How Music Got Free

By Stephen Witt
Reviewed by William Hawkins

I have been a computer scientist since the third grade when I programmed a ‘robot’ on my family’s IBM PC to emulate what I saw in RoboCop (yes, I was way too young to have seen that movie.) I carried wooden computers on vacation and “helped” check our family into hotel rooms. I spent my remaining teenage years and the beginning of my 20s, from 1998 to 2002, as a high school and college student who loved music and loved to program. Couple my geekiness, the discretionary income levels of an adolescent, and a connection with music as the means to understand adolescent romance and you’ll meet me at 19, a person who got his music from peers (Napster, Kazaa, etc), hated the music publishing industry (with friends I created a website urging a boycott of the RIAA), and even went so far as to attempt to write my own mp3 sharing application.

Why it took me so long to find and read Stephen Witt’s How Music Got Free is hard to understand. In his book Witt weaves together a socio-political, economic, technical and legal analysis of his subject with an entertaining character study to answer the question posed by the book’s title. Notwithstanding some factual mistakes and a tendency to editorialize, his thesis is convincing and his writing engaging.

The author’s analysis is driven by characters. He explores the business and economic aspect of the march toward free music through the career of Doug Morris, a man who began his career as a mediocre songwriter and ended up the executive of one of the world’s largest music publishers. During his rise to the top of Universal Music Group and Sony Music Entertainment, Morris shares friendship with Jimmy Iovine, who ironically is now partnered with Apple to work on their music initiatives. Morris signs rap impresarios like Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Tupac, Jay-Z and others during the genre’s takeover of popular culture in the late 90s and early 00s, fights culture warriors like Bob Dole and Bill Bennett and endeavors to transition the music publishing industry toward its digital future.

The book’s narrative pits Morris against his unseen enemy, music pirates, to describe the way that piracy changed society and culture. Characterized by Dell Glover and Tony Dockery, friends working at a CD manufacturing plant in North Carolina, Witt describes the subculture of music pirates, the motivation of its participants and its impact on society at large. All of the characters can be considered patient(s) zero in the genesis of music piracy. If you ever downloaded a pirated CD from Napster, Kazaa, etc, it is likely that you benefited from the handiwork of these two men. The author uses his access to Glover to vividly describe a music pirate’s motivations, business acumen and tradecraft and shows the effect that their illegal behavior eventually has on their lives.

The careers of Glover, Dockery and other music pirates intersect with the introduction and perfection of technical advancements, without which we may still be purchasing music on little silver discs today. Witt dispatches the obvious technologies quickly – the web, broadband, etc – and focuses on more obscure technologies like Internet Relay Chat, the technology that enabled early file sharing and communication among pirates. Mr. Witt’s focus on inventors humanizes their work and gives the reader a rooting interest in their adoption. Dr. Fraunhofer led the team that invented the MP3, the file format preferred by music traders around the world for its ability to maintain audio fidelity within a tiny amount of data. The genius of the format was its combination of the biology and psychology of human hearing with the mathematics of digital compression. Besides battling the precise sounds of the high hat and the bass guitar to build a compression technique that captured the entirety of their tonal quality in a few bits of digital information, Dr. Fraunhofer and his scrappy team combatted the established industry of music technologists to win acceptance for the format. This book made me root for Dr. Fraunhofer and the others, like Davids in their battle against the Goliath of international standards bodies, and the enormous power of music industry giants.

As if penning a Faulkner novel, Witt reveals two strands that tie all the characters together: money and the law. In the end, the music publishing industry stood to lose too much revenue because of the digitization of music and pressed the government for help shutting down piracy. The FBI, Justice Department and Interpol collaborated to arrest Glover, shut down the most powerful piracy cartels and even hamper the prospects of an emerging political party.

There is so much else to say about the merits of How Music Got Free. The author’s writing brings the reader into contact with other (in)famous characters like 50 Cent, Steve Jobs, Sean Fanning, Sean Parker, Hillary Rosen, Jay-Z, Lil Wayne and (in)famous technologies like Napster, BitTorrent, Spotify, and Pandora. Despite the vast array of players, the narrative never overwhelms the reader.

The only caveat to an unequivocal recommendation are a few technical inaccuracies and Mr. Witt’s tendency to editorialize, which at times takes the reader out of the narrative. For instance, the author introduces William Bennett as “a bloated, neoconservative, a blithering culture warrior, and a major-league asshole.” The inaccuracies are obvious and probably the result of sloppy editing but their presence left me wondering what else Witt and his editor may have missed.

It is possible that my affection for computers, interest in well-written modern history and excitement about all things free, especially music, have pushed me toward too glowing a review of this book, but reviewers are readers, too, so I offer no apologies. Witt’s engaging narrative and characters provide a deep analysis of a trend that has defined history for at least the last half century: the immediately destructive, but, we hope, ultimately constructive, forces of technology and innovations in traditional industries as they grow and evolve over time.

Penguin Books, 2016
320 pp