It’s a given nowadays that one can open a laptop and hear nearly any song ever recorded by any artist. But those who knew the beeps and tones of a dial-up internet connection understand that it wasn’t always this way. Here are eight milestones in the distribution of music online that helped get us to where we are today.
1. FIRST MP3: “TOM’S DINER” BY SUZANNE VEGA // SUMMER 1991
Although he winces at being called the “Father of the MP3,” German electrical engineer Karlheinz Brandenburg has overseen the development of the format since his thesis advisor, Professor Dieter Seitzer, asked Brandenburg for help on his goal of transmitting music files through digital phone lines in the early '80s. (A patent examiner once told Seitzer, “This is impossible; we can't patent impossible things.”)
In the late ’80s, Brandenburg was a member of an international organization called the Moving Picture Experts Group, and he was trying to create a compression system for the download and upload of audio files. His team managed to move songs from computer to computer, but Brandenburg worried the transfer wasn’t maintaining all the subtleties of the human voice. So he chose to tweak and eventually perfect the format using a song that would be “a worst case for the system as we had it in 1988”—“Tom’s Diner” by Suzanne Vega. Brandenburg selected the acapella version of the song that opens Vega’s 1987 album Solitude Standing. The first attempted transfer was a complete failure.
According to Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music by Mark Katz, it took several years of collaboration and tinkering to create the final product, the MP3, named after after the Motion Picture Experts Group and the fact that it was the third layer of audio encoding in their new standard. The final digitized version of “Tom’s Diner” was the prototype Brandenburg played for investors in 1991. Twenty-five years later, the MP3 is still the standard for digital music, found on nearly every smart phone, iPod, and personal computer on the planet. “We had an inkling it would have repercussions,” Vega told Spin. “It both freed music and destroyed the industry.”
2. FIRST ALBUM LEAKED ONLINE: SONGS OF FAITH AND DEVOTION BY DEPECHE MODE // 1993
After the success of their 1990 album Violator, Depeche Mode had an army of fans awaiting their next collection of songs. As the band was preparing to release its follow-up in 1993, “a panicked secretary strode into Warner vice president Jeff Gold’s office to deliver an urgent message,” Steve Knopper wrote in Appetite for Self-Destruction: The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry. “Depeche Mode’s new Songs of Faith and Devotion CD had just leaked to fans in online chat rooms!” It was the first leak of a major artist’s work on the internet.
Gold did not know what a “chat room” was; he signed up for CompuServe, an early online service provider, to investigate. Like anyone who logged onto the internet for the first time back then, he soon got distracted. Yes, fans were trading officially unreleased Depeche Mode songs in .wav and MP2 formats, straining their dial-up connections for hours, but Gold also noted they were talking incessantly about artists. He became a chat room lurker, and one of the first music executives to engage the internet by doing things like releasing preview song clips and holding fan contests online.
3. FIRST CONCERT BROADCAST ONLINE: SEVERE TIRE DAMAGE // JUNE 24, 1993
The Multicast Backbone, or “Mbone,” was an early cybercast system used mostly to livestream academic conferences. On June 24, 1993, Severe Tire Damage, a hobby band of Palo Alto tech employees, used it to host the first concert streamed online. Calling themselves “the house band of the internet,” their concert space was the patio of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, but they played for an audience of online techies as far away as Australia.
Seventeen months later, the Rolling Stones used Mbone for a 20-minute webcast. By far the most famous band to cybercast up to that point, the Stones’s show made headlines. Because they had access to the same channel, Severe Tire Damage strapped on their instruments and performed a show on Mbone immediately before the Stones broadcast, essentially using their familiarity with the internet to get a coveted spot as the World’s Greatest Rock Band’s opening act.
4. FIRST MAJOR SONG RELEASED ONLINE: "HEAD FIRST" BY AEROSMITH // JUNE 27, 1994
Some tech-savvy Geffen Records employees were looking to do something big on the internet in 1994. They recruited CompuServe to host a free download of a song by one of the label’s perpetual heavy-hitters, Aerosmith. The band became the first major-label act to intentionally release a song online, the three-minute-long "Head First." The press release included the impeccable Steven Tyler quote, “If our fans are out there driving down that information superhighway, then we want to be playing at the truck stop.”
