In Defence of the MP3

Apple have discontinued the iPod Classic. Therefore, the age of the MP3 is over.

Who’d have thought that the MP3 – that piddly little file format that was once thought to have the potential to destroy all music – would ever be in need of defending?

Yet here we are in 2015, and articles are being written about the demise of the MP3.

We stream now, you see. And because we stream our music, we no longer need to fill our hard drives and our DAPs with thousands upon thousands of files of varying quality and variable bit rate. We’re free! This is a Good Thing!

Or so they’d have us believe. Every article I’ve read on this subject – all two of them – has presented the MP3 years as a sort of fiddly dark age. Streaming sites such as Spotify and SoundCloud have liberated us from the inconvenience – the indignity – of having to micromanage our music.

Now, I love Spotify. I use it almost every day, mainly to stream epic Grateful Dead jams. But did I immediately delete my 20,000+ MP3s the second I registered? Did I my eye. Doing so would have been an even stupider move than binning all my records and CDs upon first getting a laptop and an MP3 player.

Here are five reasons why MP3s are still relevant in the age of Spotify, and here’s an epic Grateful Dead jam to which you can groove whilst you read – assuming that you’re a very slow reader.

Note – Even when citing specific examples, I use “Spotify” to refer to all streaming services, and “MP3” to refer to all file formats – WMA, MP3, FLAC etc. This isn’t so much “MP3 vs. Spotify” as “Files vs. Streaming”. Also, for the sake of brevity, and for the sake of avoiding hypocrisy, I will refrain from discussing artist royalties here. This post is all about the listener.

1. Playlists Simply Aren’t As Good As Mix CDs

The mixtape was romanticised years ago, but given that nobody has yet romanticised the mix CD, I suppose I best do it myself.

I’ve been with my girlfriend for nearly ten years. One of the first things I did for her was to burn ~5 mix CDs, which I placed in a large brown padded envelope, covered in my inane/pretentious scribbles. A few months later, she moved to Spain, and we started to correspond through MSN, Skype, and – crucially – handwritten letters and mix CDs.

Every mix CD would be accompanied by a handwritten director’s commentary, which we’d use to tell each other just why the songs were so important. Over the course of two years or so, we burned around 100 mix CDs for each other. We still have most of them, and we still listen to quite a few of them. The fifth one I made for her, for example, is an enduring favourite, as it segues from Marconi’s Radio by The Secret Machines into DJ Shadow’s Number Song, ending with a devastating Mr. Bungle/Hedwig combo.

I still make mix CDs for anyone who will accept them, but I feel as though I may be one of the last of my kind. These days, people make playlists. This isn’t inherently a bad thing, as it’s certainly still the case that every song is chosen on the basis that every song matters. Nevertheless, playlists simply aren’t as good as mix tapes and mix CDs, mainly because, when it comes to digital playlists, there’s no limit to the amount of songs you can cram on there.

As there’s no limit, it’s not unusual for a playlist to quickly grow into a four hour mammoth, the majority of which will never be heard, let alone listened to.

Compare this to the physical formats. With mix tapes, you never had more than two hours to play with. With mix CDs, 80 minutes.

Not only did this mean that you had to be supremely particular about your song choices, it also meant that, being in an easily digestible 1-2 hour nugget, your significant other/dear friend would be much more likely to actually listen to your carefully chosen songs.

If you’ve ever felt the need to bare your soul to a dear friend, significant other, or love interest, know that a mix tape or a mix CD, as archaic as they might be, represents effort and consideration; whilst a playlist has more in common with a burst dam, or the confused disjointed noodlings of an ADHD afflicted jazz musician.

Physical formats impose restrictions; and when you’re trying to impress or communicate with music, less is always more. Present your friend/lover/muse with a carefully curated disc of 18 painstakingly chosen, beautifully sequenced tracks, and they will likely set some time aside to give your creation the attention it deserves.

But present them with a nine hour playlist, and they’ll likely shrug, and never give your efforts a second thought.

2. MP3 Players are Better than Smartphones

If I want to listen to music whilst on the go – which I do, every single day – I’ve got a choice between listening to my own obsessively curated collection on my MP3 player, or streaming music on Spotify using my smartphone.

Enhanced by a 64GB micro SD and the Rockbox firmware, my MP3 player has a battery life of around 17 hours, and can hold over 10,000 songs.

My smartphone has a pitiful battery life, and if I listen to my music too loud, it tells me off.

