Book Review: How Music Got Free – Stephen Witt (2015)

How Music Got Free: What happens when an entire generation commits the same crime, is one of the most intriguing and thrilling reads I have had in a while. Written by Stephen Witt, this book (a first for the author) explores the history of music piracy, where it started, who was involved and how they did it, as well as what their motivations were. Now most people, including myself believed the piracy era began with Napster, but Witt takes things back even further to the invention of the MP3 by a German professor and the actions of one man in a town called Shelby in North Carolina. This is the story of the MP3, its invention and who pirated the first MP3 music files.

By the mid-90s, music obsessives from small towns across America were rising up against the music industry which by the late-90s had reached its zenith financially under the leadership of Universal Records Doug Morris, the CEO of the largest and richest music label on the planet. Thanks to the success of the compact disc, the industry was booming, but this was about to come crashing down as a man by the name of Dell Glover began an operation smuggling albums out of the Polygram CD pressing plant where he worked. Glover used co-workers hiding CDs under their belts to break past a heavily secured facility. He then proceeded to upload the compact discs, many of which were yet to be released albums by the likes of Jay Z, Eminem, and Tupac to an online secretive piracy group called Rabid Neurosis, or RNS for short. This was a network of people online who used pseudonyms and encrypted software to share music online in the form of the then much-maligned mp3. It is believed 1500 CDs were smuggled out of the plant and uploaded to the internet, while over a decade RNS helped leak 20,000 albums. Forget Napster, these guys were the epicenter of music piracy in the late-90s and early-2000s. What started as a hobby, became a significant money-earner for Glover, and when it was at its most profitable, he earned upwards of around $1500 a week.

In the book, Witt also explores the invention of the MP3 in Germany by a professor called Karlheinz Brandenburg. The MP3 was designed as a way of compressing audio files to make digital storage easier. However, as Witt points out in the book, no one in the tech or music industry was interested in the MP3 and it lost out to the MP2, hence why music pirates ended up taking advantage of it for their own ends. The book shows Brandenburg, a highly intelligent man, to have been treated harshly by both the tech and music industries as he tried to get both the MP3 and MP3 player he designed patented. Phillips declined his MP3 player design, the first of its kind, while the music industry turned down the opportunity to embrace the MP3 in 1997. When Brandenburg recommended they adopt a copy-protected version of the file, the industries response was that they did not believe in electronic music distribution. Ultimately this decision would cost them an estimated $21 billion. The story behind the MP3 and the man who invented it is a fascinating and essential component of the book and the overall piracy story, simply because the decision of both the tech and music industry to not embrace MP3 led to music pirates getting their hands on the technology first.

The book also explores the rise of BitTorrent and in particular the story of one of the first and most successful torrent sites Oink in the UK. The brainchild of Alan Ellis, at its peak, Oink had 100,000 users, while contained in its library was around one million albums. Ellis was again one of those music enthusiasts whose hobby got bigger than intended. He would later be put on trial for conspiracy to defraud and was found not guilty. The book ends with the music industry’s response to piracy and their operations to go after the pirates themselves, operations that initially involved targeting college students and children, not the main conspirators such as the members of RNS. By the time Glover and other members of RNS were caught and put on trial, it was too late for the music industry and the statistics offered up what was a grim reality for an industry in decline. Between 1996 and 2010, 100 billion files were shared, 21 billion dollars were lost, there were 50 million active downloaders online, 300,000 songs were ripped, and 25,000 albums leaked. Out of all of this, the music industry charged 150 people, and the man responsible for smuggling 1500 albums from the pressing plant he worked served only a three-month jail sentence.

“How music got free” is a fantastic read and is a must for anyone interested in the history of music piracy, the music industry, or how a culture of downloading bought the music industry to its knees, which incidentally it has never recovered from. This book is very well researched and incredibly detailed, while at times read like a fictional thriller. The further you get into the book, the more compelled you feel to keep reading and cannot wait to find out what happens next as the members of RNS plot their next leak. This is not a book about debating whether music downloading is good or not or the pros and cons of piracy, this debate has been done to death and thankfully Witt goes down a completely different path with great success. For a first book, this one will be hard to beat for Witt and is, in fact, a bit of a scoop for him. The thing is Glover has never been interviewed before on his life as a music pirate and his involvement in one of the biggest shifts the music industry has ever seen. When Witt asked Glover why he had never told anybody any of his story before, Glover responded: “no one ever asked”.


– Sam 

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