Book Review: How Music Got Free by Stephen Witt Kirsty Fraser

Quick (spoiler-free) synopsis

How Music Got Free is the true story of how one man unintentionally undone a multi-billion dollar empire. It’s also the story of how another man, the most powerful in music, attempted to reinvigorate a dying format whilst being paid an obscene amount of money. Finally, it’s the story of how one German electrical engineer made it all possible.

The MP3 has a lot to answer for. Its ability to shrink music data to a 12th of its size enabled the distribution of music via the internet. This, in turn, created an entire sub-culture of people who assumed that it was their right to listen to the latest Beyonce album without paying a cent.

Its inventor, a German named Karlheinz Brandenburg, never intended that such an invention would result in the entire collapse of an industry. But there were some who always envisaged a future where music was streamed online, without the need for tapes, CDs or hard drive storage. What those people didn’t care to plan for was how musicians would recoup the costs.

Stephen Witt plots the story of MP3s invention, rise and subsequent dominance in an intense and highly-evocative story, which gets to the heart of the corruption, greed and genius in the music industry.

The book details the rise of the Warez scene, usually called ‘The Scene’, and a particular group called Rabid Neurosis (RNS). Over its 11-year lifespan the group, and one member of its fraternity in particular, Dell Glover, would be responsible for the early leak of over 20,000 music titles. Acts including Kanye West, Beyonce, the Buzzcocks, Foo Fighers, LCD Soundsystem, Nick Cave and Taylor Swift would all fall foul to RNS as it leaked albums weeks, sometimes months, ahead of schedule.

But this story actually begins way back in 1982, detailing the struggles of Brandenburg and his team to get his MP3 format noticed in a market where corruption seemed the dominant force. Witt’s cast of real-life characters are subtlety detailed, and often brought to life with a sympathetic edge; there’s Dell Glover, the unassuming plant worker and Rabid Neorosis member, who worked at Universal’s pressing plant in North Carolina; Doug Morris, head of Universal Music Group from 1995 to 2011; and Karlheinz Brandenburg, the genius who developed the MP3 format at the Fraunhofer Institute in Erlangen All three are central to Witt’s astonishing narrative arc.

But there are many other players, too; Gottfrid Svartholm Warg, one of Pirate Bay’s unforgiving creators; Alan Ellis, the modest 21 year-old creator of Oink’s Pink Palace, a highly prominent BitTorrent tracker which closed when Ellis went to trial; Steve Jobs and his revolutionary Apple corporation; and of course Spotify, a bit player in the narrative’s final third, but an ominous shadow none the less.

One group who are notable by their absence are the musicians whose works of art gave such meaning to the lives of each of the aforementioned players. No voice is given to how destructive the major record labels were in failing to act quickly enough when new technology raised its head and caused a legal nightmare; nor is there room in Witt’s highly capable reportage for how the ignorance of the illegal copyrighters, in deeming it their right to upload at their will, was catastrophic to the artists at the heart of the story.

Perhaps because, by his own admission, Stephen Witt was an avid collector of illegally pirated music. During his college years he racked up an impressive back-catalogue of albums by artists he loved, hated or had no interest in. Why? Because he could. It really is that simple.

Final Thoughts

How Music Got Free is a fascinating and addictive insight into the music industry. A book which details how technology revolutionised the way we listen to, and think about, music.