“What happens when an entire generation commits the same crime?” asks journalist Stephen Witt.
The answer becomes clear in his book, “How Music Got Free,” a riveting story of obsession, music, crime, and money, featuring visionaries and criminals, moguls and tech-savvy teenagers.
“It’s about the greatest pirate in history, the most powerful executive in the music business, a revolutionary invention and an illegal website four times the size of the iTunes Music Store,” explains Witt, who traces the secret history of digital music piracy, from the German audio engineers who invented the mp3 — to a North Carolina compact-disc manufacturing plant where factory worker Dell Glover leaked nearly two thousand albums over the course of a decade, to the high-rises of midtown Manhattan where music executive Doug Morris cornered the global market on rap, and, finally, into the darkest recesses of the Internet.
Depicting the moment in history when ordinary life became forever entwined with the world online, Witt explains how suddenly, all the music ever recorded was available for free.
The critics say:
- “Witt uncovers the largely untold stories of people like the German entrepreneurs who invented the mp3 file and Dell Glover, the compact disc factory worker who leaked some of the biggest albums of the aughts, leaving record label execs frustrated and scared.” — Business Insider
- “[Witt] organizes his narrative around alternating chapters that each focus on a separate protagonist: an engineer, an executive, and a criminal: Universal chairman Doug Morris and two nemeses Morris didn’t even know he had: German engineer Karlheinz Brandenburg, and music pirate Dell Glover, a Polygram/Universal employee at the Tennessee CD manufacturing plant.” — The Daily Beast
- “How Music Got Free is the result of five years of tunnel-vision focus on the history of digital music.” — The Village Voice
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How Music Got Free: The End of an Industry, the Turn of the Century, and the Patient Zero of Piracy
By Stephen Witt
I am a member of the pirate generation. When I arrived at college in 1997, I had never heard of an mp3. By the end of my first term I had filled my 2-gigabyte hard drive with hundreds of bootlegged songs. By graduation, I had six 20-gigabyte drives, all full. By 2005, when I moved to New York, I had collected 1,500 gigabytes of music, nearly 15,000 albums worth. It took an hour just to queue up my library, and if you ordered the songs alphabetically by artist, you’d have to listen for a year and a half to get from ABBA to ZZ Top.
I pirated on an industrial scale, but told no one. It was an easy secret to keep. You never saw me at the record store and I didn’t DJ parties. The files were procured in chat channels, and through Napster and BitTorrent; I haven’t purchased an album with my own money since the turn of the millennium. The vinyl collectors of old had filled whole basements with dusty album jackets, but my digital collection could fit in a shoebox.
Most of this music I never listened to. I actually hated ABBA, and although I owned four ZZ Top albums, I couldn’t tell you the name of one. What was really driving me, I wonder? Curiosity played a role, but now, years later, I can see that what I really wanted was to belong to an elite and rarefied group. This was not a conscious impulse, and, had you suggested it to me, I would have denied it. But that was the perverse lure of the piracy underground, the point that almost everyone missed. It wasn’t just a way to get the music; it was its own subculture.
I was at the very forefront of the digital download trend. Had I been just a couple of years older, I doubt I would have become so involved. My older friends regarded piracy with skepticism, and sometimes outright hostility. This was true even for those who loved music—in fact, it was especially true for them. Record collecting had been a subculture too, and, for that vanishing breed, finding albums proved to be an exhilarating challenge, one that involved scouring garage sales, sifting through bargain bins, joining mailing lists for bands, and Tuesday visits to the record store. But for me, and those younger, collecting was effortless: the music was simply there. The only hard part was figuring out what to listen to.
As I was browsing through my enormous list of albums one day a few years ago, a fundamental question struck me: where had all this music come from, anyway? I didn’t know the answer, and as I researched it, I realized that no one else did either. There had been heavy coverage of the mp3 phenomenon, of course, and of Apple and Napster and the Pirate Bay, but there had been little talk of the inventors, and almost none at all of those who actually pirated the files.
I became obsessed, and as I researched more, I began to find the most wonderful things. I found the manifesto from the original mp3 piracy clique, a document so old I needed an MS-DOS emulator just to view it. I found the cracked shareware demo for the original mp3 encoder, which even its inventors had considered lost. I found a secret database that tracked thirty years of leaks—software, music, movies—from every major piracy crew, dating back to 1982. I found secret websites in Micronesia and the Congo, registered to shell corporations in Panama, the true proprietors being anyone’s guess. Buried in thousands of pages of court documents, I found wiretap transcripts and FBI surveillance logs and testimony from collaborators in which the details of insidious global conspiracies had been laid bare.
Stephen Witt was born in New Hampshire in 1979 and raised in the Midwest. He graduated from the University of Chicago with a degree in mathematics in 2001. He spent the next six years playing the stock market, working for hedge funds in Chicago and New York. Following a two-year stint in East Africa working in economic development, he graduated from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism in 2011. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.