The Dawn of the MP3 Age, and the Blog that Sparked A Cultural Phenomenon.


In the decade that followed the nineties, the 2000s, the power of mainstream media and major record labels began to decline, and the invention that incited revolution in the music industry was the MP3, a much smaller file format than the typical WAV audio files found on CDs. The MP3, or MPEG-2 Audio Layer III, was the result of half a century of scientific research in auditory masking, psychoacoustics, algorithmic coding, and advanced engineering.

The basic principle of creating the MP3 audio file is data compression, which is more easily understood when thinking about compressing an image. When we compress an image file, the computer analyzes the colors patterns of the pixels and then combines the pixels to reduce the total number of pixels, which might not be noticeable until we either compress it further, or if we use a magnifying lens to zoom in on the image. This method of compression is based on the fundamental limitation of human eyesight, thus this is known as lossy data compression because we are “losing” data that we do not commonly perceive.

The tiny size of this new audio file, combined with the ever-growing power and speed of the Internet, allowed for music to be uploaded and downloaded between personal computers all around the world without limitation and at incredibly fast rates that were impossible before. Many different file sharing websites and software began to be born in the late-nineties as the power of peer-to-peer file sharing became more apparent to Internet engineers and media entrepreneurs.

The most famous of the first peer-to-peer file sharing Internet services of the late-nineties was Napster, which was founded by Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker in June 1999. This service was primarily focused on sharing music in the form of MP3 files across a conveniently user-friendly interface. The result of this ingenious new service was a robust system that, at its peak, had 25 million users and 80 million songs available for all of its users to download. Suddenly, all of the music in the world was free and available at the click of a button (insert music revolution here).

This represented the beginning of a new era, an ideal world for music lovers everywhere, as long as you had a computer and an Internet connection. Most of us grew up hearing that “nothing is free in this world,” and suddenly that was no longer true. We grew up hearing, “When things seem too good to be true, they usually are not true;” and sooner than later, this pithy aphorism did prove to be somewhat true, but not forever.

A year after Napster had become a widespread phenomenon, it hit a major snag: they were caught illegally sharing millions of copyrighted songs. So, when Lars Ulrich, the drummer of the popular heavy metal band Metallica filed a lawsuit against Napster, other artists soon followed and sued Napster for copyright infringements. Napster was able to settle the case with Metallica, but not after being completely shut down by the Ninth Circuit Court after losing another lawsuit fronted by several major record labels for countless illegal violations, including “contributory and vicarious copyright infringement under the U.S. Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).”[1]

The court ruled that Napster did provide a useful commercial service, but that it needed to find a way to hinder its users from sharing copyrighted material illegally, also known as pirating music. Eventually, after a year of failed attempts to prevent its users from sharing copyrighted content, Napster filed for bankruptcy and was forced to liquidate their assets for a mere $2.4 million dollars. However, Shawn Fanning went on to work with numerous other Internet start-ups, becoming a multi-millionaire in the process; and Sean Parker became the first president of Facebook, claiming a 7% share of stock in the company, making him one of the youngest billionaires in the country.

While these tech-savvy music sharing entrepreneurs eventually had to learn their lesson and commit to Internet services that were not breaking the law, it became apparent that there would always be someone else who was willing to pick up where Napster left off. For every peer-to-peer site the RIAA forced to shut down, a dozen more would be born, and eventually, everyone had to give up the fight and stop pursuing individuals for illegal downloads. The music industry’s only option now is to transform their business models drastically to fit the reality of the new millennium.


Written by Houston Golden


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[1] A&M Records, Inc. v. Napster, Inc., 239 F.3d 1004 (9th Cir. 2001). For a summary and analysis, see Guy Douglas, Copyright and Peer-To-Peer Music File Sharing: The Napster Case and the Argument Against Legislative Reform

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