Why MP3 and For How Long?|
[ No. 29 - March 1999 ]
You've probably being been hearing a lot about MP3 lately. Maybe
you've downloaded or encoded music in that format, maybe you (like so
many other people) entered the phrase "MP3" in a search engine looking
for new sounds. Maybe you received a cease and desist letter from a
downtown New York law firm on expensive linen letterhead demanding,
ever so politely, that you shut down your web site. Or maybe you read
the papers and notice that even the most cursory glance at the consumer
electronic industry will reveal any number of new products that play
MP3-encoded music in your car or as a portable "Walkman-like" device.
Does MP3 really deserve this much attention? Is it worth your time to
learn about and use this codec? Well...yes and no. Obviously most
hype is built around a kernel of truth. To get to that kernel lets ask
a few questions. Maybe we can get the birdseye lowdown on this caper.
First a moment for full disclosure: we Fezguys think that investing
your time and energy encoding your music with MP3 is, for the time
being, a good idea. Let's face it, it's popular. More popular than
any other digital music download format. We think you should educate
yourself about the format and its many uses. There's millions of
people with players looking for MP3 encoded music on the Internet. Why
not take advantage of the situation? That said, let's shine the Bat
Signal on the cloud of information.
Does MP3 sound that good?
Yes, but not necessarily better than other codecs. Focusing on audio
quality alone reveals that MP3, MP2 and Dolby Digital all sound roughly
the same at higher bitrates (128kbps throughput or above). This is the
standard defined by that much-abused phrase: "near CD quality." Also,
the recently released RealNetworks G2 codec sounds a smidgen better
than MP3. The new AAC (sometimes mistakenly labeled "MP4") codec (as
of this writing still untested in the research labs of FezOps) holds a
lot of promise. Given that AAC is the next-generation open standard
of MP3, it stands to reason that this new codec could take the place of
MP3 as the most efficient and good-sounding digital music download
format. So, yes, MP3 sounds good enough to use but there are other
options. Your choice should take into consideration exactly what your
needs are. Consider your audience and the application of your audio.
Not everybody is using audio codecs merely for music. There's a wide
array of educational and industrial audio, as well as audio books,
taking advantage of Internet distribution.
Why choose MP3 instead of MP2, RealAudio, Dolby Digital, AAC or
The fact is there isn't necessarily a best codec. MP3 has recently
gained the lion's share of the market and media exposure, and that's
what really matters to independent musicians. Since more people seem
to have MP3 players for direct downloads than the other kind we'll
certainly benefit from encoding our material in this format.
Independent filmmakers don't release their work on Betamax cassettes at
the consumer level. Nobody could view it. So: it's all about audience
size. MP3 is in the press, it's on people's minds and millions of
listeners have a player of one kind or another. For now the popularity
of MP3 is like a glacier: an elemental force of nature. We can't stop
it, so we might as well enjoy it.
What key factors differentiate MP3 from other formats?
We don't see any consumer electronics manufacturing giants creating
hardware playback devices for RealAudio (or any other format) encoded
music. A common complaint about downloadable music seems to be that
you can't listen to it in a car. MP3 (with a little help from those
same manufacturers) has changed all that. With the release of the
widely recognized Diamond Multimedia RIO MP3 portable music player and
the expected release of many more such devices for the home or car all
indications are that the consumer electronics industry supports the
technology. Once again, where there's money to be made, form follows
content. It's also important to remember that MP3 is no longer
primarily a streaming technology. Its most common use is
Is MP3 going to last as the number one public digital audio format?
No, nothing ever does. (This philosophical message brought to you by
Nothing Ever Lasts, Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of ButThatsOk.com:
"Napping For Peace.") Though MP3's audience will drop off eventually
it's clear that, for the time being, the format continues to grow in
popularity. MP3's marketshare could be eclipsed if major labels
actually agree and implement a functional digital download format that
benefits not only the big guys but consumers and musicians as well.
But we're not holding our breath. When it comes to online distribution
of their music product they can't agree on anything, except that it's
What about the crackdown on illegal MP3 sites and the image of MP3 as
a tool of pirates? Will I be a criminal if I use this format?
Many uninformed lawyers, politicians and major label board members
would like you to believe that. Hey! If you're lucky...imagine how
much money you can make selling the rights for the story of how you
were wrongfully accused...an innocent in a den of sharks! It'll be
big, big, BIG! Actually, the closing of "illegal" MP3 sites (pages
that offer encoded music files of copyrighted music without permission
from the rights holder) has a hidden benefit of sending people to the
(legal) independent musician sites. Very few mainstream musical acts
provide MP3-encoded music files. That leaves you and your sound a lot
of room for now. Don't wait too long though. Before you know it, entire
catalogs of smaller labels may be online in MP3.
If MP3 is so great why doesn't the music industry adopt it?
Indicators point to the eventual adoption of some tweaked form of MP3
by mainstream music labels. That news is good and bad. Good because
industry alliances are being formed around MP3 downloadable music. Bad
because when large organizations co-opt an idea or technology to fit
their own needs the original intent (and more importantly backwards
compatibility) often becomes buried beneath layers of profit-driven
expediency. What good is the industry adopting MP3 if the millions of
free players can't play the files because they're trapped behind a wall
Some indicators that the industry is taking a close look at MP3: The
Harry Fox Agency (they represent the big music publishers) issued a
license for GoodNoise.com to place downloadable MP3 files on their web
site. GoodNoise.com also signed an agreement with Rykodisc to put
files from their catalog on the GoodNoise.com web site as
pay-per-download. Though no one has mentioned it officially, we can
only assume the deals are related.
Also, The Madison Project by IBM will encode more than 2,000 albums and
singles (with the blessing of the large music labels) in encrypted MP3
and other formats. The music, liner notes and artwork will be
available, for a fee, to 1,000 subscribers of Time-Warner's RoadRunner
cable modem network. If those thousand test cases buy lots of stuff
the Project will be expanded to regular dialup modem users. The audio
will be high quality and the price will be around the same as
purchasing the CD at a retail outlet. It's always amusing to watch how
companies pretend to offer extra value and privilege while actually
masking a thinly veiled sales pitch. Sort of a sideways version of
"the more you spend, the more you save!"
Another indicator of MP3's undeniable percentage of the market share is
the announcement by industry darling Liquid Audio (winner of the
"Riding the Horse in the Direction It's Going" award) that they are
planning to add MP3 capability to the next generation of their
For more information on MP3, try out
The FezGuys welcome your comments. FezMom told us to say that.
Review of Cutting
Edge's Omnia.net and
Anatomy of a Webcast: Behind the
Scenes at the Other Ones Web Event.