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The Digitization of Music: Platform Wars

In this episode we check out a couple of new releases by Watsky and Weezer, and then we survey the explosion of digital music platforms over the last two decades, outlining significant events starting with the advent of Napster in 1999 and culminating in our current streaming media landscape, noting the tectonic cultural impacts we’ve experienced along the way. It all started in the late 1980s, when Karlheinz Brandenburg created the technology that enables the conversion of analog audio signal to digital information, the mp3 file format. This launched a 3-way race to capitalize on this new technology, among established music industry corporations, Silicon Valley startups, and regular folks in their bedrooms at home.

Starting in 1999, Napster enabled large-scale file sharing by using peer-to-peer software as a connective tissue between disparate individuals and musical communities, and though it was litigated out of existence within two years, Limewire and Kazaa had already emerged to take its place. Pandora merged the internet with terrestrial radio and turned playlist curation into a data science project starting in 2001, the same year that the iPod and the iTunes Store conquered the titans of a century-old industry. Listeners quickly came to expect their music libraries to fit in their pockets.

Youtube (2005), Spotify (2006), and SoundCloud (2007) have since emerged to serve the content of those libraries, and now multiple platforms exist to either sell access to a comprehensive collection of recordings; or to empower creators with the tools they need to publish, distribute, and market their own work. ByteDance (2012) represents a growing tide of listeners and creators from China, while Tidal (2014) is a cautionary of tale of musicians fighting to take back control of their recordings.

Playlist for this episode:

  1. Watsky - Welcome to the Family & Mean Ass Drunk
  2. Weezer - Can’t Knock the Hustle
  3. Combustible Edison - The Millionaire’s Holiday (1999, Sub Pop record, first label to release MP3 format albums)
  4. Metallica - I Disappear (2000, pre-release leak on Napster)
  5. Madonna - Music (2000, pre-release leak on Napster)
  6. Feist - 1234 (2001, primary music for iPod release ad campaign)
  7. Coppe’ - I Lick My Brain in Silence (2005, first music video posted on Youtube)
  8. Radiohead - 15 Step (2007, first major release as pay-what-you-want download)
  9. Gucci Gang - Lil Pump (2017, first major hit released through Soundcloud)
  10. Kanye West - Waves (2016, released as Tidal-only exclusive)