As a format, mp3 still exists and is good as it ever was. As a way to listen to music, the idea of a format has been superseded by curated social platforms.
A few weeks ago, as the large scale quarantines were beginning, Nine Inch Nails announced that they were releasing a double album for free on their website, as some free content to help people get through the trying times. I went to their website, found the zip archive, downloaded it, unzipped it, and added it to my WinAMP playlist. That got me to thinking: did other bands still have free mp3s on their websites? I have been clicking around trying to find if there are still sites that host free mp3s. While such things exist, they are harder to find than expected, with a smaller selection than expected, considering the gigantic size of the internet.
A brief history of how mp3s were distributed on the internet. When I first got a 56K internet connection, in the autumn of 1998, mp3s were hosted as links on websites. Some of these were legal, some of them were not, but in both cases, the links were ephemeral, and had an eclectic mix of whatever was available at the time. I remember downloading standard pop songs as well as odd Europop dance mixes. An mp3 was commonly about a Megabyte per minute. On a 56K modem, with an optimal download speed of about 5 Kilobytes per second, this worked out to about 200 seconds to download a minute of mp3. A short pop song, if you had good luck, would take 10 minutes to download. Often, with the vagaries of the Windows operating system and modem connections, it would cut off before you were done. So back in 1998 or 1999, if you were one of the cool computer kids in your dorm room, and you spent your weekends clicking around on webpages buried deep in the Yahoo! site hierarchy, you would have a few dozen mp3s on your computer. Half of these would be standard pop songs that you could hear on the radio. The other half would be promotional tracks by German techno groups. Many would be truncated by download failures. Many would be mislabeled (exacerbated by the limitations of the Windows FAT32 naming table, where files would be titled something like "THEBEA~2.MP3"). It was glorious fun, at the time.
The next big shift in mp3 usage came as file sharing programs like Napster took off. This also coincided with the spread of DSL and other broadband technology. Soon, people could easily download entire albums in a short while. The industry started noticing and cracking down. Getting an entire album in ten minutes was a lot different than getting half a song in 10 minutes. In 2001, Apple introduced the first iPod mp3 player. Mp3s were becoming either big business, or a scourge to it, depending on who you asked, and they stopped being solely a hobby. At the same time, most of the chaos remained. Limewire was full of novelty songs wrongly attributed to Weird Al Yankovich, and many of the mp3s shared were still of bad sound quality, or were truncated. Mp3 files were also shared across chat clients like AIM. They were also available as legal demo or public domain files.
So when did we enter our current age, when the mp3 format is no longer important? Like many things on the internet, it happened slowly. One of the main developments was probably the adaptation of broadband that allowed realtime video and audio streaming. Once people had YouTube, with any music video or song from the past few decades available on request, the need to collect and archive songs on someone's own computer waned in importance. In the past decade, streaming and distribution platforms such as Soundcloud, Spotify and Bandcamp and a few other services have consolidated online music into social and commercial activities.
"But" someone might be saying "Musicians have to make money, they can't just give away everything for free", and I am not debating that. But as I poked around on different bands websites, I was surprised to find that they didn't have even a token selection of downloadable music. Even bands like The Grateful Dead and Phish who encourage live taping don't have an mp3 section on their sites. For bands to include a few outtake or rarity mp3s on their website in mp3 format for direct download doesn't seem like it would be too detrimental to their commercial prospects. I did find in my searches that there are a few sites that still provide mp3s for free download, including the Free Music Archive. Most of these songs are by obscure and non-commercial bands, however.
In general, the ontological priority of the internet has shifted, and mp3s are a part of that shift. Whereas mp3s used to be discrete units that people had control over, this has shifted to music no longer being a thing, but rather part of a relationship, where people are members of sites that deliver them music. These sites are also, needless to say, commercially oriented, and interact with an online person that is described by a series of common internet social media platforms, such as signing on to Soundcloud with a Facebook login. That this change in how the internet defines things was perhaps inevitable. We have gone from the simplicity of the Unix "everything is a file" approach, to a world where computer and internet usages are defined by membership in social media platforms. Perhaps inevitable, but I miss my day of mismatched, abridged mp3s from diverse sources floating in my harddrive.