“What happens when an entire generation commits the same crime?”
That’s the question asked by Stephen Witt in How Music Got Free: The End of an Industry, The Turn of The Century, and The Patient Zero of Piracy. And while that title doesn’t exactly roll of the tongue, it does provide a crystal clear timeline and explanation of how we consume music today and the winners and losers in a multi-billion dollar cultural and consumer sea change. It’s a fascinating and important story, full of politics, money and greed, that Witt tells well.
It’s a very complicated tale, but Witt sets up the story with alternating chapters amongst the three main characters: Doug Morris — the most powerful record man in the world, Karlheinz Brandenburg — the inventor of a new medium, and “patient zero” Dell Glover, a minimum-wage employee at a CD manufacturing plant. Dell would go on to leak many of Morris’ biggest records in advance of their release, using Brandenburg’s MP3 format, mostly to closed chat rooms for internet geeks. These files — and the albums — would soon make their way into the music consumer’s daily diet.
German engineers actually began working on the MP3 in the late 1970s. It would lose out to the MP2, despite delivering better audio, largely because recording industry backed the MP2. It would only be the first brush with politics and corporate espionage for Brandenburg; in fact, the industry would encourage his team to adopt a near-fatal Trojan horse of a filter bank in exchange for their support. That support, of course, would never come until Napster let the MP3 genie out of the bottle.
The music industry, led by Doug Morris (whose rise to the very top of the biz is prominently featured), continued to believe that it was the compact disc itself that “represented” music. This was their fatal mistake, as the scientists who invented the MP3s believed, the real cash cow was the digital file itself and the CD format merely it’s vessel of delivery. Brandenburg, the “father” of the MP3, in fact, realized he had won the format war when he overheard two teens at the mall proselytizing the MP3 format on an escalator: “They’re called MP3s; you can put music on your computer and share them on the internet. It’s how I get all my music now.” Game, set, match.
The music industry would, however, continue to wage lawsuit war on Napster and other MP3-sharing sites as well as manufacturers of portable MP3 players; they would be pyrrhic victories, with the industry playing the role of Nero, fiddling while Rome burned. One of Witt’s most fascinating observations about this battle is that the music industry stood alone for not bowing to the “culture police” as the film industry had and add stickers with a rating system to their product. They would pay the price and be largely abandoned and left to enforce their intellectual copyrights without the help of the state. Unfortunately, while Napster would eventually disappear, “the peer to peer movement was here to stay, and there was a new generation of kids who had never paid for a CD, who viewed file-sharing as their perogative, and who saw spending money on music as an antique form of patronage.”
As the MP3 revolution advanced, all of the major players would learn to adapt. Morris would learn how the “You Tube generation” discovered music from his grandson and re-licensed the promotional videos of the ‘80s and ‘90s for billions of dollars. Brandenburg’s intellectual patents would make also him a rich man, and Glover’s access to pre-release music would fund a street-level movie bootlegging enterprise as well. Artists such as Lil Wayne, would abandon the album format in favor of leaking MP3 files of their songs on their own on the internet. Those who could not adapt are lost amongst the ruins of the CD, the pressing plants, and countless record labels.
Witt has delivered a riveting read of the moment a billion dollar industry changed and how none of the old rules applied. How Music Got Free will go down as one of the cornerstone books about the music industry, sitting aside such legendary exposes as Hit Men, Ripped, and Cowboys and Indies as essential reading for anyone interested in the business of music.