By: N. David Pastor
In Defense of the Mp3 (But Not Really)
Disclaimer: This isn’t really a defense of the mp3. As you may or may not already know, mp3’s are cheap knockoffs to be avoided at all costs. But to be fair, there should be at least one argument that declaims some of the virtues that tend to be overlooked by audiophiles and casual listeners alike.
In the last few years, there have been more than a few articles published and more recently, a short documentary produced (“The Distortion of Sound”), on the decline of sound quality and the ways in which the music industry has adapted to the popular rise of the mp3 and music streaming services such as Spotify and Pandora. It’s usually a pretty convincing argument. So much so that it crushes my spirit and ruins my music listening experience for a few weeks. It’s kind of like finding out what chemicals are being put in your food or how clothing is manufactured in foreign countries; although in this case, it’s more of a sentimental, less humanitarian, somewhat ethical cause.
Because nothing really compares to the crackling warmth of vinyl or the deeply personal relationship one develops with the packaging of a record. Having worked in a record store for a few months, I know you can spend hours reading over the liner notes, especially the older stuff like the classic jazz albums put out by Columbia in the 1950’s and 60’s (Sketches of Spain comes to mind here). It feels like a precious artifact more than anything else, but unfortunately, online resources such as Wikipedia have replaced most of that information with digital archives; the same goes for lyrics. Even with digital booklets and bonus materials, the experience isn’t nearly as important as before (from a technical aspect of course).
In that regard, the mp3 is the equivalent to Sparknotes when it comes to appreciating music. So it’s not surprising to see Slash, Hans Zimmer, Snoop Dogg, and others, speak on the decline of sound quality during their time in the music industry and the meticulous work that still goes into recording music–only to have fans download a poor quality version off YouTube or BitTorrent that isn’t nearly as expressive or dynamic as the original. And after you’re exposed to all of this information, you have this inevitable feeling of guilt. Like I wouldn’t hang a blurry photo of a painting by a famous artist on my bathroom wall. Or I wouldn’t watch Avatar on my iPhone, right? (Even though millions probably have at this point…oh well, you get the idea). It’s not even a question of taste.
So let’s say you decide to make a change and reject mp3’s altogether. You start buying albums again. Maybe you find an old record player on Craigslist. You host listening parties in your apartment with candles lit and craft beers in the fridge. You may even make it out to record store day and purchase the latest 7” from St. Vincent. It’s a noble cause and you really want to make the effort to respect your music listening experience. Awesome. But then there’s the reality of the situation. Integrity, however important to your spiritual well being, can cost money and buying all of your favorite records can be expensive, especially when you have priorities (such as eating food or paying rent for that candlelit apartment; which incidentally, is being lit by the same candles that were previously setting the mood and saving you enough money on the light bill each month to even consider purchasing the new St. Vincent record). That’s not even the worst part.
Music, as we’ve come to rely more and more on technology, has to travel with us everywhere. In many ways, it’s become such a solitary experience trying to create a soundtrack to connect each and every moment of your life to the next.
In the morning, you go for a run with earbuds playing something up-tempo to help you keep pace and momentum. Afterwards, you ride the train to work and listen to something moody, maybe even a little somber; then during the day, something ambient that won’t distract you from your work (classical or jazz). Eventually, you go home and play music on your laptop speakers while checking Facebook or browsing the Internet. The list goes on and on, and for most audiophiles it’s like a world without color.
In the end, whatever commitment you may have to vinyl or tape or whichever format doesn’t matter much during these moments. You’re grateful just to have your own personal accompaniment for the day. Music is now such an integral part of our experience wherever we go. So despite the overall loss of sound quality, we make up for it in a lot of different ways. Remember, the algorithm for an mp3 was designed to remove certain frequencies that it determines to be insignificant; in other words, things that you won’t notice missing from the overall experience. It’s not a bad metaphor for modern living either. But fuck it. There are others ways to compensate, i.e., recapture the essence of those missing frequencies. I’m not saying you shouldn’t try to start that vinyl collection or listen to music in better quality formats. You shouldn’t take the work of musicians for granted either. But at the same time, don’t let anyone make you feel bad for listening to an mp3…you know, unless you’re doing to be spiteful or something.
For more information on the history of the mp3, I would recommend this article by Suzanne Vega, considered to be the ‘Mother of the mp3.’ She writes about her song “Tom’s Cabin” and how it influenced the algorithm that would eventually become the mp3. Pretty interesting stuff. Also, here’s a link to the documentary I referenced earlier in this essay called The Distortion of Sound.