Why MP3 and For How Long?

You've probably being been hearing a lot about MP3 lately. Maybe you've downloaded or encoded music in that format, maybe you (like so many other people) entered the phrase "MP3" in a search engine looking for new sounds. Maybe you received a cease and desist letter from a downtown New York law firm on expensive linen letterhead demanding, ever so politely, that you shut down your web site. Or maybe you read the papers and notice that even the most cursory glance at the consumer electronic industry will reveal any number of new products that play MP3-encoded music in your car or as a portable "Walkman-like" device. Does MP3 really deserve this much attention? Is it worth your time to learn about and use this codec? Well...yes and no. Obviously most hype is built around a kernel of truth. To get to that kernel lets ask a few questions. Maybe we can get the birdseye lowdown on this caper.

First a moment for full disclosure: we Fezguys think that investing your time and energy encoding your music with MP3 is, for the time being, a good idea. Let's face it, it's popular. More popular than any other digital music download format. We think you should educate yourself about the format and its many uses. There's millions of people with players looking for MP3 encoded music on the Internet. Why not take advantage of the situation? That said, let's shine the Bat Signal on the cloud of information.

Does MP3 sound that good?

Yes, but not necessarily better than other codecs. Focusing on audio quality alone reveals that MP3, MP2 and Dolby Digital all sound roughly the same at higher bitrates (128kbps throughput or above). This is the standard defined by that much-abused phrase: "near CD quality." Also, the recently released RealNetworks G2 codec sounds a smidgen better than MP3. The new AAC (sometimes mistakenly labeled "MP4") codec (as of this writing still untested in the research labs of FezOps) holds a lot of promise. Given that AAC is the next-generation open standard of MP3, it stands to reason that this new codec could take the place of MP3 as the most efficient and good-sounding digital music download format. So, yes, MP3 sounds good enough to use but there are other options. Your choice should take into consideration exactly what your needs are. Consider your audience and the application of your audio. Not everybody is using audio codecs merely for music. There's a wide array of educational and industrial audio, as well as audio books, taking advantage of Internet distribution.

Why choose MP3 instead of MP2, RealAudio, Dolby Digital, AAC or Liquid Audio?

The fact is there isn't necessarily a best codec. MP3 has recently gained the lion's share of the market and media exposure, and that's what really matters to independent musicians. Since more people seem to have MP3 players for direct downloads than the other kind we'll certainly benefit from encoding our material in this format. Independent filmmakers don't release their work on Betamax cassettes at the consumer level. Nobody could view it. So: it's all about audience size. MP3 is in the press, it's on people's minds and millions of listeners have a player of one kind or another. For now the popularity of MP3 is like a glacier: an elemental force of nature. We can't stop it, so we might as well enjoy it.

What key factors differentiate MP3 from other formats?

We don't see any consumer electronics manufacturing giants creating hardware playback devices for RealAudio (or any other format) encoded music. A common complaint about downloadable music seems to be that you can't listen to it in a car. MP3 (with a little help from those same manufacturers) has changed all that. With the release of the widely recognized Diamond Multimedia RIO MP3 portable music player and the expected release of many more such devices for the home or car all indications are that the consumer electronics industry supports the technology. Once again, where there's money to be made, form follows content. It's also important to remember that MP3 is no longer primarily a streaming technology. Its most common use is download-only.

Is MP3 going to last as the number one public digital audio format?

No, nothing ever does. (This philosophical message brought to you by Nothing Ever Lasts, Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of ButThatsOk.com: "Napping For Peace.") Though MP3's audience will drop off eventually it's clear that, for the time being, the format continues to grow in popularity. MP3's marketshare could be eclipsed if major labels actually agree and implement a functional digital download format that benefits not only the big guys but consumers and musicians as well. But we're not holding our breath. When it comes to online distribution of their music product they can't agree on anything, except that it's coming.

What about the crackdown on illegal MP3 sites and the image of MP3 as a tool of pirates? Will I be a criminal if I use this format?

Many uninformed lawyers, politicians and major label board members would like you to believe that. Hey! If you're lucky...imagine how much money you can make selling the rights for the story of how you were wrongfully accused...an innocent in a den of sharks! It'll be big, big, BIG! Actually, the closing of "illegal" MP3 sites (pages that offer encoded music files of copyrighted music without permission from the rights holder) has a hidden benefit of sending people to the (legal) independent musician sites. Very few mainstream musical acts provide MP3-encoded music files. That leaves you and your sound a lot of room for now. Don't wait too long though. Before you know it, entire catalogs of smaller labels may be online in MP3.

If MP3 is so great why doesn't the music industry adopt it?

Indicators point to the eventual adoption of some tweaked form of MP3 by mainstream music labels. That news is good and bad. Good because industry alliances are being formed around MP3 downloadable music. Bad because when large organizations co-opt an idea or technology to fit their own needs the original intent (and more importantly backwards compatibility) often becomes buried beneath layers of profit-driven expediency. What good is the industry adopting MP3 if the millions of free players can't play the files because they're trapped behind a wall of encryption?

Some indicators that the industry is taking a close look at MP3: The Harry Fox Agency (they represent the big music publishers) issued a license for GoodNoise.com to place downloadable MP3 files on their web site. GoodNoise.com also signed an agreement with Rykodisc to put files from their catalog on the GoodNoise.com web site as pay-per-download. Though no one has mentioned it officially, we can only assume the deals are related.

Also, The Madison Project by IBM will encode more than 2,000 albums and singles (with the blessing of the large music labels) in encrypted MP3 and other formats. The music, liner notes and artwork will be available, for a fee, to 1,000 subscribers of Time-Warner's RoadRunner cable modem network. If those thousand test cases buy lots of stuff the Project will be expanded to regular dialup modem users. The audio will be high quality and the price will be around the same as purchasing the CD at a retail outlet. It's always amusing to watch how companies pretend to offer extra value and privilege while actually masking a thinly veiled sales pitch. Sort of a sideways version of "the more you spend, the more you save!"

Another indicator of MP3's undeniable percentage of the market share is the announcement by industry darling Liquid Audio (winner of the "Riding the Horse in the Direction It's Going" award) that they are planning to add MP3 capability to the next generation of their products.

For more information on MP3, try out <www.mp3.com> or <www.wirednews.com/news/mpthree/>

Original text by Jon Luini, Allen Whitman


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