Feature: Do You MP3?

Hi guys, I have a question for you: Do You MP3?

The other day I was performing some long overdue maintenance on my PC when it occurred to me that the 70-80GB worth of MP3s I have on my hard drive haven’t been touched now for quite some time. A quick peruse of my programs showed that Winamp (my long-time MP3 program of choice) wasn’t even installed on my latest OS install, something I had done some months previous.

I wondered at that point what I should do with them. Should I leave them on one of my drives taking up valuable space that could be used for more useful data like educational videos [Editor’s note: “educational vids” indeed… ahem], or should I pop them into offline storage? Another thought occurred – would it really be a big deal if I deleted them altogether?

It was the fierce protection of my MP3 collection that got me making backups in the first place, a process that I have long gotten out of the habit of, and this leads me to the nub of the matter:

Is the humble MP3 already a dying format? We’ve all been there – I’m sure if many of us went up into our lofts and garages we would find VHS cassettes or (if you’re an early adopter) Betamax tapes, we’ll find old C90s, minidiscs, and maybe even the odd 8-track. Do any of us still have the devices on which to play them? I would say in most cases probably not, so why do we hold onto them? Is it the aesthetic value? Is it habit or is it a strange notion of duty for all the pleasure they gave us?

Format wars are always a difficult subject and we’ve all been exposed to some recent battles. Blu-Ray vs HD-DVD was played out on the pages of news outlets across the land, despite the fact 90 odd percent of the population hadn’t the hardware or the income/inclination to replace the humble DVD anyway. The current foray into 3D as a last-ditch effort by the cinema houses to get us to part with our hard-earned for extortionately expensive popcorn with a street value higher than cocaine is threatening the way 2D movies are produced.

If the humble MP3, then, is doomed to failure, I wonder why that is? The answer is partly down to the explosion of ‘on-demand’. In a world where we are permanently connected via Wifi or 3G and not tied to Ethernet jacks like umbilical cords, we no longer have to think to consume. Progressive consumerism has left us in a state where everything is on demand and open 24×7. Indeed, should I run out of nappies at 4am on a Thursday, I know its only a quick walk to a local supermarket and I’ve resolved the challenge. The same is true with media. I, for one, now don’t buy DVDs, CDs, PC games or MP3s because I have such connectivity that I can stream, record or catchup on the fly. Missed last night’s IT Crowd? No worries, 4OD is your friend. Want to watch the latest blockbuster? Pop it in your Netflix/Blockbuster queue and you can stream it or wait for the postman. All your friends playing the latest Zombie slash-em up but the store is closed? Hit up Steam, download and play – they’ll even keep it up to date for you.

My early forays into apps like Spotify were driven out of my desire to make wise choices in purchasing. We’ve all been there: the latest single by Band X is out, its a cracking single, and you can’t get it out of your mind. Album launch day arrives and you’re in the local Our Price records with your £20 in hand, you run home, wrap off that polyethylene shell, fire up the CD player and… oh… it’s a complete stinker. Not only that but the only good song is the single and that’s the opening track.

None of us, particularly in the current times of the credit crunch can afford to buy all of the records in the world, but hey, what does it matter when I can stream the album directly to wherever I happen to be at the time. Now, for a change, I can try before I buy without resorting to piracy! Ok, granted I’ll miss the eye-patch and the parrot but at least I haven’t got to worry about the FBI breaking my door down and shooting my kneecaps in the dead of night for downloading that Hannah Montana Mixtape.

Over time I start to think to myself, “I’ve listened to that album, and it’s great”. A quick peruse of shows me have the album for a paltry £3. I mean come on, that’s a chicken sandwich, that’s super cheap. I’ll bring my lunch in from home tomorrow and buy the album instead. Great. So, I’ve downloaded said album, but what do I do next? Well… I get to work, fire up Spotify and listen to the Spotify version. The MP3 files are still sat on my flash drive unplayed as I carry on streaming. Have Bandwidth, Will Travel.

This starts to happen more and more frequently, so next evening I’m down at the pub with a friend and I explain the problem. Well, he says, it’s an easy choice. You might not ever listen to that album but hey, you’re supporting the artist and that’s what counts, that’s what gets the records made. Second beer arrives, and the conversation turns thus: Is that really the best way? Let’s say Amazon sell an album for £3 – is it a loss leader for them or is that the expected price? If so, surely the artist themselves must see mere pence, if not a fraction of a pence, per sale? Amazon will want their cut, the hosting company too, the record company also (and so on). Don’t Spotify pay the artist per stream of the album? If, over time, I listen to that album daily, am I going to, at some stage, give the artist more money via multiple streaming fees than that first one-time hit from the Amazon sale? It might be the beer, or it might be the fact this particular problem has many angles, but either way that debate never got resolved.

Another thing to think about is convenience. With the right devices and a little effort, your MP3 collection can be taken everywhere with you, on your iPod or whatever. My counter to that would be: lets face it, these days are you ever going to be without internet? Do you want to have your MP3s in multiple places using up excess storage space (which isn’t free), and then have to keep an MP3 player, a flash drive, along with your wallet and your phone, etc. all in your pockets? How big are your jeans?! My initial view on this is simple – why not use a hybrid device? My current mobile phone has an MP3 player, Wifi, 3G and can run Spotify – great, all angles covered.

That leads me onto my final point, then. I have one fixed sum to spend a month on music – let’s say for arguments sake its a £10 note. I’m a family man, wife and 2 kids etc, so its not unexpected that I’d have limited money to spend on myself. I have a choice to make. Do I buy 2 or 3 MP3 albums, which I can keep forever and play forever (assuming I back them up to safeguard against losing the MP3s), or do I spend the money on Spotify premium, stream from lots of devices, create offline playlists for those rare times I’m out of signal, but then never really own anything. By giving the artists revenue via Spotify streaming, does that entitle me to torrent a copy of the album for those times I need a hard copy (after all, I’m already making the artist money via streaming fees)? There is also the argument about ownership vs licensing, but that I fear is for another day.

So, conclusion, dear readers. This debate is not one this author can answer and I’m sure for every opinion I have, you will all have a number of others. This article was if nothing more a chance to set your minds on the subject, to get you thinking. I would ask you all, please get involved, leave us some comments, I want to hear what you all think – lets have a debate and we can make this musical world a better place.

Peace, Love and Music

James Battin

By James Battin

James is the little voice in Dave's ear but certainly not his conscience...

Contributor, Writer, Playlister and general loiterer in the background... I have ideas but often need to help in following them through!

I love the variety of music on offer out there and am often told off for subconciously beatboxing while working.

I'm a Cisco engineer by day and tired parent to 2 awesome children by night.

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