Staff Picks

How Music Got Free: The End of an Industry, the Turn of the Century, and the Patient Zero of Piracy

July 28, 2015


Stephen Witt's tale of the music business is one of technological disruption, piracy, and an old industry coming into the modern age.

Earlier this month the music group Wilco released their ninth studio album, Star Wars, for free. Anyone willing to share a valid email address could (and still can, as of the day this article is published) download Star Wars in a high-quality mp3 format. For free. In 2015, this kind of move isn't completely unheard-of, though it's still a welcome surprise for fans when a favorite artist or group decides to give music away. But how musicians and the collective "industry" arrived at this point has proved to be a long and confusing road.

When Wilco was formed in 1994, there was really no practical means by which to give away an album to thousands of fans without spending tens of thousands of dollars on promotion and marketing alone, and most record executives would have balked at the concept anyways. What has changed over the last twenty years? This is what Stephen Witt explores in How Music Got Free. Witt's narrative turns the music industry's decades-long digital metamorphosis into a tale that both thrills and educates. In the digital world of 2015, it can't be said that there is no looking back.

How Music Got Free braids three key narratives into its story. The first involves the German sound engineers at Fraunhofer Institute, led by Karlheinz Brandenburg—the inventors of the mp3 format. Next is the story of music piracy—from private topsites to Napster to The Pirate Bay—the internet's inevitable exponentiation of home taping, and its effects on the music industry. And finally, of course, the music industry itself, once a bustling trade thriving on the sale of cheaply-produced physical media and easy-to-understand components of supply and demand. This is where the story comes alive. It's the story of billions of dollars worth of physical records unsold. But before those records failed to sell, there were the mp3, the leakers, and the pirates. And Witt brings all of these players together to show us how, in 2015, virtually any song or album can be heard for free.

Witt manages well the delicate balance between technical detail and anecdote in explaining the invention and introduction of the mp3. The ultimate goal was a shrunken file size, at the expense of discarded data, without compromising sound quality. Fraunhofer's engineers discover that certain frequencies in recordings can be removed without a listener even noticing, and thus an audio file can eventually be reduced to less than 10% it's original size. The mp3 was for a long time a losing format, having lost MPEG's endorsements for varying reasons, despite producing higher-quality audio. It wasn't until the Fraunhofer group decided to simply give away their first publicly usable mp3 encoder in 1994, the same year Wilco formed, that the format had an opportunity to gain traction outside of the world of academic audio engineering. But the music industry wasn't there yet. Braiding the narratives, Witt connects the rise of the mp3 to mid-90s web pirates.

The history of music piracy is on its own a thrilling narrative, but Witt's storytelling ties it to the development of the mp3 in a way that almost makes the two seem divinely connected. The mp3 was conceived of as a means by which to leverage the internet for faster delivery of audio, but the format happened to also facilitate one of the biggest challenges major label music has encountered since that industry's birth.

This is where Witt brings in Doug Morris's upward journey through record company c-suites in the 1980s and 90s. Doug Morris is credited with engineering Atlantic Records acquisition of labels such as Interscope, and with turning that label around in the early '90s. But Morris's approach was about a tenacious interest in numbers—closely tracking regional hits and figuring out how to take those hits national. He wasn't as interested in making great music as he was in making popular music. But for all of that skill he was, as Witt says, a "self-confessed technology ignoramus." So in the face of acquisition and consolidation, his and other major record labels of the 1990s were caught unawares by the new technologies that threatened their sales.

When confronted with the reality of piracy in the late-90s, record labels pushed the RIAA toward litigation, often suing individuals thousands of dollars per-song, individuals who often had no idea they had done anything wrong. People downloaded music illegally because it was easy and because accessing digital music legally wasn't possible (at least not for quite a while later).

How Music Got Free is a riveting story and a bit of a trip down memory lane for anyone who can recall actually buying major label compact discs, downloading mp3s in pre-Napster days, or using some of the other earlier iterations of now refined and ubiquitous technologies. Witt himself confesses at the book's opening that he was once a voracious downloader:

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.

Witt's exploration of the mp3, music piracy, and the record industry is not a vehicle by which to judge pirates of today, but simply a tale of disruption in an industry that wasn't ready. How Music Got Free provides a sobering reminder to any industry that what's next might be a surprise, and dealing with what's next requires creative solutions.

The ubiquity of free music in 2015 has changed listeners' behaviors—downloading music illegally is no longer necessary because free music can be readily had legally. With YouTube, the many streaming services such as Spotify and Rhapsody, and Doug Morris's own Vevo, record companies have finally learned how to turn a profit without actually selling physical goods. It took over ten years, and the landscape is totally changed, but the music industry has survived the disruption made by the mp3.

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