MP3 — The File Format That Revolutionized the Music Industry

Karthik Pasupathy
4 min readJul 12, 2019

The way we consume music has come a long way. We stopped carrying MP3 files in CDs, flash drives, and music players like we used to do a couple of years back. Also, we stopped downloading songs.

The world has moved to cloud-based streaming services which more or less minimized piracy the music industry had faced during the beginning of the century. Apps like Spotify, Apple music, etc are in the process of accomplishing the impossible — making people pay for music.

But, have you wondered what was the turning point behind the evolution of music from its early CD years to the age of Spotify.

It was the invention of the MP3 technology.

MP3 changed the way we carry around music, gave rise to inventions like MP3 players, the iPod, and the P2P sharing services like Napster and Limewire.

In this story, let’s take a walk down the memory lane to see how MP3 technology has changed the music industry for good.

History of MP3

MP3 technology was the brainchild of Karlheinz Brandenburg from Germany. It took him 13 years to solve the problem of digital audio compression. His technology aimed at compressing audio files at a 12 to 1 ratio without losing quality. The discovery was a breakthrough. But, when Brandenberg presented his technology, it was turned down by the MPEG committee favoring the MP2 format.

During several subsequent attempts, the MP3 technology was turned down by the approving committee as they thought the MP2 format was better in terms of quality. But, Brandenberg did not take no for an answer. He traveled around Europe and America to showcase the efficiency of his technology.

After months of struggle, they tasted success when Steve Church, CEO of Telco systems listened to their demonstration and said “The Mp3 was way better!”. This made Telco systems the first enterprise scale company to adopt the MP3 technology. They licensed the technology to their biggest customer — The National Hockey League.

The second person who took a chance on adopting the technology was Ricky Adar, a struggling entrepreneur, who strongly believed that in a few years people would be downloading music from the internet. He also had the idea of building a digital jukebox and he immediately understood the potential of MP3. When he saw the algorithm compress an entire album under 40 MB, he told Brandenberg “Do you know what you’ve done? You’ve killed the music industry!”

That was the defining moment for MP3. Even though it was constantly turned down by the record labels, the format found its way to the internet users who found the value in it. Some went the extra mile to build softwares that could help people share music over the internet.

The Age of Napster

The launch of Napster played an important role in the history of online piracy. The Peer-to-Peer file sharing service (P2P) founded by Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker in 1999 allowed people to share music files over the internet.

Napster User Interface

The launch of Napster toppled the music industry. New albums were leaked on or before their release and people instantly started downloading them for free. And, the small size of the MP3 files made P2P sharing even more popular among people. Result? Napster became the ultimate destination for free online music. The service rapidly grew to a 80 million subscriber base within a short span of time.

The app was shutdown in 2001, two years after its launch. Several record labels and artists filed a lawsuit against Napster and the court ordered a shutdown. But, the wave Napster had created gave rise to several successful P2P applications like Limewire, Morpheus, etc.

Portable MP3 Players

The evolution of computers, battery technology and MP3 gave rise to MP3 players that allowed people to carry hundreds of songs in their pocket. Despite Kane Kramer filing a patent for a digital audio player in 1981, the first commercial Mp3 player MPman was launched only in 1997.

MPMan MP F10 — World’s first commercial MP3 player

But, people in the record label industry hardly noticed it. They thought MP3 players would be a failure. But, they were wrong. The launch of digital audio players along with P2P applications made it easy for people to carry around hundreds of songs. Again, if not for the MP3 format, this wouldn’t have become possible.

The iPod

The launch of the iPod and iTunes in 2001 was the next big step in the music industry. Apple was one of the first platforms to monetize the digital music wave by offering the customers the right hardware and software. Steve Jobs successfully executed Rick Adar’s “Personal Jukebox” idea. He knew people would love to carry around thousands of songs in a stylish-looking, compact device. And, his idea worked. iPod dominated the drive-based player market until 2004 with a whopping 90% share. If not for the MP3 format, Steve Jobs would’ve never banked on making a digital music player in the first place.

When you look back, MP3 has laid the foundation for several waves in the music industry, but managed to stay invisible for all these years. The format that almost toppled the music industry with piracy, also gave rise to an ecosystem that makes people pay for music.

So, the next time you listen to something on Spotify, thank of Brandenberg for making it all possible.

Originally published on the endangeredblog.



Karthik Pasupathy

Writer. Marketer. Optimist. A little lazy, and loves automating stuff. Dreams to workout someday. But, sits idle every day.