Formats

Reading “The Meaning of a Format” by Jonathan Sterne  was valuable in providing a greater understanding to determining the characteristics of a “format”. A format consists of how the media is created, shared, played along with its physical manifestation. The book outlines the relationship and importance of telephony in shaping audio formats and why the 128kbps standard was first adopted.

CD Cassette Comparison
His example of the CD being developed with the brief that it should approximate the width of the cassette was a revelation to me. Legend was that the length of a classical piece determined its form. In retrospect, I would argue that 74 minutes playing time of the CD turned out to be longer than was required. Up to that point single long player records delivered two sides of music totally around 45 to 50 minutes of sound. The advent of the CD saw artists and record companies attempting to ultilise the extra 20 minutes to deliver “value” to the listener. This often included remixes and alternative versions of what might be considered the primary work… the first 10 to 12 tracks. The CD in the end did not redefine expectations of what was culturally acceptable as playing time for an album as most new releases today conform to the practice established by vinyl. I mention this to echo Sterne’s argument of how the characteristics of legacy technology influence formats.

This has flowed onto the commercial distribution of the MP3 with online stores organising music in albums and providing a price benefit for downloading the album, rather than individual tracks. It’s interesting that despite the lack of the presence of a physical item, the album has survived as a concept from the analog age, the single, with it’s A and B side has not. Listeners download groups of tracks, individual tracks, but not paired tracks. This reflects a perception amongst most that except for a small pool of notable artists, the B side of a 45 single was dispensable.

The widespread adoption of the MP3 has been driven by the convenience in sharing, storing and playing the format. What we have seen over time is the continual increase in the number of devices that play music. Where the radiogram/stereo might have been the entertainment hub where the family listened to audio, today the household contains multiple devices that are capable of playing music. The MP3 format can travel from car audio, phone, tablet, ipod, dvd player, game console, home computer to the stereo system. Each of these players are associated with different expectations of sound “quality” and what is acceptable within that environment. It is undeniable that people have more opportunity to access the music they want to hear. It would be interesting to establish whether the format has led to an increase in personalised, individual listening occasions, rather than communal listening. That may have been the biggest influence the MP3 format has had on how people listen to music.