Radical technological change has damaged the record industry but given listeners more choice than everby Richard Beck / June 18, 2015 / Leave a comment
How Music Got Free by Stephen Witt (Bodley Head, £20)
Depending on the definition you use, the internet is now between 33 and 45 years old. Despite the fact that most popular writing on the topic is still pitched in tones of breathless futurity, the digital network that now structures much of our social and economic lives is well past adolescence, comfortably situated in adulthood, and creeping towards middle age. It has a history, in other words—or it is beginning to have one. Stephen Witt’s How Music Got Free is a useful attempt at a first draft of one of that history’s important early chapters. It chronicles the invention of the MP3 audio compression format—the format used for iPods—and the consequences it had for how music is produced, distributed and heard around the world.
Like most magazine-style popular nonfiction, How Music Got Free makes its argument by telling the vaguely intertwined stories of a small cast of moderately interesting characters. Witt tracks three protagonists. The first is Karlheinz Brandenburg, the German engineer who pioneered the research and development of the MP3. He worked at the Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits, a German technology incubator and subdivision of a massive, state-run research organisation. He began working from the observation that the human ear only processed and recognised a small portion of the information presented to it. This meant that the lavish digital fidelity of CD audio, which had initially been understood as the technology’s greatest feature (its original marketing slogan was “Perfect Sound Forever”) was wasteful—most of what is on a CD simply can’t be heard by humans. CDs needed 1.4m bits of data to store one second of audio. Brandenburg and his colleagues wanted to squeeze that second into 128,000 bits.
As you may have noticed by listening to music on your iPod, smartphone, or laptop at any point during the last 15 years, Brandenburg’s research project was a success. Witt chronicles the many obstacles faced by the MP3, especially its repeated rejection by an industry standards committee. But these obstacles were overcome and, on 20th January 1995, the MP3 era officially began when Brandenburg’s file format was used to play audio over the public address system at an NHL hockey game. The Detroit Red Wings defeated the Chicago Blackhawks 4-1, all to the sound…