Book Review — How Music Got Free by Stephen Witt

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In October 2019, I finished “How Music Got Free — The End of an Industry, the Turn of the Century, and the Patient Zero of Piracy” by the journalist, Stephen Witt.

First off, I have read 37 books this year (some of which are too ‘politically incorrect’ to review here :) ) and this book is in my top 3.

The book, which took Stephen five years to write, details the period of the development of the mp3 format, which heralded the end of music as it used to be known, in the early 90s to the present time when music has become almost completely free.

After the book got me hooked, I could not comprehend why any writer would start such an interesting book with a sleeping-inducing chapter. Chapter one contains technical description of the origin of the mp3 player by the group known as the ‘original six’ led by the inimitable Karlheinz Brandenburg. It was a boring chapter.

However, get past that chapter and you become absorbed reading about the astonishing disruption of the music industry via the most unlikely means.

Hold one man responsible and you will be staring at Dell Glover. He was a key member to the notorious Rabid Neurosis pirate crew, the most pervasive and infamous Internet piracy group in history. As a low-level worker in the biggest major compact disc manufacturing plant owned by Universal Music, he smuggled thousands of pre-release music to the world. Glover was notorious. His leaks made their way through top sites across the globe, and from there to private trackers, and from there to public sources like the Pirate Bay. They released albums weeks, sometimes months, ahead of schedule.

He was the primary source of contact for hundreds of millions of duplicated mp3 files — perhaps even billions — and, given Universal’s predominant position during this period, there was scarcely a person under the age of 30 who couldn’t trace music on their electronic device back to him. He was the scourge of the industry, the hero to the underground. He was acknowledged, even by FBI’s lead investigators as the greatest music pirate of all time; a pirate raking in about $200k a year.

And then, there were the infamous underground pirate groups. These sites tortured the music industry. Sites like the Pirate Bay and Kazaa made almost any kind of song on the planet ubiquitous at no charge. To add to the astonishment, there were private sites like Oink where people paid to use. They weren’t paying to get access to unique content. Almost all the stuff on Oink was also available on the free sites. But paid, they still paid. Why? You may well be surprised at the reasons when you read.

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How did the industry react to this onslaught? In the middle of this was Doug Morris. A well-liked top executive. Perhaps the most powerful music executive the industry has ever seen. He was unconventional in his talent selection; efforts which landed him some of the greatest rap singers in the world. For a very long time, he was beaten by the pirates in his own music game. Music business like he knew it was extinct and he seemed helpless and hapless, presiding over an industry in free fall. At a point, he became a butt of jokes on his perceived ‘too old, too out of touch with reality’ stance.

Yet that could be what jolted the then 69-year old out of his complacency. It began with a visit to his teenage grandson. In a hands-on experiment in consumer demographics, Morris had asked the kid to show him how he got his music. Morris’ grandson explained that, while he didn’t pirate anything neither did he buy any albums nor even many digital singles. Instead, for the most part, he just watched music videos on YouTube from the computer in his room. Then Morris asked him to show him.

Watching the videos on Youtube, Morris had a light bulb moment. He saw revenue channels the industry had not considered. The business decisions he made over the next two years laid the framework for the economic future of the recording industry. One of such decisions is the creation of Vevo, which is now Youtube’s most popular channel; having 26 billion views per month.

Even musicians changed tactics. Living in an age of piracy, they had two options: fight or join them. Some of them chose the latter. The revival of Lil Wayne’s career, for example, could be directly linked to this. The struggling musician decided to start leaking his own mixtapes to the internet. As Jay-Z and Eminem were complaining about the leakers, Wayne was embracing them. Better than any artist before him, he leveraged the Internet hype cycle to his own advantage. His boast of “best rapper alive” started to get taken seriously.

A little detail: Why does the music industry have such a strenuous relationship with Capitol Hill? Partly because it refused to cooperate with the government on the rating system. The music industry, unlike the publishing and movie industries, recoiled at the idea of a secret council of humorless politicians deciding the proper age to first listen to the Beatles — or 2 Pac or even 2Live Crew, creator of a song that is the first (and to date only) musical work ever to be banned in the United States on the grounds of obscenity. People like Morris personally championed the First Amendment rights for everyone. And the industry was made to suffer for it in its antipiracy campaigns.

Do you know of the phenomenon of Astrosurfing? It caught me off guard. This involves hiring mercenaries to call in to radio and television stations requesting for certain songs to be played. With several people demanding listening to the song, more and more people are attracted to listening. As always, the more you listen to a song, the more it grows on you, and ultimately the more revenue accrues to those involved in the production of the song. Disingenuous, yet brilliant. You will be surprised how many of your favorite singers indulge in this underhand tactic.

After all is said and done, the music industry innovated and came out still breathing, but the real victory belongs to the pirates. Some of them like the legendary Alan Ellis and Adil Cassim were even declared ‘not guilty’ when charged to criminal trials.

This victory among other things has also spurred the rise of a political group — Pirate Party — dedicated to the total ban of copyright laws. In case you are laughing them off, it could be because you don’t know that the Party already have seats at the European Union parliament. And if you listen to their pitch, you may decide it’s not really as ridiculous as it sounds.

I loved reading this book. I have never listened to more rap songs in my life, all in the quest to further understand the context of certain discussions in the book. (Whisper *I still find the genre distasteful*). In the course of my Youtube sessions, I discovered Carrie Underwood. I can only hope to be forgiven by country music fans for only just finding out about this delightful singer.

We learn every day!

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