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Icon of the month: mp3

Stephen Tomkins


Have we got over the extraordinariness of the mp3 file yet? I'm writing in a cafe, and the thing I'm writing on to contains, it tells me 7.2 days of music. I'm not listening to any of it because beside it sits a telephone with 7,393 songs on it. And if none of that suits my mood I could have bought or otherwise acquired something that does within less than a minute. I kid you not.

With such power comes irresponsibility, it seems. The ease and impunity with which music can be illicitly copied means that an awful lot of us do it - one in ten of the UK population, we are told.

How destructive or even immoral this is a moot point. In the eyes of music industrialists it is simple theft that is killing the music we love. But then they told us in the 1980s that home taping was killing music, when in truth that was Jive Bunny. U2 seemed to survive the youth group C90 racket pretty well.

This time round there has been a undeniable casualty, the record shop. From giants like Virgin to treasured local independents, they have all but disappeared. But they are not simply victims of bootlegging. This February the 10 billionth track was downloaded from the iTunes store, so it's the MP3 itself that's the killer. The price of innovation is that new adventures in hifi can overwrite things we want to keep as well as those we've had enough of.

It hasn't killed off the record label, but has made it look distinctly peaky. This is something it's harder to feel sorry about. Artists are increasingly making a living out of performing, and recording and selling their own music. If there is less money to be made out of marketing and managing, rather than making, music, then it's the 'music industry' that's hurt rather than the music, and there are few things that benefit less from industrialisation than music.

There is an unconvincing ethical argument that digital music is information and that information cannot be owned, so it is there for the taking. Those who spend their lives making music we want to listen to deserve to make a living from it. How to turn that right into a reality is a question that music agencies have answered rather better than news agencies: the cost of CDs has come down to the cost of books, a fair compromise with the many of us who are happy to pay a fair price. The fact that The Kids are growing up with the assumption that music, news and everything else are out there for free has to have serious implications. But then the fact that it's easier than ever to sample new music before you part with your money is good for everyone.

Other waves sent out by the MP3 are more subtle. It has changed the way we listen to music, just as CDs did away with the B-side and the album-of-two-halfs. I own more albums than I have time to count before the deadline for this article, and about five singles, and yet I spend most of my music time listening to random tracks as if it was all nothing but singles.

We must listen to more music now, being able to plug in whenever there's nothing better to listen to - on the train, in the supermarket, during sermons. But are we really hearing rock'n'roll as its meant to be if it's not booming out of speakers? Then there's the individualisation of it too. Admittedly, we're glad the kid on the bus isn't sharing his hapnin chunes with the rest of us, but is music becoming less of a communal experience than ever as it's piped into our heads?

At the heart of the mp3 - in fact all it is - is a long list of numbers. Which is slightly disconcerting for those of us who are taken by it into the sublime, whose guts are wrenched by it and whose spirits are inspired to hope. This harmonises uncomfortably well with the idea these same spirits are also nothing but software processed by the mainframe computer in our skulls.
But this is not such a new problem. Shakespeare noted that the music of flutes and guitars was bad breath and sheeps' guts, poetry ink on paper, and people walking soil. The mp3 is just a new reminder  that we are not what we are constructed from, and that what is humbly but marvellously made can soar with the angels.

Stephen Tomkins