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How The Music Got Free
At the beginning of this century, Dell Glover, an employee at Universal Music's pressing plant in North Carolina, began to
commit a new kind of crime. Those unfamiliar with the extraordinary advances in the compression of digital recording - and, 15 years ago, that was nearly all of us - wouldn't have noticed that Glover was doing anything especially innovative. He was helping himself to his employers' product, as employees have been doing more or less since the concept of employment was invented. And he wasn't nicking thousands of dollars' worth of stuff, either. A copy of Jay-Z's album The Blueprint, say, had a retail price of $15 or so, and only cost $2 of $3 to make. In some ways it was like stealing a teapot, or a towel.
The big difference, of course, is that even now you can't digitise a towel and share a Dropbox link with anyone who has just come out of the shower. Glover was, unfortunately for Universal Music, both computer-literate and a part of the Scene, a shady group of piratical music fans who hung around infant internet chat rooms trying to get hold of any new album that young people might conceivably want to listen to. His theft of a single CD (and he only ever needed one) meant that within hours, and through the magic of digital compression, The Blueprint was available, before its official release and for nothing, to anyone with a modem anywhere in the world. Within five years, only suckers - in other words, anyone over the age of 30 - were bothering to pay for recorded music.
Stephen Witt's enthralling and authoritative How Music Got Free provides an account of this revolution in consumption through the stories of three men: Karlheinz Brandenburg, the boffin who invented the MP3; Doug Morris, the music- business executive who turned Universal Music into a money- making machine in the 1990s; and Glover, one of the army of Davids whose virtual slingshots dumped Morris and the other music business Goliaths onto their large, expensively-trousered bottoms. In Witt's capable hands, this trio illustrates all the music business's baffling technological advances, vicissitudes of fashion and disastrous decision-making of the past 20 years.
The brains of Brandenburg's team of 15 engineers at the Fraunhofer Institute could probably have powered a train, but when in the early 1990's they invented the first mp3 player, they couldn't think of a useful application for it, and so they didn't bother to patent it. Who would want a gadget the size of a brick that held 1 minute of music?
When, in 1997, Brandenburg suddenly realized the trouble his mp3's would cause, he organized a meeting with the Recording Industry of America to show them how to make it more difficult to duplicate the files, but he was waved away. The industry was happy with CDs, he was told. Everyone was making lots of money, and it wasn't in anyone's interest to take the electronic distribution route. Nobody in the business seemed to realise that they had already taken the road to ruin, and that a CD was simply a hopeless way of storing encoded information. The executive and his colleagues were, in effect, going to try and flog giant overpriced filing cabinets to people who only needed somewhere to put their paperclips. The pitch didn't work for long.
The surprises in this book come thick and fast. Who knew that the human ear can't actually hear a lot of the auditory information music provides? Our failings made Brandenburg's job easier, because they enabled him to remove some of the redundant noise before compressing the rest. Who knew that the MP in MP3 stood for 'moving picture'? Or that the '3' was assigned randomly to Brandenburg's team as they lined up to pitch their idea to the Moving Picture Experts Group, the standards committee that to this day decides which technological innovations are most likely to make it through to our malls and high streets? (Brandenburg lost, to the MP2, although later people assumed, rightly but for the wrong reasons, that the MP3 was a superior version of the same thing.) Who knew that the reason the MP3 won out was because Brandenburg, out of sheer desperation, gave away the app that enabled the compression and playback of songs? It ended up on the internet, the hackers and pirates found it, and before long, Morris's expensively acquired stable of hip-hop artists, the pirates' chosen currency, was available for nothing everywhere.
Of course, there was money to be made in all this somewhere. For a while, Brandenburg was receiving a royalty on every Microsoft computer sold, and he became a rich man. Glover sold out of the boot of his car pirated copies of the stuff he downloaded, and bought himself a new trunk and a car to go with it. Morris earned $10m even in his last year at Universal in 2011, by which stage Glover and co had turned the music industry into a kind of modern-day Pompeii, silver coke spoons frozen at the nostrils as the downloads hit.
