By Ruby Saint
MPEG-1 or MPEG-2 Audio Layer III – or, as it is most commonly referred to, MP3 – is an audio coding and decoding system (‘codec’) that allows sound to be stored, transferred and reproduced digitally. It is perhaps most often associated with the digital music industry, having facilitated drastic changes to the ways in which music is produced and distributed. With computers and home recording technology becoming increasingly affordable and accessible, the MP3 (and the rise of the digital music industry) in conjunction with new means of media sharing (such as YouTube, Soundcloud, Bandcamp and social media) has in, some ways, ‘leveled the playing field’, allowing anyone, anywhere to produce and distribute their own music. Last year, for the first time in history, digital music (MP3 downloads and streaming) accounted for half of all revenue in the global music industry (“IFPI Global Music Report 2017”). Of course, as with any new technology, the MP3 has brought with it new challenges. With audio files being produced and shared across the Internet in ever increasing volume, traditional forms of industry regulation need to evolve to keep up. MP3 and digital audio sharing has complicated issues of copyright and ‘fair-use’, with Internet-based industry often operating outside of traditional government jurisdiction lines and, as such, music piracy has become easier and more prevalent than ever. The MP3 – and the digital music/audio sharing industry that it can be seen to represent – is very much tied to issues of globalization. From an environmental standpoint, changes to the dominant ways in which we consume music have driven older, seemingly more material-intensive formats towards obsolescence. At the same time, MP3s have – both directly and indirectly – contributed to a thriving market in which excessive consumerism is encouraged; digital media and the electronics required to access it are used and discarded at a seemingly increasing rate. But in order to better understand the issues surrounding MP3s, and their pertinence to the greater societal and environmental landscape, it may be worth briefly examining the long line of advancements in audio technology that eventually gave way to the digital MP3 format.
A Brief History
While music – as it is recognized today – has been around since (at least) ancient times, the ability to record music and sound didn’t emerge until relatively recently. The first known sound recording device – the phonautograph – was patented by Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville in Paris, 1857. It allowed for sound to be recorded and represented visually as a sound wave traced onto smoke-blackened paper or glass. While the automated documentation of sound was a revolutionary invention in its own right, it also worked to popularize the concept of sound recording, beginning a series of inventions that would go on to revolutionize the way music and sound was created and circulated. Approximately 20 years after de Martinville’s phonautograph, Thomas Edison came up with what is perhaps the most recognizable piece of early sound technology: the phonograph. The phonograph built upon the revelations of the phonautograph with one key advantage – it was able to sonically reproduce pre-recorded audio. Sound was recorded through the engraving of rotating metal cylinders, and the grooves in these cylinders allowed the sound to be read and played back by the same machine. In the 1880s, Alexander Graham Bell improved the phonograph by substituting Edison’s tin cylinders with the ‘more practical’, wax-covered cardboard cylinder. This new and improved version of the phonograph was coined the ‘gramophone’ and, due in part to it’s use of cheaper materials, it was much more widely accessible than its earlier counterpart. Later that same decade, Emile Berliner created another alternative to the original cylinder, this time a flat imprinted disk, but the wax cylinder remained the industry standard for a number of decades. In the early 1900s, wax cylinders began to be mass-produced, allowing a new, increasingly diverse range of ‘pop music’ genres to flourish in Western culture. The 1920s saw the rise of electrical recording, which greatly increased the fidelity of recorded sound – all recordings prior to this having been made acoustically. In 1929, an increase in flat-disk popularity drove the wax cylinder to become obsolete, with cylinder production officially ceasing. By 1964, polyvinyl (PVC) records had become the industry standard, and began to dominate the global music market (“History of Recorded Music”). The emergence of digital recording in the 1970s revolutionized the music industry, bringing about what can be described as the ‘contemporary era’ of music and sound recording. In 1977, Sony manufactured the first commercially available digital audio recorder (a tape recorder called the ‘PCM-1’), and in 1982 Sony and Phillips released the first compact disks (CDs) and CD players. Eventually, with rapid improvements in computer technology during the 1990s, the MP3 format emerged as a way of exchanging digital music files over the Internet. Naturally, gave way to the first portable MP3 players, which were introduced in 1998 (“The Virtual Gramophone”). Today, with about 3.8 billion people having a ‘reliable’ Internet connection (Internet Live Stats) and more than half of the world’s population owning a smartphone (Kemp), the digital music industry allows more people to record and share audio than ever before.
