The history of the MP3 is one of technological innovation, consumer demand and all-too-persistent litigation, often against those very consumers who embraced the format in the heady post-Napster days. The story of this resilient digital audio file has been recounted many times — from the recording industry’s early wars of attrition to the MP3s role in the filesharing explosion to the bloggers who help curate an oversaturated music marketplace.
What doesn’t garner as much discussion is how the MP3 format — celebrated, reviled or somewhere in-between — has come to define the digital music experience, both for millions of listeners, and for those who help drive discovery. At one point, not so long ago, music bloggers sat near the top of the curatorial heap, using MP3s to help create overnight stars out of teenage indie rockers. Others highlighted niche genres and aural nuggets from decades past.
At first, MP3 bloggers were seen by the industry as freeloading pariahs, but eventually even the major labels came to embrace this segment of the online music community. Seeking a promotional fast track, the PR flaks hit the blogosphere hard, cultivating relationships with known tastemakers. Eventually, the pursuit of musical passion became a business concern, or at worse, a hassle.
I was a full-time music writer back when CDs were the promotional norm. Over the course of time, the padded envelopes slowed to a trickle and my inbox was flooded with MP3s from labels and publicists. It was frankly hard to keep up. The annoyance factor eventually contributed to my decision to do something different with my life.
I know I’m not alone. Looking around these days, you could be forgiven for thinking the “music blogger bubble” has popped. There are likely several reasons beyond inbox fatigue. The rise of “social music” — where friend networks replace curation via instant “recommendations” on platforms like Facebook — surely has something to do with it. But listening habits are also changing. No longer is downloading necessarily the fastest and most convenient way to get your musical fix.
When thinking about the future for MP3 blogging, it’s instructive to consider how younger generations discover and access music. The listening behaviors of those under 20 can tell us a lot about how aspects of our networked world might evolve. A new Nielsen survey suggests that YouTube has overtaken radio and CDs as the primary way American teens listen to music. At 64 percent, YouTube listening is even ahead of iTunes, which comes in at just over 50 percent. YouTube, is of course, a “streaming” platform, which presents a potential challenge to downloading culture.
In other words, streaming access is rapidly becoming a norm. Recent reports show that Warner Music now counts streaming as 25 percent of its overall digital music revenue. This is certainly significant for a sector that has struggled for more than a decade with the implications of online music.
It’s too early to say whether this uptick in streaming will impact music blog culture, as streaming also presents new opportunities for presenting music. The now-shuttered digital music service Lala was one audio platform that allowed the embedding of streams across many popular blogging services. Now that it’s gone, YouTube embeds have become even more prevalent. The burgeoning streaming service Spotify, however, seems to be going a different route by deeply integrating with Facebook. This may ultimately prove to be the death knell of music blogging as listeners transition from editorial recommendations to music “shared” across friend networks.
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