© Christian Holmér

The men who made music free

Radical technological change has damaged the record industry but given listeners more choice than ever
June 17, 2015
How Music Got Free by Stephen Witt (Bodley Head, £20)

Depending on the definition you use, the internet is now between 33 and 45 years old. Despite the fact that most popular writing on the topic is still pitched in tones of breathless futurity, the digital network that now structures much of our social and economic lives is well past adolescence, comfortably situated in adulthood, and creeping towards middle age. It has a history, in other words—or it is beginning to have one. Stephen Witt’s How Music Got Free is a useful attempt at a first draft of one of that history’s important early chapters. It chronicles the invention of the MP3 audio compression format—the format used for iPods—and the consequences it had for how music is produced, distributed and heard around the world.

Like most magazine-style popular nonfiction, How Music Got Free makes its argument by telling the vaguely intertwined stories of a small cast of moderately interesting characters. Witt tracks three protagonists. The first is Karlheinz Brandenburg, the German engineer who pioneered the research and development of the MP3. He worked at the Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits, a German technology incubator and subdivision of a massive, state-run research organisation. He began working from the observation that the human ear only processed and recognised a small portion of the information presented to it. This meant that the lavish digital fidelity of CD audio, which had initially been understood as the technology’s greatest feature (its original marketing slogan was “Perfect Sound Forever”) was wasteful—most of what is on a CD simply can’t be heard by humans. CDs needed 1.4m bits of data to store one second of audio. Brandenburg and his colleagues wanted to squeeze that second into 128,000 bits.

As you may have noticed by listening to music on your iPod, smartphone, or laptop at any point during the last 15 years, Brandenburg’s research project was a success. Witt chronicles the many obstacles faced by the MP3, especially its repeated rejection by an industry standards committee. But these obstacles were overcome and, on 20th January 1995, the MP3 era officially began when Brandenburg’s file format was used to play audio over the public address system at an NHL hockey game. The Detroit Red Wings defeated the Chicago Blackhawks 4-1, all to the sound of MP3s. Within five years, Fraunhofer was pulling in more than $100m per year in licensing fees for the technology.

Witt’s second protagonist is Doug Morris, the music industry executive who ran Universal Music Group from 1995 to 2011. Witt probably could have picked any prominent music executive from around the turn of the century to cover the industry side of the MP3 story, but Morris makes for pleasant company. He started out as a songwriter, turning out a few hits in the 1960s and 1970s, and his success as a music boss rested on his adherence to a number of theories about what made a hit record. Some of these theories are almost certainly true: as Witt puts it, Morris believed that “there was actually no such thing as a regional hit. There was only a global hit, waiting to be marketed.” Morris discovered the successful rock band Hootie & the Blowfish this way, as well as hip-hop artist Juvenile and the entire roster of Cash Money Records. Other theories were more appealingly personal, such as the one holding that every number one hit from the last 50 years was essentially a reworked version of La Bamba.

Morris shepherded Universal through the most profitable years in the industry’s history. The CD boom of the 1990s was a period during which labels charged $16.98 for something that cost less than a dollar to make, and in 2000, CDs accounted for some $70 of the average American’s annual consumer spending. Following the 1999 launch of the peer-to-peer file-sharing service Napster, however, Morris would have to keep Universal alive in the midst of a technological upheaval that rendered an entire industry model obsolete. He did an OK job. Mostly he was knocked around on the seas of technological change, just like all of his colleagues. Late in his career, he figured out how to make some money from the internet by helping to invent Vevo, the hosting service that syndicates music videos.

Finally, and most crucially, there is Dell Glover, Witt’s most important discovery. Glover is a former employee of a PolyGram CD manufacturing plant in suburban North Carolina. As an amateur technology enthusiast who fixed his friends and neighbours’ electronics and spent much of his discretionary income on new gadgets, he was clearly going to be an early adopter of MP3s. In a different line of work, these interests might have led Glover to nothing more than the purchase of the first widely available, portable MP3 player: the Saehan MPMan. It cost $600 and could hold five songs. But Glover worked in a factory where the music industry’s most important records all rolled by his fingertips weeks ahead of their scheduled release date. He was ideally positioned to become one of the most important bootleggers in the country’s history.