Environmental Ethics – A Greener Way to Listen?
For many consumers, when we buy a CD or LP from the local record store – or any physical, material good for that matter – there is some level of understanding as to our (the customers’) basic role in the consumerist economy. The object – in this case, let’s say a vinyl LP – must have been created in a factory somewhere; the raw materials comprising the PVC of the disc and the cardboard of the sleeve must have been mined or harvested and then undergone some form of processing; the assembled product was bought by the record company, printed and then shipped from warehouse to warehouse before reaching the hip little record store down the street. Eventually, whether it be due to lack of space, change in musical taste, damage to the disc or the obsolescence of the format, the record will most likely find its way into landfill (possibly via a number of secondhand stores). In this case, the main environmental costs of the purchase are material and (depending on the situation) logistical but in the case of MP3s (and other forms of digital media), the costs are not quite so obvious. MP3s themselves don’t seem to occupy physical space; they are made out of data in the form of bits. These bits are transported through a network to the consumer’s computer or personal device from a remote server: a process that doesn’t require traditional fossil fuel-reliant methods of transport. And when a digital file is no longer wanted or needed, it can be deleted from one’s device with the press of a button, requiring no physical disposal. As such, it may be tempting to see MP3 as the completely carbon neutral, green alternative to it’s clunker predecessors. But despite a lack of immediate material and transport costs, the real cost comes from the data centers – the physical manifestation of the Internet. The uploading (selling) and downloading (buying) process involves the transfer of information to and from different servers. These servers are physically housed in data centers, the largest of which (named ‘The Citadel’ and located near Reno, NV) covers an area of 7.2 million square feet (“World’s Largest Data Center Campus”). These centers use immense amounts of energy, much of which goes towards keeping the hardware from overheating. According to The New York Times in 2011, Google used a continuous supply of 260 million watts to keep their data centers running – enough electricity to power 200,000 homes (Glanz). And while one MP3 download may not require much processing power – the average size for a song stored as an MP3 is between 3 and 4MB – a study by Norwegian engineer Dagfinn Bach in 2012 estimated the energy requirements of streaming an album 27 times as being approximately equal to the energy required to produce and ship a CD to a consumer (Bach). Data centers are becoming increasingly efficient, with some even making the switch to renewable power sources, however, the growing demand for high-speed connections and high-quality data seems to be keeping pace. As with any environmental issue in which those who suffer are not always those who benefit, the environmental issues posed by MP3s can be seen as a matter of ethics. While the Internet and hardware required to use MP3 technology continues to become more affordable, it is still a luxury which most of the world’s population are without. Despite the exclusivity of audio technology, the resulting carbon emissions (from data centers, for example) and e-waste (such as discarded MP3 players, smartphones and computers) tend to have a disproportionate effect on people experiencing economic hardship – i.e. those with little or no access to such technologies.
In any case, the benefits of choosing MP3 over older format types still seem to outweigh the downfalls. In a study conducted by Carnegie Mellon University in 2006 comparing the cumulative resource consumption and emissions of different audio formats, MP3s were found to be 40% to 80% less environmentally damaging than CDs (Johne). And with the efficiency of audio technology continuing to improve, perhaps one day we will be able to purchase music in a guilt-free, zero waste and carbon neutral way.
