Defending the MP3

While streaming obviously has its benefits, so do MP3s. From a music listener’s point of view this is not a zero-sum game, even if the pundits want us to believe that.

Pity the poor MP3: as formats for recorded music go, it seems to lie somewhere below the 8-track tape in terms of critical appreciation. Despite its track record as a revolutionary medium for music, the MP3 has never been loved as much as tolerated. And by the end of the 2010s there had developed a widespread feeling of “And don’t let the door hit you on the way out” by industry pundits, as well as no small number of musicians and listeners alike.

Given the short nature of our collective memories, not to mention our increasing resistance to actual facts, it’s easy to forget, here in the 2020s, that in the beginning, a new generation of music fans couldn’t get enough of the MP3. And they proved it by uploading and downloading music willy-nilly, with no regard for legal standards of intellectual property, not to mention simple human fairness. Thus was the MP3 format disfigured from the outset: it was never an unconditional force for good in the world. No other previous medium for recorded music was so immediately and boldly embraced by people who did not feel the need to pay for the product they were laying claim to.

If in the early years of the MP3, the magic of music available digitally was marred by issues of legality, the format gathered additional criticism based on sound quality. Audiophiles wanted nothing to do with MP3s from the get-go, but even music fans with less sensitive ears could likely discern a transistor-radio-like quality to first-generation digital music files. This did change with time, as 128kbps and then 192kbps and higher MP3s became the norm. Once reasonable-quality MP3s were standard, however, the format seemed always to contain a whiff of the inadequate about it–the very idea that recordings had to be “compressed” into MP3s made the end result seem suspicious even if many listeners did not notice any problem with their own ears.

And then came streaming–first slowly, then by the mid-’10s flooding the digital music scene. At that point, for many, it was game over: streaming wins, MP3s lose, no one needs to own their music any longer because how can you own a digital “thing” anyway? Actually you can, but never mind: renting music is so much more convenient and then, wow, look at the end result: you can pretty much listen to anything, any time. Isn’t this what those dreaming in the ’90s about that so-called “Celestial Jukebox” were dreaming about?

I’ve been watching all this from my front-row seat in a virtual theater increasingly threatened by the wrecking ball of obsolescence. I still, clearly, feature MP3s here on Fingertips. And while I am not sure if, to use the old nugget attributed to Mark Twain, reports of the death of the MP3 are greatly exaggerated, I am entirely sure that MP3s even now serve a valuable role in the 21st-century musical landscape and if they are to die an untimely death, we will be collectively losing out on something important about how music may enhance our lives.

Look, I can’t and won’t argue against the many and varied benefits of streaming. I stream music myself on a daily basis, in a variety of circumstances. What I am arguing against is the tech-industry-driven picture of a world in which that beautiful human need we have for music in our lives is so thoroughly serviced by streaming that possessing music of one’s own comes to be regarded as somehow foolish. It is after all standard tech-talk to presume obsolescence, to be so interested in selling the latest technology that any and all ways that the newest innovation ignores or counteracts benefits from previous products and services are dismissed without a care.

Food for thought: if the MP3 were so worthless and kick-aside-able, what’s with the concern over the past few years about “stream ripping,” identified as a “major problem” for the music industry starting in 2016, and continuing to nip at the industry’s heels, as discussed for example in a recent Hollywood Reporter article? Stream ripping is positioned as an ongoing threat to industry revenue; what no one seems to mention is the fact that this means that people still want MP3s.

And yes some who rip streams may simply be trying to avoid YouTube ads, but at this point, it’s not as if every last song that’s available on YouTube has an ad in front of it. Furthermore, it’s not clear that ripping a stream is a less involved process than watching a short ad; to me the act of stream-ripping is more about reasserting control as a listener, about taking possession of the music itself in a way that listeners just can’t do when they are streaming. I have never advocated piracy, and I’m not saying everyone should be stream-ripping to their heart’s content. But in this case, for the first time, I can appreciate the gesture; I can appreciate a listener saying, “I want my MP3.”

So let’s acknowledge the actual facts, free of industry spin: streaming has its benefits and so do MP3s. From a listener’s point of view this is not a zero-sum game, no matter what the pundits say. By now everyone knows what the benefits of streaming are. Few talk about the benefits of the MP3. Some of these benefits are subtle and interrelated, but this is the internet so I will attempt to make this look like a list.

Here as I see them are the benefits of the MP3:

1) The benefit of ownership

This is something that the buzzwordy tech crowd and the casual fans content with listening to Spotify playlists do not understand, relate to, or, I guess, care about. Plenty of committed music fans, too, seem at this point entirely comfortable with using a streaming service’s extensive music library as their own, stringing playlists together on the go, and feeling good about “their music.”

