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8 Milestones in Online Music Distribution

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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.


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.”


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.


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.


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.”


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.


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.”


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.


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).

John Fielding, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
9 'Scientific Mysteries' the Internet Loves, Debunked
John Fielding, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
John Fielding, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Whether it involves aliens, moving rocks, or crop circles, no one loves a scientific mystery like the internet—even if that "mystery" was solved years ago using all of the rigors of science. Here are 10 so-called mysteries that the global online community can't bear to part with, debunked once and for all (we hope).


The "Mystery": This so-called "strange rock" is a balancing act comprised of two rocks, one teetering precipitously on top of the other. Locals of ancient yesteryear, apparently perplexed to discover that the top rock was in no danger of sliding off the bottom rock despite the extremely small point of contact between them—and was, in fact, too heavy to be moved at all—decided giants tossing boulders explained the phenomenon. "And it's true," one theorist wrote: "There is still no exact scientific explanation, but contrary to the laws of physics, the stone stands quite firmly and human strength is not enough to move it."

Science Says: It's not true, actually. Geologists put forward a much more likely cause for this balancing rock and the countless others that exist worldwide: Melting glaciers deposited them where they currently squat.


geographic features called fairy circles in namibia, created by termites and plants

The "Mystery": Are they footprints of the gods? Barren patches caused by a dragon's fiery breath? Marks left behind by UFOs? All of these ideas were perpetuated by the internet after tour guides in the region passed them on to tourists, according to The New York Times. The scientific community was pretty sure the dirt circles found in the Namib Desert were none of those things, even though they were hard-pressed to come up with a more logical explanation—until recently.

Science Says: Research published in 2017 suggests that they're the work of colonies of termites, which clear circular patches around their nests; the barrenness of these shapes is possibly enhanced by plants as they stretch their roots to reach scarce water—which prevents other plants from growing in the process.


klerksdorp sphere
Robert Huggett

The "Mystery": These grooved spheres have been the subject of many strange theories, most revolving around the existence of intelligent aliens who made the pod-like trinkets—which apparently can rotate on their axes—using intelligent alien technology and otherworldly metals some 3 billion years ago. has proposed a whole host of theories about the spheres' uses, including ancient ammunition, messages from space, and currency.

Science Says: Geologists have a more tempered explanation for how the spheres came to be: They're concretions—little balls of rock that have grown around a core object—of the minerals hematite, wollastonite, or pyrite that have hardened over time in nests of volcanic ash or sediment. The myth of alien metalworking skills was debunked back in 1996, but it still resurfaces every once in a while.


The "Mystery": The Webdriver Torso YouTube account has been freaking out the internet with its videos for several years. Commentors posited that the videos—which were usually 11 seconds long and featured colored rectangles moving around on a white screen—were spy code, alien code, or recruitment searches for expert hackers. At the channel's peak, videos were uploaded as often as every two minutes.

Science Says: Google revealed in 2014 that they were simply video clips the company had created to test the quality of YouTube videos. "We're never gonna give you uploading that's slow or loses video quality, and we're never gonna let you down by playing YouTube in poor video quality," the company told Engadget in a statement/Rickroll. "That's why we're always running tests like Webdriver Torso." Conspiracy theorists, however, pointing out that videos had been uploaded elsewhere before Google took credit for the channel, continued to suspect darker intentions. One reddit user posited in 2015 that Google "could … have a secret agenda." Maybe Google wants this chatter to continue: Even today, googling "Webdriver Torso" will yield an easter egg.


Sailing stones of Death Valley National Park
Thomas Hawk, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

The "Mystery": Known alternately as sliding, walking, or moving rocks, for more than 100 years these so-called "living stones" have seemingly slid across the floor of a dry lake bed all on their own, leaving trails of their movements—and causing plenty of speculation. Magnetic force is one popular theory, along with psychic energy and the interventions of alien spacecraft. Some claim a 700-pound stone named Karen disappeared for two years, only to somehow reappear again.

Science Says: In 2014, scientists studied the situation and discovered that the stones move when the lake bed they rest on becomes covered with rainwater that freezes overnight into a sheet of ice; when the ice melts, it pushes the rocks here and there—assisted by Death Valley's powerful winds. (No word on what Karen's been up to, though.)


Aerial view of a geoglyph representing a Duck or a Dinosaurius at Nazca Lines
Martin Bernetti, AFP/Getty Images

The "Mystery": If conspiracy theorists like aliens, they love ancient aliens. When it comes to the Nazca lines, they speculate that ancient astronauts from outer space drew almost 1200 geometric, animal, and plant shapes in a vast, arid plateau on Peru's Pampas de Jumana. also purports that the designs were made by humans, "most likely to signal extraterrestrials," and possibly to provide a runway for their space ships.

