Part One: 1978 – 2001
• Apple Corps, the company in charge of The Beatles‘ Apple Records label, sues a new technology startup company in California named Apple Computer for trademark infringement due to its name and (second) logo: a rainbow-coloured, stripy silhouette of an apple with a bite taken out, which is just a tad too close to Apple Records’ logo for the Beatles to take lying down.
• At the age of 23, British ‘serial inventor’ Kane Kramer designs the ‘IXI System’ for digitising, and copy-protecting, music. The system includes a credit card-sized portable audio player. Kramer’s friend James Campbell, 21, builds a series of working prototypes, one of which Kramer will later claim went on sale at an electronics expo in Earl’s Court, London. The prototype can hold 3.5 minutes of digital music, but Kramer is convinced that a way will be found eventually to increase its storage capacity. He patents the device.
• As part of an out-of-court settlement, Apple Computer agrees to never enter the music business, while The Beatles’ Apple Corps agrees to never enter the computer business.
• Karlheinz Brandenburg begins research into audio compression at the Fraunhofer Institute (Fraunhofer IIS). His PhD thesis will become instrumental in the MP3’s development.
• The Motion Picture Experts Group (MPEG) is founded by the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO). Formal plans are drawn up to begin working on standards for the delivery of digital audio and video. A ‘layer’ system is implemented which allows for competing standards to be adopted simultaneously, so that multiple companies and research centres are able to participate in the overall project and maintain their independence while still contributing to worldwide standards.
• Fraunhofer IIS is assigned to one of the working groups to begin developing codecs for the compression and delivery of digital audio and video.
• Karlheinz Brandenburg completes his PhD thesis on the OCF algorithm (Optimum Coding in the Frequency Domain) which, according the the Fraunhofer website, is ‘a codec exhibiting a number of characteristics of the eventual mp3 technology, like a high frequency resolution filter bank, non-uniform quantization, Huffman coding, and its side information structure.’
• Apple Computer settles their second lawsuit with The Beatles out of court, once again agreeing to stop meddling in the music business.
• Apple Computer includes a sampled sound effect (which is eventually renamed ‘sosumi’) in their system software upgrade. Apple Corps sues them again.
Apple Computer once again settles out of court. This time, the nature of their agreement is laid out in more detail to try to avoid any future entanglements. According to Cnet:
the Beatles were given the right to use the Apple name wherever their songs were involved and on “any current or future creative works whose principal content is music.” However, Apple Computer was allowed to use its brand on “goods or services…used to reproduce, run, play or otherwise deliver such content,” as long as it was not on physical media such as a CD.
• Sony develops its proprietary Adaptive Transform Acoustic Coding (ATRAC) digital audio compression technology. ATRAC’s original 292 kbit/s bitrate, is designed to be acoustically close to CD quality. It will become a key component of its MiniDisc format, allowing 74 minutes of CD-quality audio to fit onto a disc less than half the size of a standard Compact Disc.
• The MPEG-1 standard for compressing audio and video, the first output of the MPEG working groups, is released to the public. It has been optimised to provide ‘CD-quality’ sound in audio files encoded to play at a bitrate of 128kbps – the current maximum bandwidth of ISDN high-speed network connections when Fraunhofer began working on the MP3.
• MPEG audio layer III – the audio compression standard that will become the MP3 – is released to the public.
• 7 July 1994
Fraunhofer releases L3enc, the first software able to encode .WAV audio files into .MP3 format; for its first year, it uses the placeholder file extension ‘.BIT‘ until a suitable extension name can be agreed upon.
• 14 July 1995
Following a vote conducted via intra-office e-mail, the engineers at Fraunhofer IIS who worked on MPEG audio layer III decide upon ‘.MP3‘ as the name for their codec’s file format. It beats out prior contenders including the aforementioned ‘.bit‘ and ‘.son‘.
The MP3 as we know it has now been born.
• Fraunhofer publishes Advanced Audio Coding (AAC) codec, part of MPEG-4. It is superior to MP3 in sound quality and compresses audio in smaller file sizes.
• 21 April 1997
Winamp, a piece of music jukebox software capable of playing MP3s, is released for DOS, Windows, and MacOS. It has been developed by Nullsoft, a small Arizona software company founded by Justin Frankel and Dmitry Boldyrev.
• 17 December 1997
The website MP3.com is launched by Michael Robertson and Greg Flores, who at the time are running a series of websites for ‘Z Company’, one of which, filez.com, was an FTP search site.
While reviewing the filez.com search logs, Flores had noticed that a large number of users were searching for ‘.mp3’ – so he convinced Robertson that they should purchase the MP3.com domain name from its previous owner and start some sort of business. When it launches, MP3.com is little more than a clickbait portal to drive users to filez.com, currently the source of most of Z Company’s revenue. It will very quickly outpaced filez.com and ramp up its identity as a one-stop-shop for all things MP3, including links to MP3 encoding and decoding software, and soon, a platform via which unsigned musicians can upload their music in MP3 format in the hopes that they will get noticed by fans and record labels.
• March 1998
The world’s first solid state portable digital audio (and MP3) player, the MP Man, is released in Asia by South Korean company SaeHan Information Systems. Users needed to find their own software to encode music into MP3 format, and transferred files to it using a parallel port-equipped docking station. The first models sold in Japan came with 32MB or 64MB of memory, and could be expanded. The smaller 32MB model cost the equivalent of about US$625 today.
• 8 September 1998
Winamp 2.0 is released, becoming one of the most downloaded pieces of software for the Windows operating system.
