How Music Got Free: The End of an Industry, the Turn of the Century, and the Patient Zero of Piracy was published in 2015, and I was a little worried that being three years old would already render it obsolete. Fortunately, I was wrong. Stephen Witt’s explanation of the rise of mp3 and the transition from CDs to digital stores to streaming, along with the corresponding piracy, is clear and detailed and incredibly fascinating. This is the type of non-fiction I like: full of facts and figures, but organized in such a way that it tells a compelling story while you’re reading.
Witt starts off in the late eighties and early nineties. He essentially tells two parallel tales: Karlheinz Brandenburg’s team at Fraunhofer invents and perfects the mp3, while Dell Glover works at a CD printing plant in North Carolina, where he becomes the leading source of pirated music. Along the way, we also spend time with Doug Morris, a prominent record executive, and various pirate groups and the law enforcement officers trying to shut them down. That might sound scattered, but Witt manages to bring everything together into a coherent and unified look a the the past thirty years of the music industry.
I’m a little younger than Witt. His introduction places him in college in 1997, cramming a 2 GB hard drive full of pirated tunes. I turned 8 in 1997, and I wasn’t much into music at that point. In fact, I was a very late bloomer when it came to forming personal musical tastes and beginning to collect my own music—I think I was well into high school, by which time the iTunes Store was well established. Although I did buy or receive many CDs (mostly movie soundtracks and classical stuff) around that age, my first real experience with collecting music was already digital. I never much got into pirating—I missed that golden age, coming in just after Napster when everything had fragmented and you had to try your luck with torrents and Kazaa or Limewire. I had no trouble getting iTunes Store gift cards for my birthday or Christmas and spending those on $0.99 tracks and $9.99 albums; I chafed at the DRM, for sure, and celebrated when Apple did away with it. Since then, I’ve moved on to another storefront, 7digital, mostly because I try to avoid using iTunes itself these days. I haven’t subscribed to any streaming services—I like to own my music, even if it does exist as lossy bits on a hard drive.
I love how Witt balances the social history with a technical explanation of the workings of the mp3 format. As a mathematician, I’m fascinated by the information-theoretical underpinnings of the mp3. Witt goes into a lot of detail regarding the experiments that Brandenburg’s team did to tailor the mp3’s compression algorithm to best store the components of audio that human ears can detect. In particular, we learn a lot about the struggle to capture in the best fidelity the “lone speaker”. Alongside this technical overview comes the chronicle of the mp3 repeatedly facing rejection from MPEG as a new standard. I never knew that it basically lost out to mp2 as the format of choice—at least until some fateful twists and turns made it into the number one format for streaming pirated music, and then … well, the rest is history and the mp3 is here to stay.
By the same token, Witt provides more detail about the history of music piracy than I ever knew. Obviously early pirated music had to come from CDs, but I didn’t know they were being smuggled so brazenly out of the manufacturing plants. And I didn’t know the nature of the underground community, the way there were l33t groups who took pride in orchestrating and coordinating a release of a pirated album ahead of its actual release date. I really enjoy learning about these kinds of subcultures that existed in the earlier eras of the Internet but have now morphed or disappeared. The Internet has moved so fast in the past ten years that it’s easy, especially for us young’uns, to forget there have been entire movements that sprang up and died off prior to that time.
I also like how we have a very nuanced portrait of the music industry. It’s easy, in my opinion, to be sympathetic to pirates and artists both, and to have a bit of a one-dimensional view of the music executives. Yet Witt emphasizes how, for better or worse, there was a symbiotic ecosystem happening among artists, executives, and consumers. And as the technology changed, of course the industry changed—but why it changed the way it did is so incredibly fascinating.
And then there’s Dell Glover. He grows and matures over the decade he pirates music. He starts as a risk-taking, cool car–driving bootlegger and turns into a more responsible father who decides he no longer wants the heat associated with pirating. It’s interesting to see Witt recount the details of Glover’s involvement in what was quite literally this international operation to leak new releases.
There are a few aspects of How Music Got Free I didn’t like, mostly to do with Witt’s writing. At times, some of the analogies he uses felt dated or awkward or just in bad taste, like when he compares something to an alcoholic who can’t avoid the bottle or something along those lines (it has been over a week since I finished the book, so my memory has already blurred). I just remember thinking, “Um, that wasn’t necessary, where is your editor, young man?” At other points, Witt either introduces or fails to introduce concepts, technologies, parts of history, etc., that don’t need or definitely need, respectively, that introduction. Just some odd editing choices overall.
None of that dampens my enthusiasm for this book, though. It’s a lovely little history of a particular part of the music industry, the era that was the jump from physical to digital media, and some of the internecine conflicts among artists and executives and fans and audience alike. How Music Got Free lives up to the expectations set by its bombastic title, and I learned a great deal from this relatively short non-fiction read!