Political Economy – Modern Capitalism and the Digital Music Industry
To the money-hungry businessman (or woman), the emergence of a new industry can signify seemingly endless opportunity. The invention of MP3 brought about a new age of the music industry, creating countless new channels for investment, innovation and monetization. The emergence of companies such as Soundcloud – with an estimated net worth of $700 million in 2014 – (Kafka), Bandcamp – a self described ‘artist-friendly’ music sales website which, in 2015, reached the mark of having paid artists a cumulative $100 million – (Flanagan), and of course tech-giant Apple’s ‘iTunes’ service – which in 2013 accounted for 75% of the global digital music market, with an annual worth of $6.9 billion (“Apple’s iTunes accounts for 75% of global digital music market”). The digital music scene, which started out as a mostly informal and unregulated means for downloading and sharing low-quality digital audio files, quickly grew into a multibillion-dollar industry dominated by a few large companies and business conglomerates. Today, the music industry is experiencing yet another monumental change: the rise of streaming sites. Earlier this year, a report published by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) found that the rate of sales decline for paid music downloads (MP3s) had surpassed the rate of decline for physical music sales (i.e. CDs and vinyl). Since 2015, streaming has dethroned permanent downloads as the dominant force of the music industry, accounting for 62% of total industry revenue in the first half of 2017 (Friedlander). And while the emergence of streaming services seems to have brought about a decline in music piracy (Sanchez), it has also seen market share fall to an even smaller number of corporations. The ‘big three’ streaming services – Spotify, Pandora and YouTube – pay the lowest ‘per-stream’ rates, with artists receiving a mere $0.0038 per stream from Spotify, $0.0011 from Pandora and $0.0006 from YouTube. Streaming services offered by Google and Apple (‘Google Play’ and ‘Apple Music’) pay slightly better rates, at $0.0059 and $0.0064 respectively (McIntyre). A number of popular artists have pulled their music from streaming sites resulting from audio quality and pay disputes (Frere). The increasing concentration of market share, accentuated by the rise of a select few streaming services, leads to a disproportionate accumulation of capital in the hands of a small number of rich, private corporations. From a Marxist political economy perspective, this follows the ‘unsustainable’ model of modern capitalism, which will inevitably end in an economic and/or ecological crisis caused by over-accumulation of capital and over-exploitation of resources (Robbins, et al.). An oligopoly system dominated by private companies can also cause ethical and environmental issues, with excessively powerful companies often lacking accountability and transparency, which can accommodate human and environmental rights infringements. And although the processes of downloading or streaming music seem to leave little room for unethical practice (other than the admittedly alarming level of CO2 emissions caused by internet usage), the problems tend to arise from supporting these corporations, whose influences often extend to other markets and industries. For example, one of the most influential parties in the digital music industry, Apple – the 25th largest economy in the world (including countries) in 2015 (“Corporations vs. governments revenues”) – has received ongoing accusations of human rights abuse in a number of Apple supplier factories in China (Cuthbertson). The environmental impact of these large corporations is nothing to take lightly either. In 2016, Alphabet Inc. (the multinational conglomerate behind streaming giants Google Play and YouTube), released an environmental report for their Google subsidiaries. The report estimated Google’s total greenhouse gas emissions for 2015 at 2,996,834 metric tonnes of CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent), and electricity use at 5,743,793 megawatt-hours (“Environmental Report”). The report describes Google’s net carbon footprint to be zero (‘carbon neutral’), owing to the company’s purchased “carbon offsets”. As promising and admirable as that may sound, it can be argued that ‘carbon trading schemes’, although often good intentioned, are inherently problematic. From an environmental ethics perspective, carbon trading brings up a number of issues. For one, the tangible or monetary worth of emissions is determined by market supply and demand. In a capitalist economic system, this tends to facilitate the potential exploitation of under-polluting entities (often in poorer, ‘less developed’ countries) by wealthy, over-polluting countries and corporations. Secondly, it provides the illusion of a ‘solution’ to the global climate crisis, taking a reductionist approach to a complex issue. This is amplified by the prevalence of ‘greenwashing’ – defined by Robbins, et al. (p.157) as “The exaggerated or false marketing of a product, good, or service as environmentally friendly” – in today’s consumerist world.
The invention of the MP3 brought with it many changes to the way we create and consume audio media. It marked a paradigm shift in the music industry, ushering in the digital-music-dominated contemporary era. While the MP3 has been shown overall to be less environmental taxing than its predecessors (such as the Compact Disk and polyvinyl record) – requiring no ‘direct’ physical resources (other than those comprising the devices used to download and listen to MP3 files) – the Internet required to download MP3s can be energy intensive and the electronic hardware used can contribute to the problem of hazardous e-waste. From a political economy perspective, the rise of the digital music industry (as a result of the MP3) has changed the political and economic landscape significantly. In recent years, music downloading sites have given way to more-advanced streaming sites – many of which are owned and operated by large corporations. Not only have these changes to the music industry affected musicians and listeners but they have also played into the larger processes of economic privatization and globalization. By examining the MP3, a seemingly innocent file type and codec system, a connection to broader global issues – such as those pertaining to environmental justice and economic inequality – is revealed. Through the seemingly narrow lens of MP3 files, a wide scope of issues can be addressed, which, if nothing else, ultimately demonstrates the interconnectedness of our modern world. So the next time I’m listening to an album – whether it be a physical copy bought from the local record store, a legal (or less than legal) MP3 download, or a Spotify stream – I’ll try and take a moment to appreciate the complexity (and absurdity) of our increasingly interconnected world.