A Brief History of the MP3: CoolToad to LimeWire & Beyond

I did a lot of reading before deciding to write about this. Here’s a link to give you some context, because apparently, the MP3 is dead.

The first thing my mind turned to as I viewed this article under low-light conditions in a very awkward angle (I’ve most definitely hurt my neck), was. Why? And then I shed a few tears. Let me explain.

My first memories of music are my parents singing me to sleep. I don’t know what age I was, but I have vivid audio clips on loop in my brain of lullabies, sung in Kannada, that sent me into a land of sweet dreams and contributed to a happy sleep for baby Tejas. The tune and tone are so clear, with verses in the relative baritone of my father, and the sweet high-pitched voice of my mother. I don’t quite know the words, but I can hum along the very same tune, snug under my blanket on a cold winters day in University, and head off to bed.

A lot of subsequent memories come from failed classes in music. Ones I never saw through to completion beyond a one-month, two-month trial of sorts. The hopping around from class to class – jumping in a different van outside the supermarket in front of our apartment building in the UAE, to my mother taking me to improve my singing (Yes, I did sing before my voice cracked. Unimaginable. I know.) – and forcing me into appreciating the art of Indian Classical music.

I used to sing at New Years’ Parties, and on occasions where my mother coerced me out of my protected shell by flattering me and pressing my fragile ego. And I always sang Hindi songs. Till the 5th Grade. This raised two problems:

  1. I didn’t know a WORD of Hindi, and therefore had zero clue of what I was singing – I could have been serenading women, cursing adults, looking at nature, describing a butterfly – and I would not know what I was singing. No matter how much you translated lyrics. I would not care to remember.
  2. I couldn’t read Hindi.

This is where the parents and my Uncle realised that there was some potential in this budding talent. For one of my birthdays, I was gifted an Aftron CD player – with a “Skip” function. It was all the rage in those days, and for a while, I was the superstar in the apartment block, with my small earphones, and massive blue and silver CD player. The idea was that I’d listen to music I liked repeatedly – enabling me to memorise the tone and the lyrics of the song I was going to sing the next time my mother so commanded. It was convenient, cost-effective, and was going to serve an ulterior purpose of expanding my memory: preparing me for the Indian education system. On numerous levels, little Tejas did not care. He had a new electronic gadget.

So, now what? I needed CDs. And I needed a place to learn lyrics – to avoid faltu pronounciation mistakes. For this, my Uncle taught me to use CoolToad. And HindiLyrix. HindiLyrix was pure genius. It was literally a site for NRI-babies like myself, and displayed the lyrics to popular Hindi songs, in English. It was fabulous. CoolToad, however, was incomparable. It was the start of my relationship with downloading media off the internet. I picked up MP3 versions of every single song I liked and burned it on to MoserBaer CD-ROMs. Each CD was accompanied with it’s own case, a track-listing, and super cool handwriting (purple/black marker) – labelled as Tejas’ CD Mix #X. I was a DJ before it was cool to be a DJ.

I then won a Sony Walkman in a lottery in Bengaluru – my dad bought a suit in Garuda Mall, and I got a Walkman as a result. He looked dapper, and I got more electronics. We were both super impressed and happy. I learned to use my Walkman – a USB device, from my grandfather, who helped me transfer some of my MP3s onto this new thing.

I was a pretty tech-savvy kid, so I had my own USB drive and stuff with back-ups of my songs. When I received my iPod Nano in 2008 – a treasured gift from my best friend – one I still use, the only job I had was to re-organize my music. Then I discovered LimeWire, and then Torrenting. My Laptop hasn’t held less than 10GB of music ever since. And I listen to all of it. In MP3 form.

When I began recording covers of popular songs on my piano, I recorded them all in MP3. I didn’t care that my SoundCloud supported cooler, newer, better-quality formats. I just loved the .mp3 at the end of an audio file, and I was proud to be a creator of those files. Nothing else mattered.

Till YouTube Downloader came along – and revolutionized the Internet, with the ability to download MPEG-H, MPEG-4, .MOV and .AAC, and all these “lossless” files – helping you keep top-notch quality (apparently). My ears scarcely recognized the difference at first. Eventually though, given a good pair of earphones, I was able to tell.

And that’s when I realized that the old era of music – one that had seen me revel in the BlauPunkt audio system within my parents’ Volkswagen Polo – was done with. When the Walkman & the CD-ROM players came along, cassettes became old news, but were things I loved meddling with. I enjoyed fitting my pencil into the gap between two tapes (and have been yelled at for messing a cassette beyond repair once). But that was easy to let go of – it never meant too much to me.

The MP3 has been a friend, a companion in the legally grey areas of the Internet (I’m looking at you, PirateBay), and a source of innumerable memories.

To see these Tech websites and the “founder” label the MP3 as dead hurts.

Because nonsense like Blu-Ray has somehow survived till 2017.

I will defy you, Internet tech lords. I will use my MP3 format audio with pride. And I will blare this MP3 audio on my iPod docked into my old dock with iTrip. I will be cool. Specifically 2005 cool.

Because the 2017 cool is not worth it.



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