On 14th July 1995, audio engineers at the Fraunhofer Society in Munich finally settled on what the filename extension for the compressed digital format they had developed should be named. What was previously known as .bit was now to be called .mp3.
The “MP3” eventually became a catch-all term for a downloadable music file. In truth, different services use different file formats such as AAC, WAV, FLAC, ALAC and DSD – all coming with different compression sizes and audio quality levels. But the “MP3” became, like “Hoover” and “Coke” before it, a common noun. We can get bogged down in codecs and nomenclature, but it is what the downloadable audio file represents that is our concern here. The simple truth is that the MP3 is the most influential music format of all time.
It really only had a 12-year window at its peak, but it packed a lot into them. In just over a decade it changed the record business completely. Twice. It also paved the way for streaming – all streaming, not just music streaming – to become the default way to, drawing on the industry’s own terminology, “consume” “content”.
No other music format since the phonograph in 1877 has had anything even approaching the profound impact that the MP3 has had on the music business. All formats before the MP3 were designed specifically to plump up the profitability of the music business; the MP3 ripped it to shreds.
In terms of the history of music ownership – something that has really only existed for just over a century – the MP3 was not a full stop but rather an ellipsis.
It was the last audio format that people could own but, as it was a digital string of zeros and ones, it was inherently intangible. You cannot look at an MP3 but you can see its impact everywhere.
The article charts the history of the humble MP3 file, from audio engineering curiosity to disruptor of the music industry (via Napster in 1999 and the iPod in 2001) to curiosity once more as streaming services (mostly) eliminated its need.