good music.” The beloved singer understood that downloading mp3s wasn’t a matter of criminality but a response by his fans and the music-buying public to the greedy excesses of record label capitalism. That same year saw record labels targeted by the Federal Trade Commission for fixing to jack up CD prices, which was estimated to have cost music consumers over $500 million dollars.

Record labels closed their ears toward the singer’s critique. The industry’s solution for the problem presented by Napster and the mp3 was to threaten and sue consumers who downloaded music through illicit means, and feebly attempt to capitalize on new distribution methods. Apple, with the begrudging cooperation of the record industry, slotted the digital music file — in its case the Advanced Audio Coding file — into the CD paradigm, as if it were just another new physical format and not a revolution in distribution. But they couldn’t, at first, stamp out those niche communities of mp3 fanatics who collected and traded the format for free. The mp3 seemed like the endpoint for music consumption, the last format: free, accessible, unencumbered, it enabled fans to enjoy their favorite artists with minimal interference by corporate entities. But, while it took a decade, the music industry found a way to dash those utopian hopes. The mp3 was just another format, after all, and eventually the industry managed to undercut its relevance, partly by appealing to the ideals it once represented.

When albums first became available, they were utopian, too — a cutting-edge reprieve from a costly necessity. All of a sudden, American families didn’t need an expensive piano to have music in the home, because a record player replaced the time needed to learn new music. The industry’s shift from selling instructive and cheap sheet music moved home music from an active pursuit into a passive experience. The 20th century saw record players and mass-produced albums offered consumers cheap and relatively immediate access to music without requiring an instrument or training.

Recordings fundamentally changed what it meant to “care” about music, shifting priorities away from participatory activity toward passive consumption, and building commerce centered around individuals deemed worthy of creating music. The rise of commercial radio in the 1920s — just as the 78 record was being refined — both dematerialized the experience of music consumption and consolidated the aspect of vicarious participation. The two industries were thought to be in competition, with radio briefly inheriting the anti-capitalist mantle — why buy a record if a radio broadcast can be heard for free? — but eventually the two forged a symbiotic relationship in favor of industry, with radio teasing upcoming record releases and creating a more entrenched music fan.

The late 20th century arrival of the compact cassette and the CD once again presented both a boon and an empty threat to the record industry by technology companies like Philips and Sony. The two formats provided fans with easily reproducible copies to record and disseminate music on their own terms, but even still, the industry only saw sales and revenue rise: By phasing out vinyl records and touting new state-of-the-art stereo equipment, the industry pushed consumers to repurchase all their favorite albums again. The industry’s motive was to invalidate and destroy older formats while jacking up the prices of what was new and sat unsold on store shelves.

Maybe fans don’t own the music anymore, but the companies, as they remind us, always did

When Napster arrived in 1999, the mp3 seemed like a final liberation from the industry’s monopoly on music access, all of which had depended on commodified hardware. The format wasn’t designed for pristine sound — Brandenburg and his team held a goal of equaling, not surpassing, CD quality — but rather for convenience. Mp3s offered an alternative to the consumer exploitation that CDs epitomized because, unfettered by tangible distribution methods, they let fans access a seemingly endless amount of music for free. A fan no longer needed a record store or even a friend with an album they could potentially bootleg. A future could be reasonably imagined wherein all music was disconnected from a physical object and market concerns.

New musical communities were built up on this fertile ground. Early mp3 bloggers built websites through curating and uploading their favorite songs; bit-torrent sites like What.cd thrived by offering a near-endless backlog of recorded music; rap-mixtape sites like Datpiff or Livemixtapes helped establish the careers of artists like Gucci Mane and Wiz Khalifa; and file sharing sites like Limewire, Megaupload, and Mediafire offered outlets for unrestricted music distribution. The music of the time reflected these developments: Girl Talk’s mashups, the post-sampling early works of M.I.A., even the cheesy genre clash of rapper Nelly and country singer Tim McGraw’s single “Over and Over.” Everything felt as open for fair use as it was for downloading.

This was a time when the music industry might’ve shifted toward a long tail model of burrowing deeper into radical niches by supporting more direct artist-to-fan models of support. But the arrival of advertising-supported streaming, first in the form of YouTube and now epitomized by Spotify, unraveled much of that creative freedom and the industry tilted toward Silicon Valley’s pursuit of scale. Once the right technology arrived, the industry’s move was to discard the mp3 altogether, leaving, once again, a few massive companies in control of nearly all the music people consume, and fans with a format stripped of its value.

What exists now is the endless streamable music catalog, accessible through a monthly subscription fee, which is what Napster became nearly two decades ago once the major labels crushed it in court. Streaming-first consumption allows access to a nearly unlimited library of music, while rendering ownership inessential, or reducing it to a never-ending loan. A New York Times headline from earlier this year captures the trend: “Drake’s ‘Scorpion’ Is the Year’s Biggest Album. But Can You Find It in Stores?

This surveillance-based music streaming is advertising-supported and treats music not as a good but as a data point for better targeted ads. Reporting by journalists like Liz Pelly last year showed that this new model even reinforces the persistent influence of major labels. Even the music of the 2010s is jokingly called “Spotifycore” as an allusion to algorithm-ready songs that instead of clashing disparate genres find a way to flatten various styles into a more digestible package.

Streaming is just the latest stage in a corporate evolution. From the early 20th century, each new musical format claimed somehow to “liberate” consumers, while really binding them more to the industry: The 78 record promised music without the strain of having to perform it yourself; the CD promised a better listening experience, with more control over playback and distribution. Innovations in music technology only tricked fans into shelling out more cash. The mp3 seemed like the final stage in format history, allowing listeners to enjoy and share music in common, without having to buy a physical object. From a capitalist standpoint, all it did was pave the way for the latest innovation, streaming: the industry found a way to capitalize on the idea of unfettered access and the end of ownership. Maybe fans don’t own the music anymore, but the companies, as they remind us, always did.

If iTunes or Amazon were to stop selling music files, I wouldn’t mourn their loss of a profit center. I wouldn’t miss the clunkiness of uploading mp3s to an iPod or waiting an hour to download an album. But I miss being able to access music outside the major label system, and works that explicitly thumbed their noses at such a monopoly of entertainment. My mistake was to ever assume that mp3s might represent an endpoint whose technological affordances meant the links between musical creativity and financial exploitation would be severed once and for all. Profit, it turns out, is platform agnostic.

David Turner is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, who writes a weekly newsletter on the business of music streaming called Penny Fractions.