But mostly this is a tale, as the book's title suggests, of money lost, or, in the case of many of the pirates, money never earned. Alan Ellis, a 21-year-old living in Middlesbrough, didn't seem to make much out of Oink, a website run from his bedroom which at one stage provided a much more comprehensive, better-curated and much higher-quality version of iTunes; like most pirates, he did it because it was cool, and because he could. Music got free, and money vanished into thin air: the music business essentially halved between 2000 and 2007, and the arrival of the dirt-cheap and laughably convenient Spotify has liquidated a lot of what was left. And yet, paradoxically, the consumer has never been better served. As you read this, you are sitting probably less than 2ft away from a device that provides access to the entire history of recorded music, at little or no cost; the new technology means that we will become better informed, better educated, probably more experimental.
This is a terrific, timely, informative book, of particular value to anyone who has been left bewildered by the speed of change in listening habits in the 21st century. Witt is an authoritative, enthusiastic, sure-footed guide, and his research and his storytelling are exemplary. How Music Got Free stands comparison to The Social Network, except in many ways, Glover and his pseudonymous hacker friends formed an antisocial network; only time will tell just how antisocial they were.
In the entire history of humanity has any crime been committed more than that of music piracy? In his book, How Music Got Free, Stephen Witt doesn't bother to spell out what percentage of his generation has done so; he merely assumes, probably fairly, that it's basically all of them. The greater surprise, revealed in this book, is that so many of the tracks they'll have illegally downloaded - and possibly most of them - originated from one disaffected factory worker in North Carolina who, in another world, would have been a billionaire. 'He was the Patient Zero of Internet music piracy,' writes Witt, 'but almost no one knew his name'.
His name was Dell Glover, but we'll come to him in a bit. Best understood, this is the definitive history of a media revolution. Which might not sell it, perhaps, but this was a revolution that involves not only science, but crime and pop stars and genius geeks of various competing sorts. I would not have thought, beforehand, that I was the sort of person who might sit there, hooked, reading phrases such as 'polyphase quadrant filter bank' late into the night, but it turns out that I am.
Probably because so much of this story happened in the legal shadows, so many of the people in it are all but unknown. You may have heard of Sean Parker and Shawn Fanning, who created Napster, and you'll certainly have heard of Apple's Steve Jobs. Hardly anybody, however, has heard of Karlheinz Brandenburg, a middle-aged, bespectacled German who was the key inventor of the MP3. Technically better than its competitors, it was nonetheless shunned by the music industry, which had opted to back the rival MP2 technology instead. It was not, however, the industry that made this revolution happen. It was everybody else.
One lesson of this book is about the extent to which it was criminality that drove technology. 'There will never be a commercial MP3 player,' an executive from Philips declared at a trade show in 1995. Fast-forward a mere four years, and Microsoft was bundling a player programme with Windows, which generated so much money for this anonymous German in a Munich research facility that a startled secretary decided a cheque had been misprinted because it had so many zeroes. This happened, principally, because the great mass of everybody out there swapping music on the internet decided the MP3 was their best option. An early taste, this, of power suddenly lying somewhere else.
At the heart of this, unknown to almost everybody, was the aforementioned Dell Glover. A black, Christian, low-ranking worker in one of Universal's CD factories, Glover hit upon a method of smuggling discs past the factory security team, apparently by getting the local hicks to hide them behind their giant belt-buckles. Online, Glover fell in with a group of cybergeeks who won web validation from their peers by being the first to upload new music, sometimes weeks before it hit the shops. He would barter his access in exchange for illegal movie downloads, which he would burn onto DVDs and sell after hours in local car parks.
Within a few years, Glover was making more than $1,000 a week. In his own way, just as much as the Napster duo, he was a technology pioneer. Before long, his customers would have been downloading films all by themselves. For now, though, they didn't know how. By the time the FBI shut him down, moreover, he was running an online illegal movie download repository, for which he'd charge a subscription. Or, to put it another way, he invented Netflix, long before Netflix did. With another life story, he'd have been a Silicon Valley visionary. Instead, he worked in a factory, and went to jail.
A big lesson in this book - there are lots of big lessons here - is that quite a lot of very clever people who should have seen various futures staring them in the face simply couldn't see the wood for the trees. Music companies employed a lot of geeks, but they were music geeks rather than tech geeks, and dismissed MP3s from the start because they were sniffy about anything that didn't sound like vinyl. Brandenburg, being exactly the opposite sort of geek, was equally sniffy when one tech company sent him early designs for a commercial MP3 player, because he wasn't inspired by the specifications. The company was Apple, and the gizmo was the iPod.
