I Want My MP3

When search engines tally up the most common items people are looking for on the Internet, the word "sex" appears first. It’s no surprise, I suppose, that people are interested in the inner workings of their government. What is surprising is the second most common search term on the World Wide Web -- "MP3."

If you get lost from the speed of change on the Internet, or if you haven’t been online in six months, you’re unlikely to have heard of MP3. What is it? It’s a format to store digital music on computers. There’s a wealth of ways to store music on a computer: There’s MIDI, WAV, and a host of other music formats.

But it’s MP3 that is suddenly taking over the Internet.

MP3, which stands for MPEG 1 layer 3, is a specification for storing music files in a way that effectively compresses their size but leaves the sound nearly perfect. As an example, a disc of classical or popular music has about 600 MB of music encoded on it. Since the tracks end up being enormous, there are few alternatives to storing those files on compact disc.

If you could take those same tracks and compress them to a more reasonable size, then you could store them on alternative media or post them on a Web site. The result would be a file containing a near perfect copy of the music on the disc with a much smaller footprint. A copy of a typical six-minute song might be stored in 5 MB. This would make it possible to post digital copies of music on Web sites for others to download and enjoy. In fact, that is precisely what is happening.

Many independent artists and bands are embracing the new format as a way to avoid the inbred and Byzantine world of the record industry. By actively posting and promoting their music on the Web, artists are reaching audiences that would have never heard of them because of the costs and politics of traditional music distribution channels. Other consumers are taking their CD collections and putting their favorite tracks on their laptops. By making an MP3 copy of a CD track, storing the resulting MP3 file on a hard disk, and then playing the resulting file on a MP3 player, a mobile user can have all the advantages of digital sound without carting their CDs around.

Microsoft’s most recent version of Media Player has an excellent MP3 player built into the tool that also supports streaming audio and video in formats such as Audio Visual Interactive (AVI), RealAudio (RA) and RealVideo (RM). Another MP3 player is called WinAmp. To gauge the effect of MP3 on the Internet, consider the fact that Forester Research and other industry sources estimate that there are more than 5 million WinAmp players in use on the Internet.

MP3 is a dream come true for independent musicians and their fans, but it's a nightmare for the recording industry. The record industry survives almost entirely on revenue produced by selling physical recordings. With MP3, a bootlegger can buy a CD at their local store, go home and digitize the contents, and then post them on a Web site -- providing anyone a high-quality, digital copy of the music for free. No wonder the record industry has come down hard against the format, those who supply the software to support the format, and independent artists who choose to use the new medium.

Controversy and lawsuits are filling the air as a $40 billion industry has its distribution channel wrenched out from under it. Will people use MP3 players instead of traditional stereos in the future? Is this the death of the venerable CD format? One of the odd characteristics of MP3 is that most people use it to playback music on the worst audio equipment known to civilization: PC-based sound systems. PC audio playback is getting better, but it’s still no match for traditional amplifiers, speakers and CD players. The limitations of MP3 aren’t immediately apparent to someone who is blasting out the latest Garbage track on the puny 1.25-inch speakers embedded in their laptop.

Still, the numbers don’t lie. MP3 files are moving around the Internet faster than you can sing the Bandwidth Bottleneck Blues. If your organization has bandwidth to the Internet, sound cards on your standard configuration, and Windows Media Player at the desktop, you probably have people taking advantage of the new music distribution revolution. After sex, it’s the most popular thing on the Web. --Mark McFadden is a consultant and is communications director for the Commercial Internet eXchange (Washington). Contact him at mcfadden@cix.org.