Book review: Stephen Witt’s How Music Got Free explores piracy within the music industry

The advent of the MP3 and the rise of file-sharing hit the revenues of record companies hard. James McNair is impressed by a book that examines this great disruption.

How Music Got Free by Stephen Witt
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The story of how music got free – how it could be acquired gratis by anyone with an internet connection – is an important one, but it isn’t, on the face of it, the stuff of exhilarating reading. Stephen Witt’s first book concerns the history of CD piracy and the development of the MP3 technology that made illegal file-sharing possible and desirable. It’s also a forensically researched, technically uncompromising book that took five years to write and is largely peopled by mild mannered German scientists, computer nerds, and ordinary, if corrupt Joes.

It’s remarkable, then, that the author manages to pace it like a thriller and construct it like a detective story. You might say that the alchemy of the MP3 – relaying music via the ones and zeros of binary code – is matched by the alchemy of Witt’s fine prose, which turns some hazardously prosaic material into reportage gold. As the author tracks down the prime movers in file-sharing’s threat to the music industry’s survival, he entertains as much as he informs.

Even the book’s jacket cover seems wary of losing us at hello, hence it sees Witt, a mathematics graduate turned investigative journalist, deploy some startling number-crunching. Just one man, his book shows us, is ultimately responsible for the US$21 billion or so the music biz has lost to illegal file-sharing. This is Bernie Lydell Glover, AKA “Dell”, a blue-collar employee at Universal’s CD pressing plant in Kings Mountain, North Carolina.

Initially, Dell pilfers from his employees to pirate CDs for local, small-scale gain, but he later becomes the mother of all Bluebeards; the go-to man for Rabid Neurosis (RNS), a select file-sharing cabal which began operating circa 1996 and was hidden away on the dark web.

Criminal masterminds RNS may be, but they have a strict not-for-profit ethos. Their key motivation is to be ahead of the game; to leak coveted pre-release albums before anyone else does. A dubious kind of kudos aside, Glover’s only reward is access to other RNS contraband. And with his help, RNS leaks about 20,000 albums during its 11-year reign, shooting holes in an industry that can’t for the life of it find the gunman.

Witt shows that, to some extent at least, the record industry had it coming. The savings it periodically made through refinements in the CD manufacturing process were never passed on to the consumer, and for the longest time, record companies all but ignored the various technological advances that sounded the death knell for their trusted revenue streams.

Even in 1998, when the alcoholic beverage giant Seagram acquired PolyGram Records for US$10 billion (Dh36.7bn), risk assessment documents on future growth took in the possibility that Bon Jovi might defect to Sony, but not other, infinitely more ominous upheavals.

“The prospectus did not mention the internet, nor the nascent consumer broadband market,” writes Witt. “It did not mention the personal computer, nor recent advances in audio compression technology. It did not mention the possibility of streaming services, nor the potential for wide-spread file-sharing. And it did not mention the MP3.”

Witt confesses that he himself was a teenage file-sharer. Arriving at college in 1997, he was one of millions around the world who began to access, store and transport their music in a new way. Bulky cardboard boxes rammed with CDs in cracked jewel cases were out; compact, gigabyte-rich hard drives rammed with invisible MP3s sourced for free were in. “I pirated on an industrial scale but told no one,” says Witt. “It was an easy secret to keep.”

The author is good on the ubiquity and seeming innocuousness of the crime, and on the casual, unthinking way it was perpetrated. “Music piracy became to the late ’90s what drug experimentation was to the late ’60s,” he writes, “a generation-wide flouting of both social norms and the existing body of law, with little thought of consequences.”

The record companies' side of the story is largely told through Witt's intermittent profile of Doug Morris, the gifted bigwig executive who, in the course of his long, influential career, co-steered Warners, Sony and others. Morris was canny enough to realise gangsta rap, not rock or pop, was the future when he heard Dr Dre's 1992 debut The Chronic, but his signing of Dre and other pre-eminent rappers of the era (via a co-deal with Death Row records) didn't foresee the sharp decline in CD sales that file-sharing soon wreaked. While Morris's personal fortune was safe, the industry in general began to leak like a colander.

Initially, their punitive response was heavy-handed and misdirected. With Dell and other dark web file-sharers untraceable by the FBI until 2006/2007, the music industry’s 2003 anti-file-sharing initiative Project Hubcap instead targeted small-time downloaders of pirated music, some of whom – 12-year-old New York City housing project resident Brianna LaHara, for example – were unwitting, traumatised transgressors. Project Hubcap was “arbitrary and vicious”, writes Witt, “a million dollar fine for shoplifting”.

How Music Got Free is also a fascinating account of how the music industry finally got a handle on the digital revolution and began to stop – or at least slow – the rot. Apple built iTunes and the iPod. Albums became available as digital downloads. And Doug Morris, watching old music-videos on YouTube with his grandson, had a eureka moment and invented the music-video syndication service Vevo, an extremely lucrative way of cashing-in on about 30 years of remaindered promotional stock. For example, all those MTV-era promo videos are back out there earning money again via advertising that runs ahead of each consumer generated YouTube view.

Streaming services have since made money, too, of course. Witt’s book was finished before the advent of Apple Music, the new streaming service built into iTunes that will launch next week in more than 100 countries, but in his epilogue the author explores the rise and rise of streaming, a problematic if seductive activity that has made us buy less and less music.

“In 2011, for the first time since the invention of the phonograph,” Witt writes.

“Americans spent more money on live music than recorded.” He also notes that, in 2013, revenues from subscription, advertiser-supported streaming passed $1bn for the first time, prompting Apple to buy Dr Dre and Jimmy Iovine’s Beats streaming service for more than a billion dollars, and Spotify, Rhapsody, Deezer et al to ruck over rights to music by Led Zeppelin and The Beatles.

Ultimately, though, Witt's book contends that the damage is done, "that streaming may not have solved anything", that Lady Gaga selling a million units of Born This Way in a week at 99 cents apiece is symptomatic of an industry in crisis, and that, since music got free, none of us can view hard copies of a tune – be they CDs, MP3s or whatever – with quite the same reverence.

Towards the end of his book, Witt tells of taking nine hard drives containing the 100,000 or so MP3s he’d amassed over the years to a company in Queens, New York for brutal “data destruction” via pneumatic nail gun. Like most of us, he’s a streamer now, for all the practice’s controversies. “Finally I caved [and] bought a Spotify subscription,” he writes.

James McNair writes for Mojo magazine and The Independent.