And then, the MP3 was dead.
It ended not with a bang, but a whimper – a simple press release posted to a website:
On April 23, 2017, Technicolor’s mp3 licensing program for certain mp3 related patents and software of Technicolor and Fraunhofer IIS has been terminated.Fraunhofer IIS press release, 23 April 2017
We thank all of our licensees for their great support in making mp3 the de facto audio codec in the world, during the past two decades.
Most people who bothered to notice the news that the MP3 was officially dead likely paused momentarily and thought ‘Hmm. I didn’t even know there were licensing fees for MP3s. Wasn’t it an open standard?’ They then probably closed the tab on their browser and went on with their lives. The MP3 – a codec for encoding and decoding compressed digital audio, at one point a lightning rod for worldwide controversy, the bringer of doom to the recording industry – was officially dead.
Not to be overlooked is the shocking resignation of MPEG founder Leonardo Chiariglione, who declared the organisation ‘closed’ and moved its website to his own personal web server just over a month before the MP3’s 25th anniversary, casting the future of audiovisual standards in doubt.
What, then, is the legacy of the MP3? It was a media format uniquely born of drama-free, corporate and scientific cooperation that became embroiled in controversy only to be quietly put out to pasture in favour of a younger, more effective replacement – but it changed the world.
The MP3 ushered in a technological revolution, only to be drafted into a war it never asked to be included in. Having brought the international recording industry to its knees, it signalled a new era for how the world would distribute and consume media. Like a shotgun shell, its release blasted the very concept of recorded media into an infinite number of particles that are no longer easily contained. First music, then books and newspapers, then films and television all found themselves within the crosshairs of a public now comfortable with the idea that content should be available constantly, at the click of a mouse (or the tap of a touchscreen), for free.
The legacy of the MP3 is as complicated as its history. On the positive side, it made it possible for anyone with an Internet connection to access nearly any recorded sound in history.
But it also put more responsibility on recording artists for finding alternative means of income, hoping that nostalgic collectors of physical products will buy elaborately packaged releases rather than just settling for a cheaper digital copy.
The MP3 opened the door to consumers agreeing to a loss of audio quality and an acceptance of higher personal maintenance or personal due diligence in terms of being able to have a decent listening experience; wireless headphones need their batteries charged, Bluetooth devices need to properly pair up with our media players, inconsistent WiFi bandwidth adds awkward pauses and buffering to what used to be an uninterrupted listening experience – yet these new devices are marketed to us as perfect solutions when they certainly are not.
The MP3 also helped to destroy the idea of ownership over a personal music collection; streaming services like Spotify offer instant access to a gargantuan collection, but that collection has been gathered by strangers and algorithms – and we temporarily rent that collection rather than own it.
Ultimately then, the MP3 accomplished three things:
it revolutionised our access to the history of recorded sound;
it destroyed the business model of the old record industry;
and it paved the way for technology companies to become the gatekeepers of how we listen.
Whether we choose to celebrate these accomplishments or rebel against them largely depends upon our own personal relationship with the world of recorded sound.
MP3, the audio format that could have been, was born on 14 July 1995, and died 23 April 2017.
Listen to a podcast featuring exhibition curator Dr John Kannenberg discussing the 25 year history of the MP3 with the hosts of Radio Survivor.
Read an interview with exhibition curator Dr John Kannenberg about the history and legacy of the MP3 which was published by Attack Magazine on the date of the 25th anniversary of the MP3.
Read a French language interview with the exhibition curator about the history and legacy of the MP3 which was published in the Belgian newspaper La Dernière Heure on 25 July 2020.
John Kannenberg is the Director & Chief Curator of The Museum of Portable Sound. He has a PhD in making strangers listen to his mobile phone. He also has an unholy addiction to Photoshop.