In 1993, the MPEG-1 audio standard was released to the world. At the time no one knew its potential for the future, but the main point was to create a type of compression that did not affect audio quality as other forms did at the time. This is commonly told to be for sending movie sound tracks over long distances using the Internet when computers had very slow modems.
The reason MP3 files became so popular for music later on is the incredibly high reduction in size of the file while retaining a sound many can enjoy like the original. MP3 compression works by reducing the accuracy of certain “unperceivable” parts of the music to most people. Although lower quality (128 kbps and down) provides a sound that most can tell is compressed, 160 kbps and above are virtually identical on most sound systems to their CD equivalent. Sound files commonly see a healthy reduction from around 40 megabytes uncompressed to about 5 compressed.
It was not until the late 90s that MP3s took their current form. Instead of movie soundtracks, the compression began being used on music for local backup and storage on personal computers. Once hard drives got large enough and peer to peer networks like Napster became popular, MP3 became the set in stone standard for pirating music. Rather than the traditional method of going to a store and buying some sweet Nirvana vinyl, people then began downloading full albums in the time it took to get to the store. Once higher speed connections became more popular, the wait time was reduced to less than a minute for nearly everything.
After piracy became popular, devices like the ipod and various music services came around to digitally sell the music. Although the start was slow for these companies since it was so easy to download the music for free, it increasingly became more popular as people became scared out of piracy from news stories. At one point these companies tried to implement DRM (Digital Rights Management) into a different type of compressed audio file, but the pain it was to play these files forced companies to revert back to selling standard MP3s.
Even with the huge popularity of MP3s they have yet to fully take the place of traditional forms of music distribution. Given the audio quality hit, many audiophiles would rather kick back to their favorite Neil Young vinyl albums instead of listening to anything compressed. On high end sound systems, the difference is immediately apparent between most MP3s and a CD, and to many that is simply not good enough. MP3s are the first mass adopted form of music distribution that actually degraded quality rather than improved it, but luckily for them there are lossless forms of digital compression on the horizon.
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