MP3 Politics Beyond File-Sharing

Jonathan Sterne’s new book MP3: The Meaning of a Format weighs in on the format wars, the future of music sharing, and the 100-year-old history of a 19-year-old format.

Jonathan Sterne

Often it’s the things we use most that we think about the least. MP3s are everywhere in our lives, and while we’re culturally obsessed with the devices we play them on, we mostly don’t think about the format itself, unless it’s to squabble over rights and ownership.

In his new book, MP3: The Meaning of a Format, sound theorist, historian and McGill Communications prof (and, full disclosure, my former academic advisor and a pretty righteous dude in general) Jonathan Sterne writes about MP3s as a thing, with their own history and politics beyond just the issues of file-sharing and copyright that we normally hear about. Academic in tone, MP3 weighs in on format wars, the future of music sharing, and the cultural, technical and industrial forces that shape how we listen to music.

“The book is at once a history of the development of the MP3 format, and a history of its conditions, what I’m calling a general history of compression, and then a history of psychoacoustics and information theory that made the MP3 possible,” he says, calling it “a hundred-year history of a 19-year-old format.”

Sterne is after the behind-the-scenes story, the technical details of compression styles and corporate wrangling that quietly determine how and where we consume music. He is determined that the format itself is “every bit as important as communication policies set by government, except these are set by corporations or policies set between companies.”

The book aims to shift the conversation about MP3s away from downloading debates, gadget talk and format feuds, although he argues that these things matter too.

“There’s a real battle,” he says, “and it’s not between end-users and media companies, but between different kinds of media companies. It’s between the ISPs and the record labels. It’s between the manufacturers of consumer electronics and the people who sell the rights to music. That’s really where the struggle is happening. By focusing on the ‘the man’ and ‘the people,’ we lose track of where the politics is happening.” ■

MP3: The Meaning of a Format launches this Wednesday, Sept. 12 at Librairie D&Q (211 Bernard W.), 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., alongside Carrie Rentschler’s new book Second Wounds: Victims’ Rights and the Media in the U.S.

The book is available from Duke University Press, 300 pp., $24.95 softcover.

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