How Music Got Free by Stephen Witt, book review: Techno-wizardry and industrial idiocy

The story of how all the tracks in the world became available for nothing
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The Independent Culture

There's a tendentious aspect to the title chosen by Stephen Witt for his fascinating account of the rise of music piracy through the past couple of decades. Besides the monetary connotations, the way it represents music as having "got free" suggests that music was somehow trapped or held hostage until pirating punters started stealing it on such a grand scale that the music industry ultimately came close to widespread bankruptcy.

It's an interpretation to which not just downloading fans but some actual artists might subscribe. Angered at being manacled to lopsided contracts paying pitiful royalties and wielding control over their art, the likes of George Michael and Prince have often fulminated against the organised music industry – the latter memorably daubing the word "slave" across his face to characterise the exploitation.

Except that, reading Witt's book, it becomes clear that the music industry was far less organised than it liked to make out. Even as late as 1998, when Seagram's Edgar Bronfman was seeking to purchase PolyGram Records to combine with his Universal Music Group, the shareholder prospectus prepared by Morgan Stanley made no mention at all of the internet, home computers, mp3s, file-sharing or streaming – developments which would bring the industry to its knees within a decade.

Witt's narrative proceeds on three fronts. At the sharp end, we follow the exploits of Dell Glover, a line worker at Universal's CD pressing plant in North Carolina with a hobbyist's sideline in computing, who became the world's single most prolific source of pirated music files through his involvement in Rabid Neurosis (RNS), a non-profit file-sharing site. Despite the plant's stringent security measures, Glover found ways for his accomplices to smuggle CDs out – a popular method was to hide them behind the huge belt-buckles that were fashionable during that era. In return, he got access to secret computer servers containing – well, containing just about everything, including new movies and games, which he would copy and sell from the back of his Jeep Cherokee in club parking lots.

At the other end entirely, Witt tells the story of how German software engineer Karlheinz Brandenburg, working for the state-run Fraunhofer Institute, oversaw the development of the mp3, which radically reduced the bandwidth necessary to send music across the internet. It's this section which is, to a techno-ignoramus like myself, the most interesting, explaining how psycho-acoustical researchers discovered how the human ear was an "adaptive" organ. Most aural information simply can't be registered by the ear, while other anomalies were ingeniously exploited to reduce further the bandwidth require to encode high fidelity music, until the magic ratio of 1:12 was reached with no discernible drop in quality.

Entrepreneur Ricky Adar, seeking to realise his dream of a "digital jukebox", was astonished when he heard what the Fraunhofer team had achieved. "Do you realise what you've done?" he asked Brandenburg. "You've killed the music industry!" Sadly, Adar's prescience was not shared by the industry itself. In 1997, Brandenburg scheduled a meeting with the Record Industry Association of America (RIAA), specifically to urge them to combat potential piracy by adopting a new, copy-protectable mp3 format, and was told that the music industry did not "believe" in electronic music distribution.

The primary representative of the music industry in How Music Got Free is Doug Morris, the most successful music executive of all time, whose various stewardships of Warner, Universal, and Sony would net him a personal fortune estimated at £200m. Morris's career is explored in perhaps too much detail; suffice to say his extraordinary success rate came through forensic attention to regional sales returns; but even he was blind-sided by the file-sharing revolution, when his biggest-selling acts – rappers like Eminem, 50 Cent and Kanye West – became the most pirated acts of the era. And when the RIAA belatedly fought back, launching parallel lawsuits against file-sharing site Napster and Diamond, the Korean manufacturer whose primitive mp3 player could make those files portable, it "won the wrong lawsuit", in Witt's memorable phrase. Napster was shut down, but in losing the Diamond case, the door was thrown open to enable Apple's iPod to change music consumption forever. With billions of pirated files already sitting on punters' hard drives, the Napster horse had long bolted; the issue had shifted to one of how to carry those files around.

It's an engrossing story, with many fascinating tangential points. One unforeseen result of piracy, for instance, was the change in CD sales, with the increase in market share of certain types of music – talent-show acts, mainstream country, and "mom" faves like James Blunt – largely because their target audiences were less conversant with file-sharing technology. As Witt puts it, "the most important sales demographics in music were those who didn't know how to share".

This in itself points to the most depressing aspect of How Music Got Free, however. It's a sad irony that what will surely be the year's most important music book contains little actual discussion of music, as opposed to business and technology. Which is a reflection of the way that, as per Marshall McLuhan's dictum, all digital media are now increasingly led by the medium rather than the content, thanks to users like Witt himself, who freely admits downloading around 100,000 pirated mp3s (the book ends with him destroying the disks on which they were kept, and subscribing instead to Spotify). For Witt's sake, then, one hopes that some loose-fingered publishing drone doesn't get hold of the text file of his book, and with all his hard work made available for free on a Kindle.