Ye Olde Student Life: MP3 Format Revolutionizes Music Options

When one looks through TSL’s archives, it’s easy to see that Claremont today is a very different place than it was in the mid-twentieth century. Cigarette ads no longer appear in every issue. Women are no longer called “coeds.” Fraternities and the football team no longer dominate coverage. However, one can go back as little as a decade or two and still encounter a campus very different from the one we inhabit today. Case in point: this column from the pre-Spotify epoch, published in TSL’s April 2, 1999 issue.

MP3 Format Revolutionizes Music Options
Jay Marietta
Arts & Features Associate

How many of you have run through this before? A friend plays the "what’s that song?" game, attempting to recite the melody or lyrics from a tune of the past. Brittany Spears, for instance: "Bay-bay bay-bay, do do do-do doo, do do." You know the song, he or she knows the song, but you’re both mutually dumbfounded and tortured by this fleeting notion. There’s only one cure to the mind-plague, you have to hear the song.

The other day this classic bubbled up into my friend’s consciousness: "Back in the daaay/when I was young/I’m not a kid anymore/But some days/I sit and wish I was a kid again." Of course I know that song. After some bitchin’ brainstorming I got it, Ahmad! Now where the heck does one go to hear Ahmad’s (or Tom Cochran’s or Temple of the Dog’s or Young MC’s) only hit single? Try your nearest pimped-out computer.

Yep, all those obscure, invaluable joints that you’ll never get your hands on are out there if you’ve got the megabytes. The MP3 is conquering the world. I’ve tried to ignore this revolution; last year I dismissed the format as just another nerdy hobby of my roommate, but you can’t deny the two most impressive aspects of the MP3: it’s music, it’s free. Every week I notice a new track I like turning up on the 100-or-so-song mix one of my (new) roommates has programmed into his computer, and I listen to some obscure stuff. I’m paying to own these songs on vinyl, and he’s getting them for free? What’s the deal?

"MPEG 3 Layer 1," to be exact. That’s the audio coding technology that converts large amounts of digital data (the songs) into manageable sizes for transfer via internet. What ought to take a few hours only lasts a matter of minutes, so that one can go out to eat dinner and have Sublime’s new album (I don’t know how it’s possible either) waiting on the hard drive by dessert. Not bad. The phenomenon has become so widespread that several companies have produced walkman-style MP3 players for portable listening. With so much attention and potential, it was only a matter of time before the music industry’s men in black suits took notice.

The RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) has taken time out of its busy schedule of shutting down production plants for pressing compact discs with unauthorized samples (author’s note: this is a very sketchy issue) to spearhead the charge against the current state of MP3 technology. Most recently, the RIAA issued an injunction against Diamond Multimedia’s "Rio" MP3 player, claiming that it violated record labels’ control over artist distribution. Lucky for cyber-discophiles everywhere, Diamond came out on top of the dispute.

Piracy, however, poses the most salient threat to the life of the MP3. Illegal sites offering licensed artists’ music often move on and off the web in matters of days. Recently a selection of unreleased tracks from Columbia recording artist Nas’ new album turned up on the net. As is the case with most things on the information superhighway, this mess is far from being sorted out. Plans are in the works for an RIAA/IFPI (International Federation of the Phonograph Industry) initiative which will support the demand for convenient access to music, ensure quality recordings, and preserve the copyright protection for artists’ work. The initiative will work in some form of compensation for the artists and (of course) the record companies. Such a plan may not ring true with those MP3 fans who currently enjoy free reign in downloading new tracks. Remove the "free" from this equation and suddenly it’s much less intoxicating.

The consumer isn’t the only beneficiary in the scenario, either. The unsigned little guys who might otherwise be kicked to the side by uberlabels like Columbia and IGA Group (part of the recent merger between Universal and Polygram Recordings) have an outlet for their music which certainly reaches farther than dealing tapes from the trunks of their cars. Essentially they are handing out thousands of promotional copies of their work on sites like MP3.com.

But despite the small victories of companies like Diamond over juggernauts such as the RIAA, it seems inevitable that some form of profit-producing "regulation" will be established regarding the distribution of licensed artists’ music in the future.

"I think [MP3s] are the best thing ever. Free music is great." states Derek Walters ‘01. Although MP3 web scourers like Derek may be disappointed in the future, at this stage the computer collections are piling up faster than your Columbia House CDs, and you can always find that song that’s stuck in your head somewhere out there.