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Goodbye MP3, We Hardly Knew Ya

Goodbye MP3When it comes to technology, the music business has always been about convenience. It’s ultimately never about the sound or even a lower cost, it’s always comes down to what’s easiest to use. Still, it’s surprising to see the MP3 file format (or the “download” as many know it) accelerating so quickly towards the end of its useful service life.

From the beginning of the modern music business, consumers have quickly gravitated to the latest technology that made it easier for them get their music fix. Going way back to the 1880s, the business consisted of distributing sheet music that the family musician would use to play the latest songs in the living room. When the player piano was introduced, piano rolls became the must-have product.

The Victrola brought the 78 RPM shellac record in the early 1900s, which was soon replaced by the much more durable 33 1/3rd RPM vinyl record that could hold more than twice as much music. But vinyl records weren’t portable, so in the 1960s 8 track tapes became a big hit for taking your music with you in your car. Cassettes were more convenient however, since they were smaller and operated more like a record album, having two sides. They also provided the ability to fast forward and reverse to quickly find the song you wanted, features not available on the 8 track.

The CD was a revelation, not so much for the digital audio it provided, but for its random access ability that let the user easily select a track with no rewinding or forwarding. This is where the music industry got greedy and included a “technology charge” on every CD, jacking the price up far higher than need be, which eventually caused a consumer backlash after the newness of the format wore off.

That dovetailed into the rise of personal computers and the internet, and the ability to share music was high on the list things that the average computer user craved. In Germany, the Fraunhofer Institute developed the MP3 file format in 1993, but it wasn’t until 1997 when it finally took off thanks to the advent of the Winamp player and popularized by MP3.com website.

An MP3 file “let the air out of the tire” of a standard digital CD file, making it about 10 times smaller in size. As a result, music files could then be easily transferred over the low bandwidth online connections of the times (remember, we’re talking the old 32kbd modem days). Not only that, a user’s favorite songs could be ripped from a CD then freely shared with friends without having to pay those sky-high CD prices. Before you knew it, the revolution had arrived as piracy ran rampant, sales waned and record stores closed.

After several feeble attempts to open up an online music store by the major labels, Apple came to rescue with iTunes in 2003, the first large scale way to monetize digital music, a move that the majors rue till this day. [Read more on Forbes…]

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