'How Music Got Free' chronicles the art of music theft

Stephen Witt offers a compulsively readable overview of the music industry and how it crumbled as music became free.

How Music Got Free: The End of an Industry, the Turn of the Century, and the Patient Zero of Piracy By Stephen Witt Viking 304 pp.

You might think a book about digital music and filesharing would mention him sooner, but the first time the name Shawn Fanning shows up in How Music Got Free: The End of an Industry, the Turn of the Century, and the Patient Zero of Piracy is on page 114. The teen college dropout who in 1999 programmed Napster, the first successful peer-to-peer music-sharing application, warrants mention on barely a dozen pages of journalist Stephen Witt’s page-turning, compulsively readable 30-year history of the liberation of recorded music from both physical vessels and economic viability. As for Steve Jobs, the Apple founder’s name doesn’t materialize until page 132.

The minimization of these seemingly primary figures in Witt’s story is deliberate. Over the last decade and a half, as the recording industry’s revenue has more than halved and music consumption has undergone a definitive realignment (twice – from physical goods to PC files, and from PCs to the cloud), Napster’s Fanning and the late Jobs have been over-covered by a media looking for the faces of music’s so-called digital revolution.

In Witt’s telling, not only were the prime movers behind this sea change in music a much murkier array of wonks and maladroits, but it might not have been a revolution at all – more like a series of fortuitous accidents (the market success of the MP3) and calamitous compulsions (compact disc plant employees’ urge to leak new music). The digitization of music was, ultimately, inevitable. But the system of digital music consumption we wound up with resembles the US healthcare system in its kludginess and free-market gracelessness.

Mind you, Witt is not opposed to hanging his story of "How Music Got Free" on personalities. On the contrary – his breakdown of digital music’s emergence slickly weaves together, with crime-novel punchiness, parallel story threads driven by a memorable cast of characters: A team of German engineers, led by the self-effacing Karlheinz Brandenburg and the tenacious Bernhard Grill, pioneer the field of compressed audio and develop the encoding schema dubbed “MPEG-1 Audio Layer III, “ or MP3 – only to discover the world of technological standards-setting is as petty and vengeful as a reality television show.

A rogue’s gallery of music traders, known within the music-trading “Scene” by aliases like Kali, RickOne and KOSDK , build a shadowy darknet called Rabid Neurosis (RNS) and race to be the first to leak everything from Beyoncé to Stereolab. A music exec, Doug Morris, becomes the defining record mogul of the hip-hop era, building Universal Music into the industry’s colossus even as he is outfoxed by everyone from Apple’s Jobs to a Wired reporter.

A nebbishy hobbyist and programmer from a blighted UK industrial town, Alan Ellis, founds a high-fidelity enthusiasts’ torrent site, OiNK, from his bedroom that snowballs into the musical equivalent of the Great Library of Alexandria in under three years. Even members of the US Department of Justice, struggling for years to crack RNS and the Scene, take their turn at center stage in Witt’s narrative.

Most memorable of all is a lone North Carolina CD plant employee, Dell Glover, the "Patient Zero of Piracy" from the book’s title. Through opportunity and guile, the humble Dell becomes the nexus of global piracy, using tools as prosaic as rubber gloves and large belt buckles to smuggle literally thousands of albums out of the former Universal Music CD factory and upload them to the Web before their official release – the biggest leaker in the history of the music business. A combination intellectual-property kingpin, unwitting copyright-law victim, and stand-in for the rank-and-file-sharer, Glover is the amoral heart and soul of Witt’s story: a striving African-American blue-collar worker with pluck and a PC for whom music is both lifestyle soundtrack and coin of the realm. Like many Americans of the last two decades, he steals music both because he loves it and because it is there to be had.

Trained in both mathematics and journalism, Witt entered college in 1997, the year MP3 trading arguably took off at universities – he calls his matriculating class “the pirate generation” (Shawn Fanning is his contemporary) – making him a theoretically ideal chronicler of the rise of online music culture. His two great skills in "How Music Got Free" are his ability to parse complex technical details for the lay reader, and his punchy, at times hammy journalistic voice.

