The history of the MP3 is one of technological innovation, consumer demand and all-too-persistent litigation, often against those very consumers who embraced the format in the heady post-Napster days. The story of this resilient digital audio file has been recounted many times — from the recording industry’s early wars of attrition to the MP3s role in the filesharing explosion to the bloggers who help curate an oversaturated music marketplace.
What doesn’t garner as much discussion is how the MP3 format — celebrated, reviled or somewhere in-between — has come to define the digital music experience, both for millions of listeners, and for those who help drive discovery. At one point, not so long ago, music bloggers sat near the top of the curatorial heap, using MP3s to help create overnight stars out of teenage indie rockers. Others highlighted niche genres and aural nuggets from decades past.
At first, MP3 bloggers were seen by the industry as freeloading pariahs, but eventually even the major labels came to embrace this segment of the online music community. Seeking a promotional fast track, the PR flaks hit the blogosphere hard, cultivating relationships with known tastemakers. Eventually, the pursuit of musical passion became a business concern, or at worse, a hassle.
I was a full-time music writer back when CDs were the promotional norm. Over the course of time, the padded envelopes slowed to a trickle and my inbox was flooded with MP3s from labels and publicists. It was frankly hard to keep up. The annoyance factor eventually contributed to my decision to do something different with my life.
I know I’m not alone. Looking around these days, you could be forgiven for thinking the “music blogger bubble” has popped. There are likely several reasons beyond inbox fatigue. The rise of “social music” — where friend networks replace curation via instant “recommendations” on platforms like Facebook — surely has something to do with it. But listening habits are also changing. No longer is downloading necessarily the fastest and most convenient way to get your musical fix.
When thinking about the future for MP3 blogging, it’s instructive to consider how younger generations discover and access music. The listening behaviors of those under 20 can tell us a lot about how aspects of our networked world might evolve. A new Nielsen survey suggests that YouTube has overtaken radio and CDs as the primary way American teens listen to music. At 64 percent, YouTube listening is even ahead of iTunes, which comes in at just over 50 percent. YouTube, is of course, a “streaming” platform, which presents a potential challenge to downloading culture.
In other words, streaming access is rapidly becoming a norm. Recent reports show that Warner Music now counts streaming as 25 percent of its overall digital music revenue. This is certainly significant for a sector that has struggled for more than a decade with the implications of online music.
It’s too early to say whether this uptick in streaming will impact music blog culture, as streaming also presents new opportunities for presenting music. The now-shuttered digital music service Lala was one audio platform that allowed the embedding of streams across many popular blogging services. Now that it’s gone, YouTube embeds have become even more prevalent. The burgeoning streaming service Spotify, however, seems to be going a different route by deeply integrating with Facebook. This may ultimately prove to be the death knell of music blogging as listeners transition from editorial recommendations to music “shared” across friend networks.
MP3 blogs have also come under fire from law enforcement. Take for example, the hip-hop site Dajaz1, which was seized by the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigrations and Customs Enforcement division at the prompting of the RIAA. Dajaz1 is exactly the kind of blog that is serviced by major label promotions departments, yet it found itself in the crosshairs of government enforcers with little understanding of the contemporary music industry and the tastemakers who help power it. How is it possible that the labels’ legal guns have no clue what its promotional division is up to? How can Homeland Security shutter a site for an entire year with no apparent recourse? Few would argue that seizing sites that traffic in illegal pharmaceuticals or tainted baby formula is a good thing, but there are serious issues raised when the US government suppresses speech on the mere accusation of infringement. Policies to combat commercial piracy are one thing. The haphazard shutdown of blogs that exist to expose people to new music, and which receive countless MP3s from the major labels, is another. It’s easy to imagine this kind of overreach contributing to a decline in MP3 blogs — is a tussle with the G-men really worth it?
Another trend that could change MP3 blogging culture is the demonization of online lockers. These services can be used for illegal filesharing as well as perfectly legitimate exchanges, like sending a cookie recipe to your grandma. Such platforms even provide artists with an easy and efficient way to collaborate and exchange musical ideas. Businesses use online lockers to efficiently transfer all kinds of data that email can’t handle. While these services can also be used to commit acts of infringement, it’s hard to argue that the potential for piracy doesn’t automatically justify international commando raids. Yet that’s exactly what went down at Megaupload founder Kim Dotcom’s New Zealand mansion earlier this year. There’s no doubt that Dotcom is a sketchy character, but even if he is guilty of a “megaconspiracy,” as the US criminal copyright suit alleges, is this reason to outlaw an entire category of digital technology, as some in the entertainment industries are keen to do?
The fate of Dotcom and Megaupload are ultimately up to the courts to decide. But it is fairly obvious that such high-profile cases can have a chilling effect on other services and platforms, even those that may have a better track record with regard to curbing infringement. The legality of certain classes of online service will undoubtedly impact the future of the MP3. Going further, it’s easy to see the impact on music blogs. Megaupload housed the archives of a great many music blogs, and when its servers were seized, so too was all of the data — legitimate and otherwise — uploaded by its users. In the wake of the Megaupload raid, many other locker services responded by limiting their functionality — for example, you might only be able to send a link to yourself or to one person, rather than be able to publish it to the web. This might reduce the sheer number of links to unauthorized material that pop up online, but it also affects the cultural and curatorial value of the blog world. Will music bloggers be required to have their own server space on which to host their music files? Is the danger of having your files suddenly vanish worth the trouble of selecting and publishing them in the first place?
The final nail in the coffin of MP3 blogs may have nothing to do with listener preference or the long arm of the law. Recent years have seen a profound shift away from editorial content around music. Initially, music blogs were blamed for this transformation, as the arrival of online self-publishing was seen as eroding the marketplace for newspapers and magazines that published music reviews, interviews and the like. Some of this criticism was offset by the dedication and passion of the bloggers themselves, who reinvested the art of music writing with a freewheeling infatuation missing since days of Crawdaddy, Creem and the first decade of Rolling Stone. Of course, the real innovation came from the fact that you could actually listen to the music being described.
For me, Peak Blog was somewhere around 2006 — before the arrival of mobile music and the so-called “celestial jukebox,” where anyone can listen to anything at anytime, across any device. If gatekeepers were no longer necessary back when bloggers stole editorial fire from the print gods, they are even less so now, when music flows freely across social networks and online catalogs approach infinity. But what happens if music bloggers become scarce? Are algorithmic suggestions and endless social recommendations enough? I prefer to think that there will always be a need for good writing about art, but I know that I am in the minority, especially in an era where access to expression is in many ways more democratic. I’m less concerned about preserving the MP3 as the bedrock of this discourse. If good music writing can be advanced with a stream or YouTube embed, fine. If all the digital files went away tomorrow, it still wouldn’t eliminate people’s need to be pointed toward great music.
Over its long history, the MP3 has been demonized, celebrated, and even ignored. But we can’t overlook its impact on music culture, especially its role in discovery. The same can be said for the bloggers who latched on to this iffy format in a quest to self-express and turn other fans on to music. Much like the FM DJs of the late 1960s and ‘70s, music bloggers helped define an era. Whether that era is ending remains to be seen.
Tune in to hear Casey Rae and a panel of past & present music bloggers discuss the future of music blogs on the next episode of WFMU's Radio Free Culture, Monday August 27th, 6-7pm. Subscribe to the Radio Free Culture podcast or check out the archives.