For those of us 30 and older, buying music in our youth meant waiting until the newest releases from our favorite artists were available on CD (or in earlier years, vinyl or cassette) before heading to the local brick-and-mortar store in order to purchase a copy. If you wanted something before it came out, you just had to wait, and if you wanted something your local stores didn't have, you either tried to mail-order it from a catalog or you called stores in the surrounding area to see if any of them had a copy. While this may seem like archaic to anyone under 30, that's just the way it was. The record companies controlled access (in terms of both release dates and pricing) to the music and the consumer had little choice but to pay what was asked, and when. Things began to change in the late 1990s, though, and as we all now know, in 2015 the way in which music is distributed and consumed is so drastically different to what went before that it's almost unrecognizable. The story of how this all happened is what How Music Got Free aims to tell.
According to this "about the author" blurb at the end of the book, author Stephen Witt is approximately the same age as me (he was born a year earlier) and was even born in my home state of New Hampshire. In his introduction, the experiences he had going to college, finally having internet access, and discovering the new technology of the mp3 eerily mirrors my own experiences. I started college in the same year as him which is where I had my first access to the internet, my first high speed ethernet connection (not until sophomore year in 1998...freshman year the university still had dial-up!), and had never heard of an mp3 before then. I arrived on campus with hundreds of CDs in boxes and a huge sound system, although I eventually started using Napster a little bit when it first appeared. I never stopped buying CDs, however (I still haven't) and I never downloaded pirated music. However, Witt did and found himself sitting with multiple hard drives storing hundreds of gigabytes of music by 2011 or so. That got him thinking, where did it all come from? Who was responsible? And did it really cost the music industry millions of dollars and almost kill it off? As he began to dig deeper he realized it started to converge on one man in particular, and the idea to write an investigative book was born. The result is How Music Got Free, and whether you read the British edition (subtitled "What happens when an entire generation commits the same crime?") or the American edition (subtitled "The end of an industry, the turn of the century, and the patient zero of piracy") you'll find yourself wondering the same thing.
The book follows the paths of the three individuals most responsible for the hell that broke loose in the late 1990s: Karlheinz Brandenburg, the German researcher who led the team responsible for creating the mp3 technology; Doug Morris, a legendary record executive who made a fortune shepherding hit after hit onto the charts, artistic quality be damned (and who helped make rap the dominant genre it's been since 2000, for better or worse); and Bennie Lydell "Dell" Glover, the quiet man who worked at the largest CD pressing plant in the USA and who was personally and almost single-handedly responsible for leaking almost 3,000 albums onto the internet weeks or, in some cases, months ahead of their release dates. The chapters take turns advancing the narrative of each one of these men, with successive chapters returning to their subject in order to detail what happened next. As the book progresses the story becomes more gripping and fascinating and at several points seems to be the product of a highly creative individual, until you step back and realize this all really happened. While I won't attempt to tell the entire story in this review, and while I urge you to read the book to get the full story, I'll give a general overview as it's no less fascinating.
Starting with Brandenburg, he was a psychoacoustic researcher at a German university who was obsessed with trying to compress audio files to as little as 1/12th their original size without sacrificing sound quality. He and his team finally achieved this after many years of hard work and research by eliminating many areas of the sound spectrum that are either imperceptible or unnoticed by the majority of listeners. However, committee politics with the European MPEG consortium led to the resulting mp3 technology being purposely crippled by superfluous additional software filtering being unnecessarily mandated by the committee, who preferred to adopt the inferior mp2. Eventually, however, the mp3 won out and made Brandenburg and his team very wealthy. As staunch defenders of copyright laws, however, little did they know that they'd opened Pandora's Box. Running alongside this was the late-career arc of Doug Morris, who had been active in the record industry since the 1960s and spent many years working for the legendary Ahmet Ertegun at Atlantic Records before heading to Warner Bros. Records. Eventually he ended up at Universal Music Group and at one point was personally controlling a third of the entire global music market. Morris had a keen eye and ear for which songs would make huge hits, caring little for artistic quality and more for capturing the public's interest long enough to sell millions of records and make a lot of money. He specialized in making national (and oftentimes, international) hits out of regional acts and scoured the country to bring rock, pop, and rap acts out from their local communities and onto the national stage. Running alongside this boom in disposable music was the CD, where ridiculous numbers of the shiny plastic discs were being sold ever year. The greed of the music industry was on full display during these boom years of 1990-2000, as described in the book: as the industry managed to get the cost of production down to around a dollar a disc, they never thought once of passing the savings on to the consumer, who were still paying the same $15 for a new CD in 2000 that they were in 1993. Eventually, this would come back to bite the industry in a big way. However, one man (among many, it must be noted) stood to do more damage to the industry's bottom line than anything else...
