'How Music Got Free' Is a Compelling Read for the Disaffected Music Collector

by John Garratt

14 August 2015

"What happens when an entire generation commits the same crime?"
cover art

How Music Got Free: The End of an Industry, The Turn of the Century, and the Patient Zero of Piracy

Stephen Witt

US: Jun 2015

A majority of the musically-inclined adult world can recall the time when they first heard about a sound file known as the mp3. Just like author Stephen Witt, I first came across it in college, an environment absolutely ripe for digital file sharing. Not long after I first heard of the mp3, NPR ran a story of how this rogue sound file was so high in quality that it was beginning to spook the music industry.

Indeed, right around that time, there were digital music battles being waged on numerous fronts. The computer scientists were trying to expose the compact disc as an unnecessary medium to a stubborn old guard. Music bootleggers were rapidly chipping away at a once-profitable industry. Top level executives of said industry were reluctant to embrace the quickly evolving digital trends.

Meanwhile, federal officers would be dispatched to sniff out the hackers who were performing the dirtiest work, resulting in years of online shadow chasing. In his book How Music Got Free: The End of an Industry, The Turn of the Century, and the Patient Zero of Piracy Stephen Witt traces the activity on three front lines, leapfrogging through the chapters like it was a mystery or espionage novel. Sure, there are definitely things that Witt could have included that he did not, like the fact that They Might Be Giants chose to release Long Tall Weekend in digital form only in 1999, or how Metallica chose to sue Napster, but his narrow focus on the dawn of music piracy and the ripples directly linked to it makes How Music Got Free a very fun book to read. In at least two instances, I found myself defending the book in the presence of those who judged it by its (metaphoric) cover. I had to say “No, it’s pretty good once you get going.”

Witt starts with Karlheinz Brandenburg, the German audio engineer who is largely considered to be the father of the mp3. In a way, Witt delves in just a bit before this historical note by outlining Brandenburg’s apprenticeship under Dieter Seitzer, who studied under Eberhard Zwicker, the man responsible for developing “psychoacoustics” into an academic discipline. With some generous funding and a team of musically-sensitive computer scientists, Brandenburg set out to prove that compact discs carried an unnecessarily bulky design. If all that mattered was the digital coding, why not make that format as efficient as possible?

Many years of listening and tinkering were slow to pay off as Brandenburg and his team watched company after company take a pass on his achievements. A frequent criticism was that the mp3 was too complicated and the mp2, the mp3’s inferior-sounding competitor, boasted a more user friendly format. The mp3 also lost to other formats in high profile listening tests, though Brandenburg’s team blames the Motion Picture Expert Group’s (MPEG) tendencies towards favoritism for their lack of progress. Without MPEG’s endorsement, a programmer is stuck in their garage, and many of those endorsements are too political in nature. One member of the mp3 team was told, by a competitor at a technology convention, that there would never be a portable mp3 player. We all know how that turned out.

The second chapter introduces the reader to Bennie Lydell “Dell” Glover, a technologically inclined part time CD packager at the Polygram plant in Shelby, North Carolina. His endless curiosity for computers and software nudged him into some lucrative moonlighting gigs, such as fixing people’s computers and selling bootleg DVDs.

Through his friend and fellow Polygram employee James Dockery, Glover fell into a highly secretive group of online music leakers known as the RNS. Glover became a very valuable pawn to this community. Despite the fact that he signed a form at Polygram promising that he would never steal any CDs from the packaging floor, this lowly employee felt that there must have been some way around the plant’s tight security. After all, Glover had access to some of the most highly anticipated music releases during the ‘00s. And so he figured out a way to smuggle Eminem and Kanye West CDs out of the warehouse andupload the sound files to other RNS users a good two weeks before the albums’ release dates.

Witt goes high up the corporate ladder for his third perspective. You might even say that, in the world of the music business, it’s difficult to go any higher than Doug Morris. An aspiring musician and producer during the ‘60s, Morris founded his own label in 1970 named Big Tree Records. Towards the end of the ‘70s, Atlantic bought Big Tree and Morris soon found himself the head of Atlantic’s hot new offshoot, Atco. After becoming president of Atlantic, Morris took over the Universal Music Group and helped guide the music business’s largest corporate conglomerate through the most turbulent times in the history of the business.

