How Music Got Free: What Happens When An Entire Generation Commits The Same Crime?

Stephen Witt
Books, Music Business
London: The Bodley Head, 2015. 296 pp
ISBN: 9781847923363 (Paperback)
Reviewed by , October 1st, 2015

How Music Got Free is business history written with the narrative drive of a Raymond Chandler crime novel. This carefully researched and deeply unsettling account traces the unravelling of the recording industry as copyright protection collapses and new digital technologies enable the free global distribution of music. And a whole generation decide to take advantage of the opportunity.

Stephen Witt. Photo by Chad Griffith

Stephen Witt. Photo by Chad Griffith

Author Stephen Witt admits he was part of the generation that contributed to the problem, amassing free music on an industrial scale. Witt says he graduated from the University of Chicago with around 15,000 albums on his computer hard drive. Yet most of this music he never listened to and some he actually hated. The attraction wasn’t just the music, it was also the thrill of belonging to a new subculture. Some of Witt’s older friends were hostile to his new enthusiasm. They loved music and loved the endless search through record shops for rare and great music. For Witt, music was free, searching effortless, and recordings almost valueless.

A few years ago, Witt began to wonder how all that free music turned up on the internet and decided to trace the source of his digital obsession, almost forensically. How Music Got Free presents the results of that search, winding together the stories of three key players in the story.

Witt begins in a German research lab where Karlheinz Brandenburg is leading a team of scientists and engineers in working out how to compress digital audio files, making them so small they can be easily shared, while retaining enough audio quality they can be enjoyed. It’s a long frustrating process. Despite outstanding technical work, their innovations don’t attract any real business interest. Finally they resort to giving away copies of their mp3 encoder, with unforseen consequences.

Into this frame enters Dell Glover, employed at a CD manufacturing plant in North Carolina and taking whatever shifts he can to get by. He connects with a couple of shady computer enthusiasts whose underground pirate networks and global subculture manage to destroy a billion dollar industry, almost by accident. They didn’t do it wilfully and the record industry seems to share at least some of the blame for its own implosion. At a corporate level, the industry struggled to understand the threat of the mp3 and the contribution of the CD format to their troubles. New peer-to-peer file sharing services massively accelerated the spread of free music, yet the industry could not agree how to respond to this new digital culture and proved incapable of stopping the theft of its products, even from within its own factories.

The third strand to this story is a view from the top of the recording industry, following the career of industry chief executive Doug Morris. With experience at Time Warner and the Universal Music Group, his insights and approach are revealing and provide first hand account of challenges faced by industry leaders when their business model and knowledge base are suddenly eroded.

By following the journey of a few key actors in the recent re-shaping of the music industry, Stephen Witt unlocked the source of his free music collection and the radical reshaping of the music industry that it produced. It’s a great read and a reminder that musicians, corporations, governments and consumers jointly shape our musical future.

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