Even as piracy soared, it was easy for the industry to ignore. In the year 2000, Americans bought more music than ever before or since, even while Napster - the first mass piracy service - was spreading through university dormitories like pink eye. Before long, though, as Witt writes of the industry, 'packaging was all they were really selling'. Intertwined with the stories of Brandenburg and Glover is that of Doug Morris, then the CEO of Universal, who belatedly realised that he could only beat piracy by doing what pirates do, but better. It was he who - after a decade of epitomising a dying, complacent industry - began to sell advertising alongside music videos on services such as YouTube, finally making official the idea that people who didn't want to pay for music simply didn't have to.
At times, various accounts here sound a little bit too much like evidence given in court, and you do sometimes wonder, with scientists, executives and pirates alike, whether you're getting the actual truth, or just the acceptable truth that won't get anybody arrested or sued. As first drafts of history go, though, this one is pretty good. At heart, like all internet histories, it's about the usurping of the middleman, first by another middleman, and ultimately by the individual. It is the story of all creative industries and, in the end, the internet itself. And to think, it's only rock'n'roll.
More books on Music
In 'How Music Got Free', an accomplished first book, Stephen Witt considers the nearly 15,000-strong records he collected in his 20s. He built his archive without ever stepping into a record shop, thanks to music piracy on an 'industrial scale'. In explaining how he, and millions of his peers, were able to get away with it, he weaves a narrative around three people. Karlheinz Brandenburg is a German audio engineer who created the MP3 format by learning how to record high-fidelity music using very small amounts of data. At a house party Dell Glover recognised music by artists whose work he knew. Mr Glover did not recognise these particular songs because they had yet to be released; the only reason the DJ had them was because they had been smuggled out of the plant where they were being put on CDs. Mr Glover sensed an opening, learned about MP3s and soon became 'the world's leading leaker of pre-release music'. As the leaks became impossible to ignore, Doug Morris, a senior record-label executive, was forced to get to grips with a technology that he had no desire to understand.
Part of what makes Mr Witt's story so compelling is that none of this trio is quite what he seems. Mr Brandenburg released the software that enabled PC users to digitise their CDs for free, a move that Mr Witt believes 'catalysed a golden age of copyright infringement that decimated the music industry' and made him extremely rich. Mr Glover, who undercut the earnings of thousands of musicians, is revealed to be a tireless worker, good with money and devoted to his young son. And Mr Morris's business instincts turn out to be as applicable in the digital age as they were in the analogue period.
There is no happy ending. Piracy became widespread, causing a long-term decline in record sales, whereas legal digital stores, such as Apple's iTunes, enabled songs to be sold on a piecemeal basis. These forces combined to sound the death-knell for the album format, which had provided high profit margins for record labels and desirable editions that facilitated a record-shop culture. Mr Witt notes that customers of next-generation streaming services, such as Spotify, tend not to pirate, but nor, as Mr Barrow suggests, are they paying as much for their music. The piracy-induced switch from owning a record collection to renting one has cost both record shops and artists dear.
The new edition of the New Yorker carries the story of one of the most important people in the history of the music industry, someone you've never heard of. Dell Glover never made music, never occupied a significant position in the record industry, never put on a gig, never ran a magazine, never did any of the things people who are supposed to be important in the music industry do.
The New Yorker piece is written by Stephen Witt, and it's based on his astonishing forthcoming book How Music Got Free. The book tells the story of three people: Glover, Karlheinz Brandenburg, the German academic who was the key figure in the invention of the MP3, and Doug Morris, the music industry executive who made Universal the most powerful record label in the world.
But it's Glover's story that is the most compelling. His sole qualification for changing the face of music forever was that he had a job at Universal's CD pressing plant in Kings Mountain, North Carolina, and that he became a member of a file-sharing group called Rabid Neurosis (RNS). It was this combination that meant that, in Witt's words, 'from 2001 on, Glover was the world's leading leaker of pre-release music'.
With his access to music - during this period Universal was cornering the market in hip-hop, which was becoming the most popular music in the world - Glover was able to get albums to RNS weeks ahead of their release. Over its 11-year span, RNS was responsible for leaking more than 20,000 albums.
What's fascinating about this is that none of the principals were bothered about making money. The code of 'the Scene' - the group name given to filesharing groups - was that they were not pirates. They were not interested in financial gain, or even leaking the albums to the wider world. They just wanted to be first: that was the badge of honour. And, of course, if you supplied the Scene with new material you would be granted access to the films and music other Scenesters had uploaded.
