I spent four semesters of grad school as a teaching assistant for History of Popular Music, 1950s-Present. The class had a tendency to dwell on the first thirty or so years of the proposed sixty-five-ish, causing the last weeks of the semester to get juuuuust a little compressed*, but the professor always saved the last day for his traditional farewell lecture: an invective against MP3s and YouTube compression. He would give a brief description of analog audio recordings vs digital, rail on Apple ear buds, play a variety of samples to showcase different degrees of YouTube compression, and show the hazards of wanton ripping/compression, among other things.
Of course, the end goal of this “scared straight” style presentation was really to get students thinking hard about audio fidelity. Many of them were raised listening to heavily compressed music on YouTube and/or ripped MP3s of dubious quality. But perhaps there were more important questions to pose. How did we arrive at the particular media formats that are in wide use? What is audio fidelity to the people manufacturing new types of media? Or how about, as Jonathan Sterne asks in MP3: the Meaning of a Format:
“In an age of ever-increasing bandwidth and processing power, why is there also a proliferation of lower-definition formats?”
These questions have many ways to be answered because there is no grand narrative of media formats. Formats do not simply edge closer and closer by degrees of mediation from reality. Nevertheless, we see this type of thinking all over the place. Especially in regards to branding and marketing for new formats and platforms.
Mediality and Compression
This brings us to the concept of mediality. Sterne describes this as “a quality of or pertaining to media and the complex ways in which communication technologies refer to one another in form or content.” Essentially, it means that media formats naturally cross-reference one another in a variety of ways and that each medium is shaped by a unique history that involves aspects of both technological and cultural practices, among other things. Sterne presents the 74-minute compact disc as an example; sources claim that the design and storage capacity of the CD were meant to mimic the size and portability of the then-popular cassette tape.
How exactly does this relate to the proliferation of the MP3 (and other lower-definition formats)? Well, without going into a tremendous amount of detail, the MP3 can be situated within a tradition of compression. That is, the development of ways to spread information efficiently to the widest area possible. Lossless compression involves redundant data stored in a sort of shorthand that is read by an encoder and reconstructed without any, well, loss. Lossy compression does the same thing, but also permanently cuts out information that is deemed to be of lesser importance.
This is where my old professor’s lecture comes in. Audiophiles freak out about MP3s because you are actually losing aspects of the performance (such as dynamic range), as well as occasionally introducing artifacts (such as pre- and post-echoes). Still, you can’t complain with how nice ‘n’ svelte these files are!
The Bright Side of Things
So, perhaps my professor was right about some things, but isn’t there a way to add a more positive spin to his lecture?
To again borrow from Sterner:
“Compression also allows media content to proliferate in new directions, where it might not otherwise have gone. Innovation in digital technology tends towards finding new sites, contexts, and uses for file compression, rather than eliminating them.”
There we go! Compression led to innovations like streaming on Netflix and putting annoying MP3 ringtones on our phones. Or how about the wild success of YouTubers or Twitch streamers? These new forms of broadcast content can quickly be produced on the cheap, receive feedback, and be tweaked accordingly. [Is this starting to sound like a lean startup methodology pep talk for creative types?] A high quality video that is five minutes long could easily be around 50 gigs in size, so downloading would be a chore; compression algorithms can reduce this file to a tiny fraction of this size and make it easy to stream.
The GIF also provides some wonderful examples: Reaction GIFS, cinemagraphs, and other types of GIF art (such as the output of Peekasso). In the case of the Reaction GIF, the practice became so widely adopted that Facebook now allows users to directly embed Reaction GIFs in messages—and there is even a small discovery platform that allows one to search for an appropriate GIF and view ones that are trending.
So why hasn’t the MP3 been supplanted yet? Perhaps, it can simply be attributed to people enjoying the various artifacts that appeared on the formats that were popular in their formative years. Each of these artifacts—the hiss of vinyl, the flatly compressed sound of 4-track recorder demos passed around by grunge bands, etc.—are now rich with meaning and referenced by new recordings. Why should it be any different for MP3s? Or perhaps it is the fact that MP3s are so widespread and people just don’t feel any pressure to switch to something else. This makes me think of Eppink’s history of the GIF and how he states that attempts to one-up the GIF have failed because companies often fail to understand the affordances that made the GIF successful. Could this be why people aren’t flocking to Jay-Z’s Tidal service? Why people aren’t going nuts over Neil Young’s PonoPlayer (which, judging from the list of Most Requested Resolution Upgrades, seems to attract only listeners who reject anything that doesn’t fit comfortably on a Classic Rock Commercial-Free Power Hour)? Who knows what the future may hold.