Glover spent a fair amount of free time in online chat rooms, and he eventually joined an elite group of MP3 leakers called RNS, which stood for Rabid Neurosis. Many people believe that the files available on Napster were crowdsourced in a broad way, with thousands or millions of people from all over the world uploading their most recent purchases. But Witt demonstrates that the vast majority of the records that made it online were leaked by a small group of dedicated people. Even among this group, Glover stood out. Once he streamlined a method of smuggling CDs out of the factory without being caught, he leaked with amazing efficiency and volume: “By 2002, [Glover’s] duffel bag contained more than 500 discs, representing nearly every major release to have come through the Kings Mountain plant. Glover leaked Lil Wayne’s 500 Degreez, Dr Dre’s Chronic 2001 and Jay-Z’s The Blueprint. He leaked Queens of the Stone Age’s Rated R and 3 Doors Down’s Away From the Sun. He leaked Björk. He leaked Ashanti. He leaked Ja Rule. He leaked Nelly. He leaked Take Off Your Pants and Jacket.”

These leaks had immediate and obvious effects. When Glover leaked The Eminem Show almost a month ahead of the album’s release date, Eminem rescheduled his tour. When government investigators finally tracked Glover down, he served a three-month term in a minimum-security prison.

That’s the general shape of Witt’s story, and while there isn’t much to complain about how he tells it, there are a few important things he neglected to include. How Music Got Free contains a wealth of information and anecdote on how MP3s were made, pirated, distributed and policed, but Witt has almost nothing to say about the effects MP3s had on how music was heard. (How Witt himself hears music isn’t clear. Almost all of the musical opinions he advances in the book are snide jokes aimed at the rap metal band Limp Bizkit and other easy targets.) The “MP3 revolution,” as it is often called, didn’t only change the technological and industry practices surrounding popular music. It also changed how professionals and amateurs alike understood and talked about what they were listening to. How Music Got Free fails to document these changes with sufficient analysis.

Among professional music critics, MP3s made the short-to-medium length album review, the article type around which the entire music press had been organised for more than three decades, totally obsolete. For many years, the rock critic Robert Christgau wrote an album review column for the Village Voice. It was called “Consumer Reports,” and as the title indicates, a major part of its function was to help readers decide which album to buy that week. But if every album is available online, for free, not just on the release date but weeks ahead of the release date, you don’t need Robert Christgau to tell you which one to buy because you can just listen for yourself. Among pop critics, this briefly produced a turn towards the obsessive taxonomising of musical microgenres, best exemplified by the music website Pitchfork. And while enthusiasm for mapping genres has since waned, critics have not yet settled on the best way to discuss music that nobody needs to spend money to hear.

Less professionally, MP3 produced whole new ecosystems and communities online. The benefits and drawbacks of our newly digitised lives are of course always up for debate, but I don’t think there’s any question that MP3s made for a wonderful environment in which to learn about music. One of the best ways to do this in the century’s opening decade was to spend some time visiting MP3 blogs, which popped up by the thousand as soon as music fans began sharing files. Though some, like the famous Hypemachine, had their own domains, most MP3 blogs were hosted on the blogging platforms Wordpress and Blogspot. They featured a succession of chronologically organised posts, each including an image of an album cover, an essay providing some history and context, and a link to downloadable files. Most specialised in some way, whether by focusing on unreleased live recordings, or reggae albums, or music recorded before 1940. Each MP3 blog usually included a sidebar with links to dozens of other MP3 blogs.

Blogs like Said the Gramophone or Gorilla vs Bear, both specialising in indie rock, might release mostly new music, but many of these websites posted music that was out of print, that hadn’t ever been released on CD or that was otherwise unavailable. This was music one could not possibly have listened to before the advent of MP3s. Nor was Napster enough. The blogs’ capsule essays helped to solve one of the signature problems of the file-sharing era, which is that you didn’t always know what it was you were spending so much time downloading. MP3 blogs remain popular among certain communities (punk fans, for example) but many of the most vibrant are now ghost towns, with no new posts for years. They may wind up as little more than a footnote in the history of the internet, but taken as a whole, they constituted a tremendous resource. They are just as much a part of the MP3 story as anything else Stephen Witt includes in this story of a musical revolution that changed the industry forever.