IT WAS a perfect storm waiting to happen. In the late '90s, the music business was at its most bloated, responsible for gratuitously high compact-disc prices, record-breaking sales numbers, and albums crammed with substandard music alongside one or two hit singles. Two simultaneous technological developments would pierce the industry's hull with devastating effectiveness: the introduction of the MP3, which transcoded the information from a CD into a much smaller file size; and the proliferation of the internet, allowing people to share digital information over telephone lines and, eventually, broadband.
MP3s, online piracy, and file-sharing toppled the music industry... for a moment. The major labels fought back with surprising viciousness (including filing criminal charges against their own customers), and the music biz adjusted, figuring out how to make money via download sales, streaming subscription services, and—most significantly—online advertisements, such as those that play before YouTube videos. Stephen Witt's How Music Got Free is a virtuosic, briskly readable account of when the music industry was briefly, seemingly, brought to its knees.
It's a huge canvas, and Witt wisely zooms in to follow four different threads of the story: Karlheinz Brandenburg, the German engineer whose work with the Fraunhofer Institute led to the development and integration of MP3 technology; Doug Morris, the executive who formed Universal Music Group and turned it into the biggest record label of the late '90s; Alan Ellis, the host of Oink's Pink Palace, a private BitTorrent tracker site that became a formidable repository of illegally-shared music; and Dell Glover, a factory worker at Universal's North Carolina pressing plant, where he smuggled hundreds of CDs out before their official release dates, leaking them as MP3s and gutting the music industry from within.
A large excerpt of Glover's story recently appeared in the New Yorker, and his is by far the most compelling thread in How Music Got Free. Glover never thought of himself as a pirate, just someone interested in technology who saw a way to make a few extra dollars. Morris, meanwhile, plays the role of the old guard, an out-of-touch figurehead of an industry that values dollars over creativity. Time and again, Morris is shown making decisions that emphasize the short-term bottom line, remaining willfully ignorant of the substantial changes home-computer technology was wreaking upon the music business.
Witt's writing is feisty and, at times, unnecessarily snarky, but his intertwined narratives are fascinating and brisk, and he imparts huge amounts of information and complex macroeconomic analysis in very readable chunks. He doesn't editorialize too much, allowing the stories of these four men and their associates to paint a full picture of a particularly weird time not just in music history, but in the history of human commerce. There's a lot to learn from the music business' antagonistic relationship with the technology that defined it, and Witt lays it all out on the page.