But it’s not their music or their library. It’s someone else’s music they are renting, and not even directly. When you rent a car, you are taking temporary possession of one concrete thing. Paying $10 a month to stream music disconnects the listener from any particular piece of music the fee gives access to. And even if an iTunes library full of MP3s does not present the public display of personal aesthetic preferences that a shelf full of CDs or LPs did in the old days, I contend there is an important if intangible reality attendant to having music that is yours, meaning specific music that you awarefully paid for, accessible via your own physical and/or digital resources. The marketplace–which brings together someone with a thing of value and someone else who wants it pays for it–answers one of human civilization’s primordial needs for the successful interaction of individual selves in a collective enterprise. We know that owning certain things, bringing things into your own personal space, carries significance. The act of offering currency, as a stand in for value, for something specifically valued is part of what human culture does, even when that thing of value is a digital file. To rent music via a monthly fee to a technology company isn’t the same thing.

Knowing that you made the decisive commitment to buy a song or an album, to place it among your possessions, even your digital possessions, marks the music as something of personal significance, as being part of you in palpable way. And at the same time, it creates a bond between listener and artist that feels weakened if not disrupted entirely in a streaming environment.

Another thought here: if ownership has been generally devalued in the music industry, think about who has been doing the devaluing: companies (including record companies) with a stake in streaming revenue, and a tentacled variety of hangers-on (consultants, pundits, promoters, etc.) who have hitched their wagons to Spotify and its varied competitors. Vested interests have been in charge of the conversation here.

And yet try as they might they can’t completely kill the concept of ownership, the inherent value of which is at least in part behind the resurgence of vinyl records–among other things vinyl might be seen as a way for streamers to address their unmet ownership needs. I’m all for that; and I would continue to argue that buying digital music is another (cheaper!) path to the intangible satisfaction of ownership (minus of course the satisfying record covers). (Yet another cheap option few mention any more: buying used CDs and converting them to MP3s yourself.) The ongoing success of Bandcamp, not to mention the extra triumph of “Bandcamp Fridays” (when the site waives its revenue share so that the artists accrue more direct income from purchases) proves that there is a substantial audience of music fans who are willing and able to pay for the music they like.

2) The benefit of reliability

As an MP3, a song’s ongoing existence in your life will now not depend on either: a) the uninterrupted existence of a reliable internet connection, or b) the everlasting survival of a particular internet company.

Regarding a), network connections may be reasonably robust here in the 2020s but shit sometimes does happen. When everything’s working normally, it’s easy to forget that “your” music is residing on a corporate server in a remote location. This appears to be a situation most people don’t care about, but for me it’s another aspect of the frayed connection between the musician and the listener that ownership repairs while streaming perpetuates.

The b) situation sounds even more abstract but is in my mind more troubling in the long term. I have records I bought in the 1970s in my possession. What are the chances that the songs in someone’s Spotify playlist will still be there in 2070? Or 2030 for that matter? More to the point, what are the chances that Spotify will still exist?

Of course one may also ask if the technology that supports MP3s will still be around in 10 or 20 or more years. A legitimate question–but I have to assume that something will persist in this regard, even if it involves eventual migration. And I think it’s clear that technology that is independent of one particular corporation definitely stands a better chance of persisting long-term than does any one company.

A more systemic and intractable issue in the realm of reliability is the persistent fact that no streaming service will ever have every last song or album you might want to listen to, especially to the extent that your tastes are wide-ranging. While I am not someone who goes out of his way to collect rarities and B-sides and such, I have still encountered any number of songs I’ve attempted to put in a Spotify playlist but couldn’t find there. Here is where people content to stream rather than own must simply hand control of their music collection over to corporate forces that are impersonal to a fault.

3) The benefit of conscious limitation

One of the interesting things that happens when 21st-century humans are set free among seemingly limitless choices is a kind of shut-down. People get anxious, they artificially and randomly narrow down their options, they make easy or familiar choices over optimal ones, or turn away from making any choice at all. Search “having too much choice” for a quick glance at the articles, essays, and books that have sprung up in the 21st century on the problems inherent with unlimited number of things to choose from.

Thus did the streaming services rather quickly pivot from bragging about the volume of their libraries to bragging about the quality of their curation–it’s a way to allow the listener to sidestep the problem of how to choose what to listen to from too wide an array of options. But underneath it all there’s always the pressure of choice overload when operating in an effectively infinite environment.