That voice carries the story even when the plot, such as it is, hinges on whether our ragtag band of German audio engineers will be forced to embed a rival team’s “polyphase quadrature filter bank” into their source code. Exclamations like, “An entire album at only 40 megabytes! Forget planning for the future – you could implement the digital jukebox right now!” are goofy but helpful bits of narrative economy, and you are rarely more than a page away from another one. A chapter toward the end of the book where, "Memento"-like, Witt repeats previously chronicled moments of the Scene bootleggers’ machinations with additional justice-system detail filled in is particularly masterful.

Where the author falls down, repeatedly, is when he applies his punchiness to the subject of music itself; one wonders whether a journalist who came to music as a file-acquirer and, by his own admission, listened to little of his collection is fully equipped to write about pop music as art. For hardcore music nerds like me, the book is littered with small errors of fact and timeline. No, Suzanne Vega’s “Tom’s Diner” wasn’t a 1987 radio hit, and Boyz II Men were not an “act of yesteryear” in 1997, the year they scored another flotilla of Top 10 singles. Neither Dr. Dre’s "The Chronic" nor Sting’s "Ten Summoners’ Tales" would have been hotly desired by bootleg-CD-buyers in 1996. Glover’s leak of 50 Cent’s "Get Rich or Die Tryin’" in early 2003 wouldn’t have been possible if he was on a one-year hiatus in heisting between the late-’02 "8 Mile" soundtrack and Beyoncé’s mid-’03 solo debut. None of these errors is egregious by itself, but the steady pileup of them rankles.

Worse are the moments when Witt plays amateur rock critic; for a guy who came of musical age in the era of the all-consuming pop omnivore, he espouses some fairly hidebound opinions. Throwaway quips meant to convey solidarity with fans of classic music – “If that meant passing on Radiohead to sign Hanson, so be it” – are both patronizing and wrong on the way music A&R works.

And late in a book that has reported, with great insight, about the rise of hip-hop culture among Dell Glover’s generation, Witt compares rap albums unfavorably to Led Zeppelin’s "Physical Graffiti" and makes the stunning declaration, “No one listened to a whole rap album, not even the artists themselves.” This at a moment when Witt’s narrative is in the mid-’00s, the period of "Speakerboxxx/The Love Below," "The Black Album," and "The College Dropout." I’d like to meet the millennial music lover who’d choose a second-tier Zep album over any of those.

One often gets the sense that Witt is parroting the sensibilities of industry macher Morris – the only label executive he spoke to at length for the book, and it shows. The chapters devoted to Morris often read like his ghostwritten memoirs (you can imagine the "Physical Graffiti" theory of album consumption coming from his lips), and even when Witt is taking him to task for missing this or that digital-era boat, the author offers absolving circumstances.

Former Recording Industry Association of America lobbyist Hillary Rosen, Witt’s other major industry interviewee and the early-aughts bête noire of file-traders, receives similarly kind treatment. If there is any upside to all this deep background, it is largely in evidence when Witt contrasts the industry side of his "Rashomon" tale to the bootleggers’. A multi-sided recap of the 2007 battle between two blockbuster rap albums dropped on the same day by 50 Cent and Kanye West – how Morris fomented the battle, and how Glover attempted to sway it – is nuanced where many of his music-biz quips are not.

So one leg of Witt’s tech-and-crime-and-music stool is rather wobbly. On the whole, the structure remains upright. "How Music Got Free" will likely stand for some time as a primary record of the age of music piracy, if only for its deep reporting on the art of the steal and the science of music compression and transfer.

The very principle of psychoacoustics that Brandenburg and Grill pioneered holds that music is received largely the same by the human ear and brain even if small, immaterial elements are removed before playback. In other words, if a song has been encoded with data compression at just the right level of economy, the essential power of the melody, the beat, even the harmonies remains undiminished. I daresay this is a fine metaphor for Witt’s book: Ultimately the small errors in his timeline, deference toward some interview subjects and dubious judgments as a music appreciator, while distracting, are expendable zeroes and ones that do not diminish the overall power of the narrative.

In "How Music Got Free," Witt has crafted a ripping good yarn about the ripping of music from its physical vessels – what you will take away are the tales of Dell Glover’s disc-filching derring-do, the Germans’ rigorous work ethic and happenstance success, and the sad spectacle of the greatest music library man has ever assembled being scattered to the winds. The rest is noise.

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