Science Says: The truth—which has been known since at least the 1940s—is that the figures were created 1500 to 2000 years ago by the Nazca people, who removed rocks and/or a portion of topsoil to create an image in negative. At first, scientists believed the figures were astronomical symbols, or an early sort of calendar, but later research indicated the drawings were used ritualistically, in ceremonies involving the quest for scarce water.


aerial view of bermuda

Peter Burka, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

The "Mystery": Three hundred ships and planes, all supposedly sunk or gone missing in the same general area in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean: The Bermuda Triangle (so-named by pulp writer Vincent Gaddis in 1964) has had conspiracy theorists of all stripes spouting endless theories for years. Atlantis! Alien interventions! An opening in the fabric of the universe! Attack by sea monsters! A popular theory in the 1970s involved magnetism wreaking havoc on navigational devices, and one more recent theory suggested that bursting bubbles of methane gas were responsible for missing craft. Online speculations, like this one from BuzzFeedBlue, attempt to stoke the (nonexistent) fire.

Science Says: This has been settled for decades—there is no mystery. In 1975, librarian turned investigative author Larry Kusche unearthed the actual facts: Some "missing" vessels were simply made up; some sank far from the Triangle; and others along the route—which is still heavily trafficked today—fell prey to the region's frequent bad storms.


The "Mystery": A lot of otherworldly meaning has been ascribed to these designs squished into fields of wheat, rapeseed, and barley. Once again, aliens—mathematical-genius aliens this time—are said to be responsible for them, hiding complicated messages in the circles' sometimes intricate imagery. Others suggest they're spiritual centers that beam energy. In the video above, a farmer who found an intricate crop spiral in his field says, "I don't know what caused it, but I'm not sure that it was made by people."

Science Says: The truth is simple, and perhaps disappointing, which may explain why the alien theory never seems to die: The circles are made under cover of darkness by people, sometimes with the permission of the farmers whose land they're created on. They use measuring devices, rollers, and other low-tech gear to push patterns into grain.


The "Mystery": When a small, oddly shaped, strangely featured mummy was discovered in Chile's Atacama Desert in 2003, some on the internet called it proof that beings from space had once lived among humans—and perhaps even mated with them. The mummy had 10 ribs instead of the typical 12; a strangely sloped head; and at just 6 inches long, was fetus-sized, but its bones were as dense as a child's. Some thought that the 9 percent of the mummy's DNA that didn't match the human DNA they compared it to was further evidence of its non-human origins. As UFO/ET conspiracy theorist Steven Greer says in the above clip, "Is that all computer read error? Maybe. Is it what's called DNA junk? Perhaps. We don't know."

Science Says: Testing of Ata's genome destroyed these theories, proving that Ata was 100 percent human and died, likely in utero, from genetic defects. Many of these mutations related to bone development, explaining her missing ribs and thick bones. Exposure to nitrate-contaminated drinking water may have been a factor in her deformations as well. And that 9 percent genetic difference? Standard contamination of a mummy that was exposed to the open air.

Big Questions
Why Do Memes Usually Feature All-Caps White Font?
By Iamlilbub, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons via

Why is all-caps white font so often used in memes?

Archie D'Cruz:

Because of laziness, mostly. And Microsoft.

A great majority of memes floating around on the internet today are created using meme generators—web tools where you can select an image, add your text, and post it to social media. Easily done in under a minute without you having to fiddle around in Photoshop.

What’s common to just about all of them is the default setting: the same blocky typeface, in white all-caps, and text outlined in black. Those settings make it easy to read on virtually any image, dark or light.

Most of the popular meme generators don’t allow you to change the typeface, the color or the case, but even with the ones that do, these options are downplayed. So when you do run into a meme, you will almost certainly see something like this:

A screen shot of several popular internet memes

But how did this come to become the default? That’s where Microsoft comes in.

The typeface used in most memes is Impact, created in the sixties when the Swiss typographic style—clean, strong, legible—began to dominate graphic design. It was created by Geoffrey Lee, who sold it to British typeface foundry Stephenson Blake, which in turn sold it to Monotype after getting out of the font business.

As the internet gained in popularity in the '90s, Microsoft spearheaded a project to create a standard pack of fonts for the web.

It licensed 11 fonts, including Impact, from Monotype, and published them as freeware. These were included in the Windows 98 operating system, which dominated the market at the time.

Little surprise, then, that the earliest memes—which were created using MS Paint or Photoshop—would feature Impact. Along with Arial Black, it was easily the strongest of the core fonts and the most legible when placed on an image. Unlike Arial, it was also very condensed, which allowed for more text to fit in.

When websites featuring meme generators (or image macros, to use the technical term) arrived on the scene, Impact was an obvious choice: free to use, and easily readable on virtually any image.

Over the years, there have been sites that have tried to be unique—offering different font choices, darkening the image below the type, putting text above and below images, putting text in boxes—but by now using Impact in white all-caps for memes has become something of a meme itself.

The Impact font gets its own meme

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.


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