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Format Wars: The End of the MP3 Era

In 2002, I saw a photo of Shaquille O’Neal walking through LAX wearing some bright white ear pieces and carrying what I learned was an iPod. It was a sports story and didn’t have anything to do with music or tech, but the device fascinated me. I was similarly fascinated in 1980 when Sony unleashed the Walkman upon an unsuspecting American public. Sony’s device went on to legitimize the cassette audio format; Apple’s iPod did the same for file-based music. Both became pop-culture icons.

(Listen to Jay Scott & me discuss audio formats on Jay’s podcast The Hook Rocks!)

Good heaveans! You’re beautiful!

Now iTunes, the internet software platform that fueled the iPod’s rise, is being officially dismantled and scrapped out. Apple’s shift to an app-based system for serving up music, video content and podcasts has already happened in iOS. But the end of iTunes for Macbooks has larger cultural significance in that it marks the end of another music-format era.

Just as the rise of the iPod signaled the end of the CD era, the deconstruction of iTunes signals the end of the MP3 era. We as a music-consuming culture have now largely embraced digital streaming as our preferred delivery system for music. We are being weaned off the idea of ownership and we’re becoming more comfortable with paying for access.

Wait… that’s not Shaq

But as with all music-format shifts, the parties who stand to benefit most are those who control the means of production and who hold the rights to the most coveted content. Apple is already dominating the fishing grounds of the recurring-revenue stream, as they push their subscription service aggressively into billions of iOS devices. Newcomers like Spotify have bet huge on digital streaming for years, luring us with the siren song of their tantalizing “freemium” model (free ad-supported use, pay to eliminate ads). And record labels are rebuilding their treasure troves behind their new digital firewall as revenues are again flowing richly to rights holders, not so much to artists.

So now what? What’s a self-respecting music fan, collector or audiophile to do? Well, as the aughts wound down and music was becoming ever more corporate, some of us dusted off the turntables we’d stashed in the storage facility and ventured into the remaining used record stores and started collecting vinyl records again. And then in 2008 along came Record Store Day with its promise to celebrate independent music sellers. It is a huge boost for indie retailers but, not unlike when major studios co-opted the Sundance Film Festival, RSD has become flooded with major-label releases. Indie labels now have trouble getting their records pressed in a timely manner because the limited vinyl-press infrastructure is monopolized by the major labels.

The jolly, candy-like format!

We here at 360° Sound would like to officially invite everybody to start buying CDs again. Not cool, you say? Well, the simple fact is that CDs are the last collectible format. The plutocrats will undoubtedly force some kind of new music distribution system in the future (telepathic delivery perhaps?), but it’s a safe bet they’re not going to strap music to any fixed disc or tape again any time soon. Used CDs are cheap and plentiful right now. Much good-quality back catalog is still available on new CDs at prices that are consistently lower than new vinyl. And a lot of the most compelling back catalog is being remastered and reissued in deluxe editions that sound amazing and offer tons of bonus material.

Current digital formats have their appeal — they’re convenient and transferable and sound great at higher resolutions. But most of us have come to the conclusion that amassing giga and terabytes of music files is not the same as collecting. Streaming is certainly not anything like collecting. And streaming brings with it some concerns that aren’t part of fixed-disc formats. As my boy Ben Sisario pointed out it in the NYT recently:

“To be honest, my preferred way to listen to music is on CD, as unfashionable as that might be. You push a button, the music plays, and then it’s over — no ads, no privacy terrors, no algorithms!”

The deconstruction of iTunes doesn’t mean that file-based music is dead, but it does mean that we are now one format removed from the CD era. This might mean that the time is right for a rise in nostalgia for the old beverage coaster. (C’mon you know you totally rocked out to Creed and Collective Soul on CD back in the day.) It’s inevitable that CD will have its retro Indian summer. It may not be the same as the vinyl revival, but it will happen (heck, there’s even a cassette-store day now). If the internet has taught us nothing else, it’s taught us that if somebody made it, somebody else is out there collecting it.

Got yer ears on, good buddy?

So don’t drop that crate of discs off at the Salvation Army just yet. Sure, iTunes is history, streaming is inevitable and CDs are currently unfashionable. But I remember frisbeeing copies of Duran Duran and AC/DC vinyl records down my buddy’s street back in 1991. They would now be worth more than I paid for them (even adjusted for inflation). Plus, buying used stuff from an independent retailer really sticks it to the man (so punk rock). We’ll be releasing a new product soon that promises to help make collecting CDs a bit more interesting. Stay tuned (since you can’t stay iTuned anymore).

(And don’t forget to listen to The Hook Rocks! podcast, in which I discuss audio formats with Jay Scott.)

Related posts:

Multi-Fomat Generation
RSD: A Celebration of Collecting
Starbucks Bails on CD Sales


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