Is the MP3 dead, or just a little senile?

While the rest of us are still bemoaning the lost physicality of records and CDs, Kill Screen contributor Kyle Chayka instead mourns a more recent victim in the death march of time: the humble MP3. Sure, MP3s are still around, but today we experience music less through our own curated playlists and collections than through the tributaries of other content streams—a friend’s suggestion, a Spotify recommendation—all without downloading anything permanent.

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In the frenzy of critics penning articles eulogizing their favorite physical formats, music has moved on to a brand new period of decay. This is the scourge of streaming, pulling down songs and albums and loading them in real time onto a computer or device. Though streaming subscription services like Rdio, Pandora, and Spotify herald a new level of convenience when it comes to listening to your favorite tunes, they also represent music’s latest degradation. When we log in to our accounts and kick off our favorite playlists or search for our favorite bands, we no longer possess anything; we’re just borrowing it from the cloud.

For music, streaming represents the ultimate loss of Benjamin’s aura. The consumption of music has moved onto mediated platforms, the new middlemen of the music business, and we as listeners no longer even have the pleasure of receiving a locally saved aggregation of zeroes and ones, let alone something physical. Though digital files have no true physical presence, they are still possess-able objects of a sort, as unique and full of aura in their own way as any retro CD jewel case or pressed vinyl, and have their own kind of mystique.

I wonder, though, does streaming music not have its own aura? It presents to us again the uncapturable sound of the pre-MP3—and pre-vinyl—era before music was “a thing” we carried around with us. No matter how many times you share it or repost it, streaming music is always downstream of its origin. It has a home in (virtual) space, whether it’s Youtube or Spotify or Soundcloud. By contrast, MP3s are digital orphans, wandering the alleys of the Internet without a sense of direction or place.