Dell Glover was an unassuming guy living in western North Carolina; he went to church, hung out with his friends and family, worked hard, and enjoyed life. In addition, he was en electronics whiz and spent many hours tinkering with computers and electronic gadgets, fixing them for friends and making a little money on the side doing so. Dell was a music fan, enjoying country, rock, pop, and rap, so getting a job that had some relation to the music industry was fortuitous indeed. He first got a part-time job at the massive Kings Mountain CD pressing plant in the mid-1990s and put in many long hours and overtime shifts in order to get full-time work and benefits there. Around the same period, he and his coworker/friend James Dockery became immersed in the nascent internet and the various IRC (internet relay chat) channels devoted to music. This eventually led them to become part of RNS (Rabid Neurosis), which would go on to become the most infamous online music pirating collective in the history of the internet. Dell began to realize that several new albums were being smuggled out of the plant weeks in advance...he would hear them at parties thrown by his coworkers and wonder how they got out, especially given the ever tightening security measures the plant was taking. Eventually rising to a supervisory position, Dell figured out a way to smuggle freshly pressed albums out (I won't spoil it for you...read the book!) and began his years of leaking album after album through his colleagues in RNS. Eventually, too many albums were being leaked far in advance of their release dates, catching the attention of the FBI. After many years of investigative work (and a few missteps by Glover and his cohorts in RNS), Dell was arrested and the key members of the RNS crew were nabbed. The entire story is gripping and I had to keep reminding myself over and over that this actually happened and was not just exciting fiction.
At its core, How Music Got Free is a multi-stranded tale of how an unwitting scientist, a clever music-loving techie (among millions like him), and an industry so short-sighted and greedy that they almost deserved what happened to them, all eventually intersected. It's the story of unbridled greed, hubris, and getting caught with their (technological) pants down on the part of the music industry. It's the story of well-meaning, important research and its unintended consequences on the part of Brandenburg's group. And it's the story of an entire generation of music fans and consumers shifting the way they viewed and acquired music. It's this last part that is the crux of How Music Got Free and which will make the reader think long and hard about their own attitudes and habits when it comes to music, both during and after reading it. Reading this book brought back a lot of memories of those times in the late 1990s/early 2000s when I was in college and and graduate school. At the time, I was hearing about all of this as it was going on. Yes, I used Napster a little bit, as well as some of the other peer-to-peer networks like eMule, Soulseek, and BitTorrent. Back then when it was all new, I didn't know that what I was doing was wrong as I was of the mindset that if I liked what I listened to enough, I was going to buy the CD anyway. To this day, I still buy CDs even though I've supplemented my listening with online (legal) streaming like Spotify and YouTube. While I do think the music industry got what was coming to them given their attitude toward the artistic value of much of the music they were pumping out, as well as their indifference to the economic burden their inflated prices placed on consumers, I do believe that artists and producers deserve to get paid for their hard work. The question of ownership and whether online file-sharing is right or wrong is the main thesis of the book and is something that is still hotly debated today. The path that led to where we are now is littered with tortured thinking, legal rulings and technicalities (such as the ruling that mp3s infringed on musical copyrights, but mp3s players were perfectly legal to make), and plain old bad decisions that would come back to haunt the various players in this saga years later.
Stephen Witt does a fantastic job weaving all of the various components of the story together into a cohesive tale of how we got to where we are today: moribund physical music sales, an industry near death that has to think of new gimmicks in order to stay relevant, and technology run rampant to the point that music is both as accessible as ever to consumers and burgeoning musicians, yet the industry is almost impenetrable to new artists unless. Throughout the entire book, Witt brings it all together, creating an intriguing, true-life detective story; making it even better is the fact that he actually met and interviewed (nearly) all of the main people he writes about: Doug Morris, Karlheinz Brandenburg and many members of his research group, and of course Dell Glover. The firsthand accounts and memories from these major (albeit behind-the-scenes) players makes for gripping reading and elevates the book above mere investigative writing. If I have one quibble with the book, it's that I felt it was a little bit rushed toward the end when it came to the discussion of the lawsuits and consequences suffered (or in some cases, unbelievably, not suffered) by the music pirates, as well as the aftermath and impact on all involved once the dust settled. This is more down to my personal thirst for more information than any shortcomings in Witt's writing and it very well may be the case that since the lawsuits in question were relatively recent (2007-11) the information is either not yet available or not accessible to the general public (yet). In any event, How Music Got Free is an excellent book that only describes how we got to where we are in terms of how music is valued as both an art form and product. This book will force the reader to examine their own attitudes toward both long after the book is finished as you realize all of this change took place over less than a decade. That, perhaps, is the most stunning takeaway of all from How Music Got Free, but there are many more thought-provoking kernels of truth in the book that make it a fascinating must-read for any music fan and/or technophile.
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