This was a surprise to read. I remember reading articles as far back as 1996 explaining that recorded music sales were in a sharp decline. Yet, according to Witt’s research, more people spent more money on recorded music than they ever had before. Things wobbled dangerously after that, but Morris himself always profited.

Witt does his best not to portray Morris as some shallow corporate shill who was only in it for the money. He was good to his employees and had a business savvy that could, for a while, be counted on to produce massive hits. He poached the most profitable recording artists from Interscope Records while remaining friends with Jimmy Iovine.

When Ronald Reagan’s former secretary of education, Bill Bennett, a man Witt calls a “bloated neoconservative, a blithering culture warrior, and a major-league asshole”, attacked the moral depravity of popular rap lyrics of the time, Morris was quick to defend Dr. Dre’s right to rap what he wanted to on The Chronic. He operated mostly behind the scenes of the music industry, occasionally dropping into sight to sign artists like Juvenile because he just couldn’t resist “Back That Azz Up”. However, when it came to the digital revolution, Morris’ instincts led him slightly astray.

These three stories become intertwined as the book progresses, and Witt certainly isn’t above concluding some chapter with a juicy cliffhanger. For example, Chapter 18 ends with a coin toss in mid-air (Morris and Shawn Carter, aka Jay-Z, were trying to figure out how to break apart future profits for The Blueprint 3). When Dell Glover stumbles upon yet another breakthrough in his adventures in online piracy, Witt treats it like a major fictional plot device.

As mp3 technology begins to creep out of the darkest corners of the Internet, the book’s three main characters react in their appropriate ways. Brandenburg, long accustomed to doors being slammed in his face, approached the oncoming hysteria with measured reservations. Glover took to the emerging technology in a heartbeat. Morris, high above the action in his corporate office, barely gave it the time of day at first. As the format’s popularity grew, Morris was convinced it was a passing fad that needed to be waited out. Brandenburg’s story changes hands with British computer science student Alan Ellis, who harnessed BitTorrent technology, to procure Oink’s Pink Palace, the online music pirate bay to end all online music pirate bays.

With Ellis taking Brandenburg’s place in the narrative, all three men learn their lessons the hard way. Glover and Ellis are both caught, though one escapes serving time. Morris makes a handful of bad decisions like trying to set up downloading store in an effort to compete with Apple, failing to secure a legal precedent that would discourage portable music players, and regrettably agreeing to take part in a notorious string of lawsuits dubbed Project Hubcap, where random users were sued large sums of money for having illegally downloaded a handful of songs. These targets were often young teenagers and single mothers, people without the resources to fight big corporations in the court of law.

Morris has tried to distance himself from Project Hubcap, and most people have given him a pass due to his development of VEVO. After watching the way his grandson discovered new music, via youtube.com, Morris finally found a way to jump on the internet bandwagon effectively with his powerful online video portal.

What How Music Got Free lacks in comprehensiveness, it makes up for in being an absolute page-turner. Only a few moments left me scratching my head. For example, on page 125, he gives us Morris’s dilemma rhetorically: “If something was available for free, and could be freely and infinitely reproduced for free, with no degradation in quality, why would anyone pay to own it for a second time, when they already had it, for free? The moral compulsion to compensate artists certainly wouldn’t be enough.” Alright then, why? It’s never discussed again.

In another section, Witt suggested that there was a turning point after 2000, when musicians were going to have to rely more on ticket sales as a source of income than on CD sales. I thought that business model was already in place beforehand, but How Music Got Free rarely lets the reader see things from a musician’s point of view anyway.

If there’s a point of view to be had by the book’s end, it’s that of a disaffected music collector. In his epilogue, Witt describes his trip to a warehouse in Queens that is set up a site for computer hardware recycling. Tired of keeping track of his mp3s, he hands his hard drive to a technician who takes it apart. Witt describes the scene dispassionately. Years worth of hoarding are reduced to one chunk of metal being taken apart and thrown into a dumpster.

Witt, in case you were wondering, now uses Spotify (and we all know how lucrative that is for artists). Music, for all the pain and inspiration channeled into it, and for all the joy and controversy it can trigger, is reduced to vapor by the book’s end.

How Music Got Free: The End of an Industry, The Turn of the Century, and the Patient Zero of Piracy


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