A Quick Guide to MP3 – What it Is and How it Changed the Music Industry

If you’ve ever downloaded a sound clip or searched for music on a desktop PC or Mac, you will no doubt have come across the file extension MP3. While most people know that this types of extension indicate that the file is an audio file, not many people know that MP3s changed the way an entire generation of people consumed music media, or that the copyright controversy surrounding music streaming services like Spotify is extremely similar to the lawsuit that saw several global music corporations square off against an MP3 downloading site to seek damages of up to  $825 million for copyright infringement. However, before we go deeper into the history of the MP3 and how it has impacted copyright law, we first need to take a look at some of the history behind this now-iconic audio format.

What is an MP3?

MP3 was the name given to the coding format, or codec, used for digital audio that was formally known as MPEG-1 Audio Layer III or MPEG-2 Audio Layer III. The codec was developed by the German company Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, also known as the Fraunhofer Society. The society, composed of Karlheinz Brandenburg, Jurgen Herre, Bernhard Grill, Ernst Eberlein, Harald Popp, and Heinz Gerhauser, designed the MP3 codec to reduce audio file sizes while still retaining the sound quality of the sound files that it was compressing. To achieve this goal, MP3s use a compression algorithm called the lossy audio-data compression algorithm to eliminate the tones or frequencies in audio files that are not audible to the human ear in a method called psychoacoustic modeling. By removing these parts of the audio from the file, audio files could be compressed into smaller sized files using MDCT and FFT algorithms. Thanks to there being several different compression modes, MP3s offer flexibility in size and quality.

Improving on the MP3 Formula

One of the downsides to the MP3 format is the loss of quality associated with the compression algorithm. To combat this issue the format that is set to replace MP3, known as M4A or MPEG-4, is based on the QuickTime File Format. These files are smaller than MP3s but can store audio at a higher quality than their predecessor. Unfortunately, M4A players are still fairly difficult to find, so most people who download music typically have to convert their music to the MP3 format to make them playable. While converting files can be difficult, there are several ways a person can go about doing so. This guide on how to convert m4a to mp3 from Setapp, an app subscription service that specializes in putting the right tools for the job in the hands of their subscribers, includes various methods of conversion using both free and paid apps that can be found on Apple’s App Store.

A Brief History of the MP3

In the late 1980s, the Fraunhofer Society started research on audio encoding technology that would allow for high quality, low bit rate encoding. The project, named EUREKA project EU147, enlisted the help of Professor Dieter Seitzer of the University of Erlangen, a coder who was working on a method of transferring audio files over standard telephone lines, to develop their codec. Heading up the project was mathematics and electronics specialist Karlheinz Brandenburg, who would go on to earn the title “Father of the MP3” thanks to his contribution to the project.

In 1988, the Moving Picture Experts Group, MPEG, which was established as a subcommittee of the International Electrotechnical Organization, called for the standardization of an audio coding Standard and called for coders to submit their work for evaluation. This presented one of the first obstacles for the society, with Brandenburg confirming in multiple interviews that the team almost had to throw in the towel just two days before the final submission of the first version of the codec in 1991, due to compiling issues. Fortunately for the team, the problem was solved, and their audio coding algorithm was ultimately integrated into MPEG-1 in 1992. A year later, the MPEG-1 standard was published and made available to the public.

Since its release, the MPEG codec has seen multiple iterations and influenced a new generation of coders looking to improve on the algorithm and find new ways to compress audio files, such as the M4A codec.

Metallica v. Napster, Inc.

We’ve explored a brief history of the MP3, and even looked at its successor, but that is not the end of the MP3 story. One of the main reasons that MP3 is still spoken about despite being fairly old technology is due to the controversy that rocked the music world in the late 1990s, which saw a spotlight being cast on piracy and copyright in the music industry. One of the most notable lawsuits to come out of the situation was filed against file-sharing company Napster, which was accused of copyright infringement and racketeering by popular American metal band Metallica. The Metallica v. Napster, Inc lawsuit came shortly after the filing of the A&M Records, Inc v. Napster, Inc lawsuit, which included 18 large record companies. However, it was the Metallica-centred lawsuit that led the charge and resulted in lawsuits against the file-sharing company by several other high-profile artists.

The case against Napster came about after Metallica discovered that a demo of one of their tracks was leaked to peer-to-peer file-sharing service months before the song was even scheduled for release. As a result, Metallica sought a minimum of $10 million in damages or $100,000 for every one of their songs that was found on the service. The band also called for the banning of any Napster user that was found to have shared their music on the service. When the federal court ruled in favor of the musicians, over 300,000 users were banned from the service, and Napster was forced to remove all Metallica songs from their repository. This breakthrough win for musicians saw a slew of other lawsuits hit the file-sharing service. Napster was ultimately forced to shut its doors after a $94million deal with Bertelsmann AG BMG to buy the company fell through after it was found that Napster CEO Konrad Hilbers, who had previously worked for Bertelsmann, still had ties to the company. The end of Napster saw the popularity of MP3s wane as users no longer had easy access to their huge library of music.

The Future of Music: Streaming

Luckily for musicians, the days of downloading illegal MP3s are rapidly drawing to a close thanks to the popularity of music streaming services that offer internet users cheap access to libraries of music from a huge range of artists. While there are still some holdouts, most musicians agree that streaming is a good thing for the music industry, as it helps eliminate the need for piracy by giving people who may not traditionally have had access to music a way to consume media while still supporting their favorite artists.

While MP3 technology may be a thing of the past, there is no denying that it has made a huge impact on the media industry as a whole. Additionally, the lessons learned from the copyright battles that ensued when the technology was used for illegal activities helped form and refine copyright laws to better protect artists, which is only good news for up-and-coming musicians looking to earn a living wage doing what they love.