• 15 September 1998
The next major portable digital audio player, the Diamond Rio, is released.
• 8 October 1998
Sensing a threat to the status quo, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) – in the first of many litigious acts to come – files suit in the Central District Court of California asking for a temporary restraining order to prevent the sale of the Rio, claiming the player violates the 1992 Audio Home Recording Act. The case is appealed to a higher court to be decided later.
• 24 February 1999
Then-independent Seattle, Washington record label Sub Pop tells WIRED Magazine that they will begin issuing MP3 files of selected bands’ music via a partnership with MP3.com, becoming the world’s first traditional label to release music on MP3. The artists who have agreed to allow their music to be downloaded for free are Combustible Edison, Saint Etienne, The Pernice Brothers, and The Murder City Devils.
• Sony releases ATRAC3, an upgrade of their proprietary ATRAC file compression technology.
• 1 June 1999
Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker release Napster 1.0, a groundbreaking filesharing program operating over peer-to-peer (P2P) networks specialising in the free exchange of MP3 audio files. It becomes particularly popular on college campuses and at Internet startup companies, where high-speed Internet connections are easily accessible. Its user base rapidly expands; sales of Compact Discs continue to rise; musicians begin to coalesce into factions either against Napster or supporting it.
• June 1999
America Online purchases Nullsoft, the parent company of WinAmp, the most popular MP3 playing software for Windows, for US$80 million.
• August 1999
The RIAA settles its lawsuit against the manufacturers of the Diamond Rio MP3 player out of court, allowing the device back on store shelves. Sales prove disappointing, because it mostly sucks.
• 7 December 1999
The RIAA sues Napster, claiming ‘music piracy’ and ‘massive copyright infringement’.
• January 2000
Manchester, UK Factory Records impresario Tony Wilson jumps into the fray by launching music33.com, a website for selling MP3 files. Wilson had traveled to California the previous year and purchased a Creative Labs NOMAD portable MP3 player; returning to the UK, he declares to associates that he now knows the future of the music business is digital, and sets about creating an online MP3 store to sell each song for 33 pence – which is split evenly between the website, the artist, and the record label controlling the rights to the song. Because of Napster’s success at trading free copies of MP3s, Music33 embeds its audio files into locked PDFs as a primitive form of Digital Rights Management. With UK online credit card usage requiring a minimum £5 purchase per transaction, Wilson is forced to partner with a payment company specialising in micro-transactions; the payment process is a usability nightmare. Wilson attempts to convince major labels to sign on to his service; Factory Records’ famous ‘no contract-contract’ (in which recording artists maintained 100% control of their output) works against him, and no major label agrees to join Music33. Wilson therefore concentrates on small independent labels, acquiring the catalogues of labels like Blood and Fire, Grand Central, and Skam, which features underground acts such as Autechre and Boards of Canada. He continues trying to amass capital to convince the major labels he can deliver an online store that works, but the site implodes in a little over a year.
• 13 April 2000
Shawn Fanning appears on the MTV Video Music Awards alongside Carson Daly to introduce a live performance by Britney Spears. He wears a Metallica t-shirt. Meanwhile, Lars Ulrich appears in a pre-taped anti-Napster sketch with Marlon Wayans in which he boasts about being infected with venereal disease.
• 1 October 2000
In a year when most news coverage of Napster focused on its legal troubles, TIME Magazine puts Shawn Fanning on its cover, contributing to his ongoing victory in the court of public opinion.
• 9 January 2001
Apple releases iTunes, Macintosh-only software for importing, organising, and playing digital music files, especially MP3s. Its release is based on the concept of users converting music they already own on Compact Disc into MP3 files that they would then arrange into their own custom mixes (or ‘playlists’) and then inscribe those files in that order onto a recordable CD-ROM – hence Apple’s original iTunes marketing slogan: Rip. Mix. Burn. In the first week, it is available, 275,000 Mac users download the free software.
• March 2001
KaZaA, an Estonian-created, Windows-based P2P filesharing network dealing in MP3s and video files, is opened.
• 5 March 2001
Napster‘s appeal of the RIAA‘s lawsuit is rejected by the Ninth Circuit Court, and an injunction is issued to prevent the trading of copyrighted music on Napster’s network.
• 11 July 2001
Napster shuts down its entire network in order to comply with the court injunction.
• 20 July 2001
Xiph.org announces the FLAC file format, an audio coding format for the lossless compression of digital audio. It has many advantages over MP3: as a lossless compression system, no audio fidelity is lost from a high resolution original; it is also free and open source, unlike MP3, which charges corporations licensing fees.
• 23 July 2001
Napster announces that, as a way of complying with the court injunction, they will abandon the MP3 format and create one of their own: .NAP, a closed system only compatible with Napster software. Napster has abandoned the MP3, the format it made famous.
• 24 September 2001
Napster agrees to pay music creators and copyright owners a $26 million settlement for past, unauthorized uses of music, and as an advance against future licensing royalties of $10 million. In order to pay those fees, Napster converts its once-free service into a subscription system. Users leave in droves.
• 23 October 2001
In what will be the most significant step towards its dominance over the digital music economy, Apple introduces the iPod at a modest ceremony in Cupertino, California. Steve Jobs describes the 5GB capacity of the iPod as ‘A thousand songs in your pocket.’ Although this concept revolutionises contemporary thought concerning a person’s individual music collection, it is based upon the following arbitrary mathematics, as detailed in the fine print of Apple’s iPod advertising at the time: a ‘song‘ in this case means four minutes of MP3 audio encoded at 128kbps.
From this day forward, Apple effectively controls the fate of the MP3.