How to Make Something
out of Nothing
“The MP3 as a cultural artifact”
Jonathan Sterne, McGill University, Canada
There is a general view that the MP3 has replaced the CD as a music format
Apple have sold nearly 60 million iPods worldwide since their launch in November
2001, and the billionth worldwide legal music download was recorded way back in
MP3 stands for MPEG layer 3, it is the third layer of the original
Standard created in 1991 by the Motion Picture Experts Group
The dream of the MPEG was to create the possibility, that once
standardized, “data could be moved with ease and grace across
many different kinds of systems and over great distances
frequently and with little effort.”
Portable + Exchange
= Perfect for illegal filesharing!
“The technology itself is perfectly and lovingly shaped for the
very purposes to which it is not supposed to be put. The MP3 is
perfectly designed for illegal filesharing”
In simple terms, MP3 reduces “the amount of digital information
required to store music. It does this by encoding the data more
efficiently and lopping off bits that your ears won’t really miss.
This process is called compression. . . It reduces sound quality
only a little – you can just about tell the difference on a good
stereo, but probably not when you’re out and about, listening
– Which Guide to MP3 players 2005, p. 2
So other than a great bit of code that makes
filesharing simple, what is an MP3?
An MP3 still is actually NOTHING
Or an MP3 is a kind of CONTAINER
for tasty sound recordings
So if the MP3 is:
LLECTED + Stolen( just ask Piratebay)
D + Portable
= A THING!
So without any type of
physicality or tangibility An
MP3 has been ascribed the
status of a “thing” and is
What? No value..
but I am a thing!
the MP3 whilst now a “thing”
has no real value.
MP3 is generally not paid for so
has no real EXCHANGE VALUE
MP3 is copied as it is exchanged,
so has no real USE VALUE
MP3 exists outside the normal
channels of the value economy
Does the MP3 herald the liberation of recorded music from
economics therefore enabling free and easy and large scale
Or is the MP3 a descendant of something that
once lived in a money economy paid for by
Record companies, that need to be paid for by the
Either way, MP3’s are desired, collected, stockpiled and used.
MP3 = VIRTUAL CULTURAL OBJECT
Walter Benjamin believes: The book collector can immerse himself in
memories and narratives made through the physical properties of the book
So Mr Benjamin, Is the notion of a “collection”
still relevant in an age of digital artefacts?
Culture, for a society, a group, or
a person, is a continual process
of sustaining an identity through
the coherence gained by a con-
sistent aesthetic point of view, a
moral conception of self, and a
style of life which exhibits those
conceptions in the objects that
adorn one’s home and oneself
and in the taste which expresses
these points of view.
– Bell 1996, (p. 36)
How do you think MP3 based collections maintain
some form of biographical aesthetic or materiality to
which the individual is intimately connected?
The general feeling online is that the shutdown of filesharing
sites such as Piratebay and more innocent ventures like
Muxtape are no surprise, but the cry has gone out for
“future Solutions to hurry up and arrive”
What could some of these future solution be?
Bibliography and Further reading
Rodman, Gilbert B. and Vanderdonckt, Cheyanne(2006)’MUSIC FOR NOTHING OR, I WANT MY MP3’,
Cultural Studies,20:2,245 — 261
Beer, David(2008)’THE ICONIC INTERFACE AND THE VENEER OF SIMPLICITY:MP3 players and the reconfiguration of music col-
lecting and reproduction practices in the digital age’. Information, Communication & Society,11:1,71 — 88
Bell, D. (1996) The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, Twentieth Anniversary edn, Basic Books, New York.
Benjamin, W. (1999) Illuminations, Pimlico, London.
favtape.com the alternative to Muxtape, which was shut down mid 2008.
“Pirate Bay defendant: we can’t and won’t pay”
http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2009/apr/17/pirate-bay-verdict-peter-sunder-kolmisoppi-online-press-conference Accessed 18/04/09
Which Guide to MP3 players. (2005) Available in print or PDF format from http://www.which.co.uk