For Glover, as much as anything, it was a way of making sure he never had to pay for entertainment (though he also made serious money selling pirated movies, especially). Needless to say - as everyone with music they didn't pay for on their hard drives, which is everyone, knows - the music didn't stay inside that closed circle for long. As Witt writes in the New Yorker: 'There was scarcely a person younger than 30 who couldn't trace music in his or her collection to [Glover].'
It seems as though music industry executives simply couldn't comprehend the notion of not-for-profit theft. The labels only started taking notice of the MP3 format only when technology companies started making MP3 players - at which point they came down on the first manufacturers like a ton of bricks. If there had been a clear economy built around leaked music, the labels might have felt as if they had a target. Instead, it was as if a fiendish gang had robbed a jewellery store only to put all the diamonds out on a help-yourself stall. It simply didn't compute.
In the end, the authorities caught up with Glover. In October 2009 he pleaded guilty to one count of felony conspiracy to commit copyright infringement. He served three months in prison. Not that it could save the music industry. In the three years after Glover started leaking Universal's music in 2001, the company laid off 11% of its workforce. They never knew the name of the man who had caused them to lose their jobs.
In 2007, with the record business well into a seemingly bottomless free fall, Doug Morris, the chairman and chief executive of the Universal Music Group, was interviewed by Wired magazine. He insisted it was a misconception that the labels were caught unaware by the digital revolution that had led to compact disc sales plummeting by 50 percent in seven years.
'They just didn't know what to do,' said the head of the world's biggest music company, going on to add that there weren't really any steps he could take to stem the tide of illegal downloads. 'We didn't know who to hire...I wouldn't be able to recognize a good technology person.'
Morris, then 69 years old, was vilified for his cluelessness, and told by Universal's parent company that they would soon be expecting his retirement. But in the taut, cleareyed 'How Music Got Free,' Stephen Witt writes that it was too easy to make a power player like Morris the punching bag for the business's collapse. 'The decline of the music industry had affected every player, from the largest corporate labels to the smallest indie,' and no one in 2007 - or still to this day - had figured out a truly effective strategy in response to a new paradigm.
The shorthand summary of this era will inevitably point to the debut of Napster in 1999 as the death knell for the record business, but Witt pulls back to tell a bigger story. There were numerous forces - from the creation of the MP3 format to the continuing consolidation of the major labels - that needed to align in order to create the situation in which peer-to-peer file sharing could become so dominant so quickly.
Witt, a first-time author, comes from the world of finance, and his old-fashioned, connect-the-dots reporting presents a nuanced depiction of an issue usually reduced to emotional absolutes. Rather than arguing the moral pros and cons of 'stealing music,' he examines the stories, and the range of motivations, behind individuals who played a part in this upheaval, from the North Carolina factory worker who became the world's primary source for albums leaked ahead of their release dates to the well-intentioned British college student prosecuted (and exonerated) for running a popular BitTorrent site in an attempt to create a global music library.
Perhaps the most telling journey is that of Karlheinz Brandenburg, an idealistic German professor who invents the MP3 as a near-perfect way to compress audio files, then watches it lose out as the official industry standard format to a less effective but better-connected rival. In a last-ditch effort to keep their work alive, his team releases the MP3 free, and users soon discover its merits. As his technology gets licensed and bundled into different operating systems, Brandenburg receives a cut from each transaction, and grows increasingly seduced by the resulting wealth and acclaim - profiting from the very sort of piracy he once resolutely decried.
Within such a strong display of research, Witt occasionally stumbles on the music side (Tupac Shakur was not part of the original Death Row Records roster; there were 15 songs, not 12, on Led Zeppelin's 'Physical Graffiti') and offers some slightly odd opinions (if he believes R. Kelly's 'Ignition' is 'the best song of the decade,' fair enough, but it's funny to see it stated as an unquestioned assumption). He is sometimes distracted by nonessential, if entertaining, subplots, like the predictable story of labels goosing the charts on MTV's 'TRL' request show. But these are minor flaws: Far more significant is the complex, groundbreaking story that 'How Music Got Free' tells so confidently.
Exactly one album released in 2014 - Taylor Swift's juggernaut '1989' - was certified platinum. It was recently reported that Doug Morris signed a two-year extension on his deal as chief executive of Sony Music Entertainment, worth almost $20 million per year. As the noted music executive Jay Z once said, you can't knock the hustle.
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