“Head First” was released exclusively via CompuServe, and the band gave up all rights to the track (an outtake from their 1993 album Get a Grip). Download times were one hour or more, depending on the user’s setup; some users accused Geffen of deliberately making the process unpleasant to undermine the industry-uprooting potential of the internet. Tim Nye, operator of website SonicNet, told The New York Times, “What Geffen is trying to do, quite clearly, is convince the public that the technology isn’t there to make this a viable way of distributing music.”
5. FIRST RADIO STATION TO STREAM ONLINE: WXYC IN CHAPEL HILL, NORTH CAROLINA // NOVEMBER 7, 1994
In 1994, WXYC FM, the radio station of the University of North Carolina, became the first to run a 24-hour livestream concurrent to its broadcast. SunSITE, a commercially-backed cybercast developer at UNC, helped the campus station get online, using the CU-SeeMe software that had been developed at Cornell University. Because of the state of music copyright laws, SunSITE needed a noncommercial station to test the technology, director Paul Jones told the Associated Press.
The ’94 AP article noted that “People who want to listen can do so by gaining access to the university's site on the World Wide Web,” which the author specified as “a part of the internet that has become popular because of the development of sound, video and graphical features.” In the first month, users logged in from as far as Mexico and Poland.
6. FIRST MAJOR ALBUMS OFFERED AS PAID DOWNLOADS: MEZZANINE BY MASSIVE ATTACK AND HOURS BY DAVID BOWIE // SEPTEMBER 21, 1999
According to Big Media, Big Money: Cultural Texts and Political Economics by Ronald V. Bettig and Jeanne Lynn Hall, there are two albums that could be considered as the first to be intentionally released in full online, both late-’90s EMI efforts. Before discs of it were shipped in 1998, trip-hop band Massive Attack posted a stream of its acclaimed 1998 album Mezzanine on its website, and David Bowie offered 1999’s Hours (sometimes stylized ‘hours…’) as a digital download for $18 two weeks before it arrived in stores.
In a 1995 MTV News report, Bowie said he wasn’t impressed going online (“I did it one time, a couple of years ago, but I got so tired of the rubbish that I dropped out again”). The musical purveyor of all things futuristic eventually embraced the web, even launching his own provider company BowieNet and running an online contest that allowed a fan to write the lyrics to an Hours track. With the release, Bowie also became the first major artist to sell a full album online. It was available for Liquid Audio or Microsoft Audio 4.0. The New York Times noted that “skeptics have suggested that the album’s title refers to how long the download will take over an average modem.”
7. FIRST ITUNES BESTSELLER: "STUCK IN A MOMENT YOU CAN’T GET OUT OF" BY U2 // APRIL 28, 2003
After years of battling peer-to-peer networks in court, the music industry began offering its catalog legally en masse with Apple’s iTunes on April 28, 2003. Though it’s not known which of the 200,000 songs made available for 99 cents that day was the first ever purchased, at the end of the day, the top-selling was “Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of,” a U2 single from an album released two-and-a-half years prior. (More recently, Apple learned this did not mean everyone with an iTunes account loved U2.) The best-selling full album was Beck’s Sea Change.
8. FIRST MAJOR PAY-WHAT-YOU-WANT INTERNET RELEASE: IN RAINBOWS BY RADIOHEAD // OCTOBER 10, 2007
With 2003’s Hail to the Thief, Radiohead fulfilled its six-album contract with EMI. The convention-defying band released its subsequent album, In Rainbows, online and permitted fans to pay whatever price they volunteered through its website. (Two months later, CD and vinyl copies shipped.)
The press dubbed it a grand experiment with the future of the music business at stake. Initial research showed more than 2 million people downloaded In Rainbows in its first month and that two-thirds of downloaders took it for free. Those who did pay offered up an average of $2.26. Another analysis showed that 40 percent paid for it at an average of $6 each, netting the band nearly $3 million. Lead singer Thom Yorke says he has kept his own count and the band made more money from In Rainbows than they did off all of their previous albums combined (plenty of that, of course, due to lack of label and retailer overhead).