Music - it's a pretty big deal. Some people quite literally define themselves based on their chosen genre or favourite band and lets face it, I'm no different. If I could turn into Noel Gallagher then I would. Instantly.
In the late 1990's and early 2000's technology has got to the point where internet speeds were increasing, computing power was going through the roof and devices were getting smaller, cheaper and more powerful. This was something of a perfect storm for the music industry and they just didn't get it. To say that large record labels missed the boat is a slight understatement. They didn't miss the boat, they didn't even know it had even been made, boarded by most of the worlds teenagers and had long since set sail.
The way people listened to and experienced music was changing, rapidly. In the mid 1990's, CD was the height of technology and if you were really into your music you might even have had a portable CD player or later on a Minidisc (ah Minidisc, the memories – so many good times in my life have had their sound track played through one of these beautiful machines). Music shops were big business and I can still remember that latest release albums were always £9.99, but if you wanted something more "obscure" then you'd easily pay £16 for an album. Now I couldn't tell you where a single music shop even is. What, quite literally, caused the death of a whole industry?
Of all the technologies that influenced this change, MP3 is the single biggest factor. Before MP3 there really were not any sensible ways of taking a CD and turning it into a digital file that could live on your hard drive on your PC. Hard drives were small, PC’s were big and bulky things that you didn’t really want on all the time (or sat in your living room). You could certainly rip a CD to a WAV file, but these were uncompressed and until about 1999 when hard drive capacities really started to rise, that would mean you could fit about 5 CD's on your PC and then it would be full. This meant that no one bothered, or even thought about building a digital music library. Instead everyone stuck to CD - and why not, they were relatively small, portable and played through a decent system they sounded incredible.
To understand the impact of MP3 we need to understand a few things. MP3 is a lossy compressed file format. This basically means it took a sound file and made it much, much smaller. To put this in context, an average length song taken from a CD and stored as a WAV file would have been between 60-70Mb. The same song converted to an MP3 file would be 3Mb. Still not impressed? This meant we could fit an entire album as MP3 in the same space as one single song ripped to WAV and to top it off, the sound quality was really very good. This was game changing and was about to quite literally change the way most of us live our lives.
Coincidentally, just as this was happening, people started getting connected to the internet for the first time and because MP3's were so small, even on a 56kbps modem (max download speed 5kb per second) it wasn't too painful to download a song - it took about 10 minutes but most people were prepared to wait because that song was... free!
Initially people just ripped CD's and then created a website to share it as a standard download link. Record companies obviously got quite angry and made hosts take the sites down and not everyone had the skill to create them in the first place. Then Napster happened and my god, it was the internet equivalent of world wide looting raids and riots. Napster was a very easy to use program which simply scanned your hard drive for any music and then made it available to anyone in the world who also had a copy of Napster. I cannot tell you the amount of Oasis bootlegs, live performances, B sides and demos I downloaded that year. I literally filled my boots, as did every other teenager in the world who had an internet connection at the time.
It didn’t feel like it at the time but this had a huge impact on our very culture. Stop and think for a minute, music at the time was primarily played through hi-fi systems, car stereos or bulky Walkman or Discman systems (a what now?!). You simply couldn’t strap on a pair of trainers and go for a run listening to your favourite motivational play list – the technology literally didn’t exist.
Clever people suddenly started to take notice that young people, who were broke, had found a way of metaphorically robbing the music bank and they were getting away with it. They were also dying for a way of taking this collection with them – we were Winamp addicts and it was brilliant, but you’d look strange strapping several kilograms of PC, CRT monitor and a generator to you to take it outside. The walk/discman was about to die, but no one could quite figure out when or how.
It is one of my favourite “tech tales” the time that Steve Jobs got together some of the music industries biggest figures and basically told them they were all morons. Even with one of the most influential people in the history of technology sat in front of them they couldn’t understand that unless they lowered their prices, people were simply going to steal music until they went out of business. He told them a song was worth 79 cents and that was that. They thought he was crazy.
It took them about 5 seconds to realise he was right when the iPod was released and the world lost the plot buying them. The iPod is basically dead now, which was unimaginable 10 years ago even, but it cannot be underestimate the influence it has had on our culture and society. Almost overnight, headphones had turned from black to white, people were wearing them as a status symbol. Moreover, people were listening to music anywhere and everywhere they went – this simply hadn’t been possible before. I loved it, no longer did I have to sit on the bus to university doing the “we’re all pretending to be in a lift” thing where no one looks at anyone or dares to have a conversation. We could all just put white things in our ears and disappear into our own world.
And that is probably where the story turns sour. It is now the case that, given the choice or freedom, most people will choose to almost permanently have headphones either round their neck or plugged into their ears and there is, quite simply, no more antisocial device than headphones. No longer do we share the experience of listening to an album, discovering new music together, getting lost in lyrics or similar, most of our listening is done in solitary confinement. We’ve shut ourselves off from potential conversations, social interactions and “difficult situations” simply by ignoring them in an antisocial way.
Every advance in technology is a good thing and can always have a positive influence on our lives and our futures, but for every advance there is a method of abusing it. Everything in moderation is fine, but actually I can honestly say our school has become a more social, friendly place since we banned the use of headphones and phones during the day.
And to think, all this started because someone figured out how to make sound take up less space – it’s almost impossible to consider all the possible impacts of our actions, but it’s always worth a thought, right?