On top of that, my smartphone contains Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and Instagram. Distractions all, whereas my MP3 player lets me zone out for hours at a time to an almost endless playlist of my own choosing.

3. Spotify Could Disappear At Any Moment

Like all corporations, Spotify could go bust, and then all that music would be gone, just like that. This would be bad news for all of those people who sold all of their CDs and deleted all of their MP3s, thinking that, from now on, they can simply stream the dream.

Granted, the sudden loss of all the music can strike no matter what format you prefer. On three separate occasions, I’ve lost tens of thousands of songs due to hard drive malfunctions. When you format a hard drive, you lose the lot. But at least I still had the CD hard copies to go back to. Everything was backed up. And yes, I could lose all of my CDs in a house fire, but I like to think that were I to be subjected to a house fire, I might have greater things to worry about than the loss of a music collection.

The point is, streaming is being treated as the new be all and end all. But without backups, what are you going to do when the system breaks down? Listen to the radio? Jesus! Have you heard the stuff they play?

4. Spotify is Not Enough

No matter what you’re into, if you spend enough time exploring the available music on Spotify, sooner or later you’re going to find some gaps. Some musicians don’t like the idea of streaming music, so they do all they can to remove their albums from the streaming services. It’s for this reason that, at the time of writing, it’s all but impossible to listen to King Crimson, Taylor Swift, The Beatles, or Atoms for Peace on Spotify.

No great loss, you might say. But there are also curious gaps in the back catalogues of the bands who are on Spotify. And we’re not talking obscure white labels here. We’re talking masterpieces, career bests – Radiohead’s In Rainbows, for example, or The Crane Wife by The Decemberists, or 93 ’til Infinity by Souls of Mischief.

Then there are the baffling examples of albums that are missing tracks, which appear to have been chosen at random. To take a strange example, Ween’s debut, God Ween Satan: The Oneness, is for some unfathomable reason missing three of its 29 horrible tracks.

Finally, some bands are simply MIA. It’s perhaps understandable that The Five Starcle Men aren’t on Spotify, but why on Earth are JJ72 nowhere to be found?

I like JJ72. Let’s take a moment to revisit their glory.

The point is, for Spotify to be the scorched earth, year zero, future of music consumption that it’s been built up to be, it needs to be able to stream every song that’s ever been recorded by anyone, ever. That might sound like a lofty command, but the alternative is to imply that anything that isn’t on Spotify simply isn’t worth listening to. And that’s madness.

Which leads me to…

5. Don’t Let The Man Dictate Your Listening Habits

When you stream music – or films too, for that matter – you’re not buying media, you’re renting it. And whilst this is generally a lot more affordable, when you forego ownership of your media, you’re placing the control of what you can and can’t hear in the hands of others.

When you rely on Spotify or YouTube for all your music needs, you are allowing for your listening habits to be dictated and controlled by corporations. Not to sound paranoid, but corporations are beholden to sponsors, investors, and advertisers. So if a moneyed, powerful sort suddenly decides that, say, Public Enemy are dangerous, well. There goes Public Enemy.

I know, I know. This isn’t likely to happen. And should such a situation ever arise, I’m sure that Bandcamp, or a similarly independent site, will rise as a haven for free ideas.

And yes, if you rely upon physical media, you’re equally dependent on the whims of the record labels. And yet, call me a fruitcake if you must, but there’s something mildly disturbing about the idea that a corporation can look at the entire history of recorded music and make clear and definite decisions about which music is ripe for inclusion. And if they’re choosing music for inclusion, by implication they’re also choosing music for exclusion.

According to Bob Lefsetz, whose articles I can’t help but read in the voice of Wallace Shawn, Spotify will cause us to delete all our MP3s, “just like you tossed your 8-tracks and cassettes”.

No, it won’t. Spotify is great, but it’s by no means perfect. No format is. And that’s why we will always need so many of them.

As Hazel Cills says in the article to which I linked at the start of this post:

Whether it’s a file on my computer desktop or a 7” in my bag, I like owning the music. I like burning files to mix CDs and uploading non-protected files to Tumblr. I like having my entire library in my pocket and not having to worry about roaming data charges or hooking my phone up to WiFi to hear my favorite songs. Weaned on sites like Last.fm and 8tracks and possessing a wariness towards almost all apps that immediately hook up to Facebook, to use Spotify only would feel like I no longer owned my music.

Couldn’t have put it better myself.

Which makes me wonder why I just spent so long writing this piece.

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