Book Review: “How Music Got Free”

41uqX+wVxbL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_How Music Got Free: The End of an Industry, The Turn of the Century, and The Patient Zero of Piracy (Amazon, iTunes), by Stephen Witt, is a non-fiction book that takes a look at the creation of the MP3, and how that eventually cratered the profits of the music industry.

I came across this book pretty much by accident – I wasn’t looking at a book on technology or the music industry. And in some ways, you can ask yourself what is really the point of a book like this – don’t we know the story already? Music companies are greedy, they missed out on technology, pirates were just a bunch of kids, and that was that.

But this book goes into much more detail, telling a story that I don’t think most of us know. I, for example, am pretty steeped in technology, but didn’t really know how the MP3 came to be (and almost didn’t). While I knew of Napster and The Pirate Bay, I figured music was just being ripped by college kids, when in fact there was a deeply conspiratorial enterprise involving people in CD manufacturing plants who were sneaking out CDs (and later DVDs) before they were released, and this is where most of the leaks came from. And while the executives at labels were indeed stupid and greedy, there were those who were just blindsided by technology, and figured something like the MP3 could be beaten simply by churning out hit music (in other words, people would just want to buy it, like they always had).

This book focuses on three main characters who never met each other, but whose stories were intricately intertwined:

  • Karlheinz Brandenburg: The German scientist and engineer who worked for the Fraunhofer Instittue, and created the MP3 standard
  • Doug Morris: A record executive who worked at one time for all the major labels, and became the CEO of the largest label (Universal Music) as the industry imploded.
  • Dell Glover: A factory worker at the Kings Mountain, North Carolina CD manufacturing plant, who is probably responsible for leaking more music and movies than anybody in the world.

This book spans the late 1980s through 2013. The early focus on the book is on the technology of MP3, and the amazing politics that went on behind the scenes that almost killed it, yet through Brandenburg’s tireless efforts, eventually came to dominate (Brandenburg and his team was horrified by music piracy, yet because of piracy, they became rich through licensing their technology to MP3 player device companies).

The sections dealing with Dick Morris were less interesting to me, yet it highlighted just how obscene music profits were, and how they were completely blindsided by MP3 technology. The most interesting aspect of this to me is that the executives thought MP3 was inferior, because they were listening to their sound mixing engineers in the studio, who insisted compression was bad. Unfortunately for the executive, these sound engineers weren’t really “engineers” – they didn’t understand acoustic technology nor how it worked on the brain, so they just assumed compression meant lost information that you absolutely needed.

The most fascinating piece of this, however, was the story of Dell Glover, and how the pirate community grew. These were not people interested in riches, but rather just the excitement of being “first” to leak. The cat and mouse games of getting music out of the plant (or radio stations, or from store warehouses) and onto the internet were pretty fascinating. While the RIAA was suing individual users who really didn’t know what they were doing, guys like Dell Glover were completely decimating the industry, and not getting anything for it.

The book was very well written, not spending too much time on any one character, and finding natural places in the story to switch from one character to another. It got a little slow in the middle, and at times I felt it spent too much time on the recording industry, but it really picked up from just over halfway in the book, when the activities of Dell Glover and the other pirates took center stage.

It’s a pretty fascinating story – the rise of the MP3 seemed inevitable in hindsight, but the battles within the MPEG licensing industry almost killed it in the crib. And the laughable way that the recording industry behaved in response to piracy – how they completely missed who the real pirates were while they were busy yelling at Napster and single moms in Minnesota, was pretty amazing. And Dell Glover was a great character.

It is well worth the read.

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