How Music Got Free by Stephen Witt

I received this as a NetGalley from Penguin Group Viking.

Fully titled: How Music Got Free: The End of an Industry, the Turn of the Century, and the Patient Zero of Piracy

“What happens when an entire generation commits the same crime?”

The definition of crime in this case is up for debate.

Witt takes you from the invention of the MP3 to YouTube’s inescapable Vevo videos. But he does this through research that lead to stories, a lot of them first hand, from individuals who shaped how the music industry came to where it is today. From a writing standpoint, he’s concise when need be, but knows when to elaborate or give the sentence extra panache. The only thing that bothered me were the sometimes gimmicky cliff hanger chapter ending sentences. But hey, they worked on me.

He starts off with Brandenburg & his colleagues who first invented a form of audio coding that could compress the amount of data needed & still sound like the original. The MP3 was born. One of the more interesting facts was that the MP3 was not necessarily invented as a predecessor to the MP2, but simply received the higher number for it’s name by good luck.

Witt also introduces the reader to Bennie Lydell Glover. Some readers might even recognize his online moniker ADEG. He was the main source of leaks for RNS, “the most pervasive and infamous Internet piracy group in history,” which is more fact than opinion according to Witt’s findings. Glover eventually became “the greatest music pirate of all time.” But Witt doesn’t cast Glover as a criminal. Instead, Glover becomes one of your favorite “characters.” I use quotes because it’s easy to forget these are real people, the height of the risk is so tall it’s easy to forget this all really happened.

On the other end, we have Doug Morris. Corporate head honcho of each of the Big 3 music groups at one point or another. But he also isn’t demonized. We feel for this guy as well. By the end, we’re left with a view of him as an innovator with a real eye for the next big thing. A contrast & perhaps a retaliation to how he’s painted in Wired‘s piece on him back in 2007.

There were other stories along the way. Alan Ellis’ was one of my favorites because I remember kids using his site “Oink” back in the day. In fact, the personal experience I had reading this might have been my favorite part. Most people my age & a bit older were technically all criminals. We downloaded, pirated, & some of us even leaked free music. My personal go to site was Limewire, but the others definitely rang a bell. Even now, most people I know don’t buy music. Witt touches upon the beginning of iTunes, but I don’t know anyone who actually uses their iTunes giftcards their aunts give them. Instead most of us use Spotify, Pandora, or YouTube videos. If you do want to use your iPod, you convert the video into an MP3 by literally typing in “MP3 converter” into Google.

I mostly buy CD’s because my car is old & won’t let me play burned ones. But the music industry is still changing. This book should be added to each year. U2’s experimental move to just force their album into your iTunes library could be added. Or even more recently, Taylor Swift’s aggravation at Apple for not paying their artists royalties for the first three months.

Personally I think when an artist I love offers their music for free, I’m more willing to pay even more money for it. Granted, not everybody may feel this way & artists that I sort of like, but don’t necessarily respect, I’d be less inclined to do so. But the future of music is always changing & Witt’s in depth research has lead to an account of its history that’s definitely worth reading. It opens the conversation for the pros & cons for news ways of improving an industry that clearly needs to take a new direction.

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