Thursday, 18 July 2013

SLL Feature : The MP3 - What Next?

I've been spending the last few weeks working through Steve Jobs' autobiography by Walter Isaacson. Sitting here writing this feature on my iPad, it really does inspire to understand more about the birth of home computing as we know it today, and the many trials and tribulations that Jobs endured in developing the famed Apple ecosystem.

This got me to thinking about the conception of modern music consumption formats, most notably the MP3. It occurred to me that much has happened during my lifetime in the world of consumer electronics. 1984 saw the launch of the Macintosh and the birth of the first truly consumer-friendly personal computer. Then came the iPhone and iPad, which for many are as much music consumption devices as they are innovations facilitating communication and personal productivity.

2001: The iPod

These milestones mark a dramatic acceleration in the development of the modern semiconductor which gave rise to Silicon Valley and one of the most profitable industries in the world. However, what seems strange is that despite the countless other technical innovations I've seen in my short 29 years, the development of the digital music format seems to somewhat buck this trend.

Let me put this in context: in the last 30 years the tech industry has given us home computing, the Internet and truly mobile methods of communication, which in turn has resulted in an endless stream of new and more powerful devices. As such, we're now able to communicate, consume and create in a multitude of different ways, as facilitated by the rapid growth of the hardware to support this functionality.

It's fair to say that software development has always been the poor slave to hardware innovation, but in 2013 it seems that for the first time in history the two are now able to co-exist and develop in tandem. This is due to a combination of cheaper, more powerful and readily available technology giving rise to a generation of home-grown developers, each with the tools and broadcast mechanics to make waves using a basic PC and Internet connection.

As such, it seems peculiar is that we're still consuming music in the same way we were back in 1999. Sure, the means we use to listen to music have become more advanced (the iPod, iPhone, iPad and iTunes), as have the distribution networks (think cloud-based technology such as Spotify and Pandora), yet, regardless of how, in the main we are still downloading and listening to MP3s in the same way we were at the height of the Napster era in the late-1990s.

2000: Napster

In 2013, we live in a world of endless crowd-sourced music, regardless of whether you're into the latest chart-toppers or the newest and weirdest genre imaginable - there's a market for it. And with each segment, no matter how big or small, there is an army of creative free-thinkers with the technological knowhow to support it; be it bedroom DJs entertaining bigger online crowds than some of the top-name superstars, young music producers writing genre-defining tracks with the most basic of studio setups, self-taught designers creating exhibition-standard album artwork or upcoming video producers creating animation and motion graphics worthy of red carpet treatment.

Despite this, in the same amount of time it took Steve Jobs to 'make a dent in the universe' and re-imagine consumer technology forever, we continue to consume music media in the same way. At best, we are still watching music videos in two-dimensions in the same way we did as kids of the MTV generation. But even video technology has seen leaps in the form of DVD and 1080P Blu Ray, yet lossy, compressed MP3s still reside as our preferred method of listening.

So therein lays the question: do we simply have as much affinity with the MP3 as we did for tangible formats such as the acetate, cassette tape and compact disc, does it still offer sufficient utility in its sound reproduction and smaller file size, or are we simply waiting for the tech geeks to offer us a new alternative? I doubt file size is an issue with so many affordable data storage options now available and rapidly increasing Internet bandwidth speeds. Perhaps the answer lies in the way music is produced, which has, on the whole, remained unchanged for thousands of years.

In terms of consumption, we live in an age of convergence, with the virtual and physical realms becoming ever closer. 3D TVs can now be found in the homes of families with the most modest of incomes, Apple is readying the much anticipated launch of the iWatch, and Google continues to flood the tech rags with updates from its Glass project. Combine that with an era of big data, where the likes of Apple, Google, Facebook and countless mobile apps monitor the where, when and how of every song you listen to or video you watch, it's truly mind-boggling that we're not able to immerse ourselves in a truly personal music experience.

Should we not be watching our own personalised 3D music videos on the go, as curated by a million algorithms about our digital self? Or is there something truly magical about listening to music in the most basic way possible, offering our mind the opportunity to interpret and internalise it in a way no amount of data will ever be able to replicate? To answer that would be to understand music's very effect on the human condition. Probably a conversation for another time(!), but a fascinating question all the same.

- Ben Cox
DJ Equipment - Serato Scratch Live SL-1

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