Nineteen hundred ninety-five proved to be a landmark year in the digital music revolution. It was then that a brilliant German audio technician retooled his digital sound algorithm, that a record industry executive took the helm at a new studio, and that a line worker in a C D manufacturing plant discovered the promise of stealing music. Together, these developments would shape the future of the industry for decades.
Twenty years on, Stephen Witt has written a riveting, meticulously reported account of music’s technical, economic, and cultural “liberation.” How Music Got Free fuses the rigors of investigative journalism, the science of acoustic analysis, and the sensitivities of social criticism, ultimately yielding a highly readable and compelling, if somewhat incomplete, narrative of the advent of cheap and convenient access to digital music.
Witt weaves together three separate tales, each representing a colorful strand in the larger tapestry. First, he examines the technological emergence of the MP3 file, a digital format developed in Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute by audio whiz Karlheinz Brandenburg. His innovative algorithm compressed the zeros and ones on a compact disc by a factor of 12, a reduction necessary for the harddrives, processors, and modem lines available in 1995 but not so restrictive as to degrade musical quality—except to the ears of the most refined audiophiles.
Brandenburg’s group competed against MUSICAM, a more politically connected outfit bankrolled by the Dutch conglomerate Philips, whose own algorithm, nicknamed MP2, required less processing power but compressed data less efficiently. Luckily for Brandenburg, the growth of processor speeds outpaced bandwidth expansion, and his format won the war.
Soon after signing its first deal to livestream National Hockey League games in MP3, the Fraunhofer group expanded its reach, giving away its software but commanding a royalty on every MP3 download—a total now estimated in the billions. Brandenburg and company strongly believed in intellectual property rights—after all, their proprietary technology depended on patent protection—but their innovation unwittingly triggered an avalanche of copyright infringement.
In this regard, Witt next explores the life and times of Doug Morris, a multimillionaire music industry poobah who, as CEO of the Universal Music Group in the late 1990s and early 2000s, presided over the industry’s richest years and struggled with its gravest threat. After an unceremonious dismissal by Time Warner, Morris was hired by Edgar Bronfman Jr. to head a division of what would become UMG, a perch from which he would sign legendary artists across a range of genres, including Tupac, Dr. Dre, Jay-Z, Justin Bieber, and Taylor Swift.
But while, by 1999, Morris had revived UMG as the largest studio in the world, and the industry enjoyed its most successful year ever, between 2000 and 2003 C D sales would fall by 30 percent industry-wide. Brandenburg’s MP3 technology had enabled Napster and even more ambitious networks to empower users to swap music files for free. The industry’s response—suing MP3 device makers and college dormitory downloaders alike—provoked public disgust and arguably stoked the copying fire.
Ultimately, Morris attained redemption. After years of technological failures, including Pressplay, UMG’s proto-iTunes, Morris was the first major recording bigwig to ink a deal with iTunes itself in 2003. A few years later, inspired by his teenage grandson, who compulsively watched for free on YouTube the hits his grandfather had invested millions to produce, Morris finally managed to monetize the music video by creating Vevo, which offers viewers access to tens of thousands of free videos—so long as they first watch a 30-second advertisement.
Finally, Witt uncovers the story of Bennie Lydell Glover, an enterprising C D pressing plant worker in western North Carolina, who turned out to be the “patient zero” of music piracy. As a packager at the PolyGram factory, owned by UMG (and therefore an employee of Morris’s), Glover learned at a 1995 party that coworkers were smuggling unreleased C Ds from the plant, and soon began doing the same. Technically adept, he would then upload them to a top secret site where tracks would be disseminated weeks before their official release.