Monthly Archives: August 2009

a social history of the mp3

Those interested in the possible future of reading & the publishing industry could do worse than reading Eric Harvey’s long essay at Pitchfork on the social history of the MP3. Harvey’s piece is a useful examination of the way that the network – not just the digital – has transformed the way we listen to music; in the process, it’s brought the existing music industry to a point of collapse. A snippet:

These changes are part of a social and economic shift that is both revolutionary in scope and potential but also reliant on very traditional ideas of interaction and production. In the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution upended Western societies from their agrarian ways of life, distancing the average person from the means of production, and introduced what would later be called “modernity.” In the late 20th century, the Internet quickly made this phase of communication and economics look quaint and distant. This latest shift – you can tell your grandkids you lived through it – opens the possibility to freely create and distribute culture, with the idea of reaching a global audience. Compared to the one-to-many model of last century, the current one, which is still coming into shape, gives us the capacity – maybe even necessity – to cheaply and easily collaborate, create, organize, and speak truth to power. Technologically, it’s futuristic. In terms of what it might hold for social organization, the roots are pre-modern, even ancient.

Let’s not get carried away, though. A lot of forces would have to coalesce for any sort of revolution to happen. More likely, it will take a while, as it did with radio and the phonograph, for mp3s to stabilize and reach a point where the old ways of doing things learn from the new tools. The mess left by free digital music – a collapsed industry, a rising generation of kids with a vastly different notion of musical “value” than their parents, a subset of that set with more eclectic tastes than a teenager should be capable of, and a wave of lawsuits that are going to appear increasingly surreal and ridiculous as they fall into history – is going to take a while to sort out and clean up.

I don’t know that there’s a direct analogue to the way the publishing industry is attempting to transform itself in the face of the digital, but Harvey gets it right by noting how the social use of digital media is more transformative than the move to the digital itself. Simply generating electronic versions of existing print books won’t be enough: forward-thinking publishers need to think about how reading changes when it becomes networked.