When you have your own, demarcated music library of MP3s sitting on your computer or hard drive or smartphone, you go from a paralysis-inducing unlimited space, populated without intention, to a space of conscious limitation: a purposefully constructed musical environment that can ongoingly inspire and nourish rather than paralyze and hypnotize. While it is theoretically possible to maintain a cordoned-off area of conscious limitation as a streamer, it takes discipline to stay there, rather than drift off into a haze of music being fed to you that you have no particular motivation to pay attention to or even remember in another week or two.

4) The benefit of committed listening

The opposite holds true when you spend actual money for particular pieces of music. As if by magic, investing financially, even in a humble MP3, invests you emotionally too. It’s easy enough to decide you don’t like music that you’re streaming for a few moments before moving onto something else, and then something else. If you’ve paid actual dollars for something, you’re going to be sure to give it a chance. It will sit in your library and call to you. Some music needs more attention and repeated exposure than other music. Streaming incentivizes fast listening and seeing what’s next; it fosters virality over substance. Buying your music fosters commitment. Once you’ve bought the music, you are now on its side: you want to like it, and you’ll work at it if necessary. As such, you learn to listen more patiently, you learn to pay attention to what’s actually unfolding, to move helpfully beyond the realm of the hot take and the snap judgment.

An extra way I choose to accentuate the commitment involved in listening to digital recordings I own versus music I stream is by keeping my digital music library reasonably well-organized. Right at the beginning of the iTunes era, I made the apparently idiosyncratic decision to sort my music by artists’ last names–you know, the way we sort things in real life, versus the idiot iTunes (and, later, Spotify) default of sorting by first name. This step right away made my digital library seem more genuine and, if I may put it this way, self-respecting. I’ve also taken time over the years to create certain sorting categories that make it easier to make playlists–you know, doing the kinds of things that digital music offers as advantages over physical recordings. Paying extra attention to digital storage works as another way to establish a model of commitment in a realm that may too easily transform itself into an indistinct landscape of disembodied and context-free sound.

5) The benefit of convenience

Much of what I’ve talked about here is not oriented specifically towards MP3s as much as any recording you might buy, whether vinyl or CD or MP3. But here’s one that singles out the MP3: MP3s are very easy to access–the first recorded medium, in fact, that doesn’t require a particular, dedicated piece of equipment to be able to listen (that is, you can use any one of a number of multi-purpose devices that you already have). It is also, of course, the first recorded medium that takes up no physical space, which offers related conveniences in terms of transport, transfer, and storage.

Lord knows I am not a fan of convenience for the sake of convenience. I believe with all my heart that convenience is oversold as a thing to seek, never mind worship. (I always refer to the movie Wall-E as the clear and logical endpoint of valuing convenience above all else.) So I’m listing it last. But: I’m still listing it, because hell, it can be pretty great to wander virtually over to Bandcamp, find an album you’d like to buy, download it, and see it populate into your music library in a matter of moments. I’d still rather go to a record store and browse physical objects, but to the extent that my music library is largely digital, there’s no point in not appreciating that aspect of digital music that can make music-buying more accessible.

Only connect

All of these five benefits together add up to what may be the greatest payoff of all: the benefit of feeling connected to something outside of yourself. Ownership lays the groundwork for connection, reliability stabilizes it, limitation renders it intelligible, and commitment deepens the possibility of connecting both to a musical artist’s efforts and to your own inner world of feelings, memories, and simple human aliveness. The accessibility of MP3s is then icing on the cake.

This is not to say that people listening to streamed music can’t likewise develop a worthy connection to what they are listening to. But the streaming environment fights it by its nature, while the personal possession model fosters it.

Note that I am not here to try to cancel streaming, even if I could. I would instead argue for the evolution of an environment for music that embraces both streaming and owning, side by side. Streaming is wonderful for some types of listening and some types of listeners, and falls short in other ways. Whatever its present and future technological limitations, the MP3 remains the most accessible format through which the valuable idea of ownership of recorded music is effected here in the 21st century. In the best of all possible worlds, we might collectively re-establish vinyl (or, better, some more ecologically responsible substrate) at the center of our music libraries, but this is implausible for many reasons. Given the portability and availability of the MP3, there is no good reason that it shouldn’t co-exist with both streamed music and vinyl records in a symbiotic way moving into the future.

Human endeavors, however, quite often fly in the face of “good reason.” I am therefore making no predictions, just laying out a modest case for the music industry’s ugly duckling when no one else seems to want to. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some new MP3s to listen to and review. Watch this space…


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