Music for Nothing

How Music Got Free: The End of an Industry, the Turn of the Century, and the Patient Zero of Piracy BY Stephen Witt. Viking. Hardcover, 304 pages. $27.

The title of Stephen Witt’s How Music Got Free is ultimately more interesting than the case that gets made inside its pages. Early open-source-data activists used to say that software should be both “free as in beer and free as in speech.” Witt sticks mostly to the first meaning—i.e., gratisin his account of the process by which online file sharing since the late ’90s has toppled the once enormously profitable proprietary model of the music industry.

The book never follows through, however, on the second implication of “how music got free”—free as in libre.

Witt’s title hints that music has been sprung from some sort of confinement or repression—which has indeed been a perennial ambition of musicians of all genres, from jazz and rock to rave and rap. Did music find any ways to “get free” in that sense during the piracy age? Were there any creative silver linings to the economic upheavals that banished the old business models? This is where Witt’s curiosity fails. Instead of a liberation song, his title turns out to be a sales pitch—book buyers like it upbeat—that papers over a deeper cynicism about people’s reasons for making, sharing, and consuming music.

How Music Got Free takes off from an excellent question. Witt came of age in the golden dawn of music downloading, in the turn-of-the-millennium heyday of Napster, as part of the first generation of students with college-sponsored high-speed Internet, and he accumulated hundreds of gigabytes of music: “15,000 albums’ worth”—significantly more, he admits, than he could manage or even want to listen to. In later years, he began to wonder where all the files had come from. Surely not just other students, considering that some of the albums were available for download before they were even officially released. Witt couldn’t find a satisfying answer, so, as a recent Columbia-journalism graduate (and, before that, a hedge-fund employee in Chicago and New York), he decided to investigate it himself.

His narrative alternates, chapter by chapter, between four main stories, two from the business side and two from the online underground. First, he describes the development of MP3-audio-data compression by a team at the Fraunhofer Society in Germany, led by an engineer named Karlheinz Brandenburg, between the mid-’80s and the late ’90s. If not for Brandenburg’s persistence and some lucky legal rulings, the MP3, that now-ubiquitous technology, might have withered on the vine.

Witt then recaps the career of Doug Morris, who at one time or another has been the head of each of the three major music companies that survive today (Warner, Sony, and Universal). Morris capitalized spectacularly on the CD age and, in particular, helped maximize the commercial reach of mainstream hip-hop. But in this century he ended up vilified—somewhat unfairly, Witt argues—as the face of the music industry’s woeful inability to recognize and adapt to technological change.

Witt also recounts the tale of his “patient zero,” Dell Glover, a young African American computer (and pit-bull-breeding, off-road-racing, and nightclubbing) enthusiast. From his position as a packaging-line worker at the PolyGram (later Universal) CD-manufacturing plant in Kings Mountain, North Carolina, starting in the mid-’90s, Glover became perhaps the most prolific online album leaker in history, and nearly got away with it, too.

Last (and least, in terms of what Witt is able to add to the public record), there’s the brief but legendary reign of Oink, a bit-torrent-tracking site started by a twenty-one-year-old British computer-science student named Alan Ellis. In the early aughts, Ellis, by cultivating a sense of exclusivity and elitism, prodded Oink’s user community into building the highest-quality, most-complete popular-music library ever assembled—Witt compares it to Jorge Luis Borges’s “The Library of Babel”—until one morning the police broke down his apartment door.

As dramas, these stories all have their limits, but Witt is smart about when to switch between them and when to take the reader on instructive tangents. Cumulatively, these studies provide a more detailed picture of how music distribution reached its current state than any book I know. And there are many memorable flash points along the way. For example, I hadn’t realized how close the music industry came in court in 1999 to getting the portable MP3 player banned—which would have meant the stillbirth of your iPod and the music function on your smartphone. Another case shortly thereafter succeeded in shutting down Napster, but, as Witt comments, “the music industry had won the wrong lawsuit.” He gives us a glimpse of the first MP3-player prototype, a brick-size beast made by the Fraunhofer group that could store only one minute of music: an original tune called “funky.mp3.”

He also makes a revealing connection between Morris and his cohort’s refusal to kowtow during the infamous congressional culture-war hearings into obscene song lyrics in the ’90s and the government’s later resistance to cracking down on music piracy. Hollywood, on the other hand, was more cooperative in beefing up its movie-ratings system, so Congress was more responsive to its pleas to stamp out bootlegging.

The frustration with legislative inaction led to the music industry’s notoriously self-defeating strategy of suing individual listeners for hundreds of thousands of dollars for trivial numbers of downloads—a move that caused the head of the industry’s lobbying arm, Hilary Rosen of the Recording Industry Association of America, to resign. Witt makes a good case that, with Rosen’s departure, the industry lost one of its most subtle and insightful thinkers on how the Internet was affecting its business.

Meanwhile, the more potent enemy, the secretive network of online pirates known as “the Scene,” in which Glover was a pseudonymous celebrity, operated with near impunity for so long that many of its members got bored and dropped out before they could be prosecuted. Along with Witt’s chronicle of the ups and downs of the German engineers’ quest, his portrait of this elusive, newly minted variety of nerd community makes for some of his sharpest reporting.

Just as frequently, however, Witt condescends to them as geeks and yokels. He depicts Oink’s Ellis as legally misguided but aesthetically noble, and Brandenburg and Morris as brilliant inventors and businessmen, but there’s a distinct undercurrent of class contempt in his treatment of the Scene kids. This is particularly grating because of the way the book is written. How Music Got Free opens with a personal anecdote, but from there on Witt tries to fade into the background. While the preponderance of his material must be drawn from interviews, he paraphrases it in generally flat prose, as though from the perspective of an impartial eyewitness. He almost never quotes his sources directly—a narrative tic that mutes his characters’ distinctive voices. This is typical business-book stuff, an attempt to emulate the likes of Michael Lewis (Liar’s Poker, Moneyball, etc.), but it muddles the sourcing—I often wanted to ask, “According to whom?”—and when he is recounting events that (like so much of computer culture) unfolded mostly in solitude, it begins to sound as if Witt were reading his characters’ minds.

Most jarring of all, he intermittently unloads a judgmental or sarcastic phrase in the middle of this stream of faux-omniscient objectivity—he’ll suddenly call lyrics-inquiry moralist William Bennett “a major-league asshole” or, more typically, refer to the music Morris was involved in releasing as “disposable pop trash”; he sneers at “John Michael Montgomery’s ‘I Swear,’ among other masterpieces.” It’s unclear if Witt couldn’t stick to his pretense of objectivity or if he thought he was being objective in delivering all these drive-by personal and aesthetic assessments. More than anything, it makes him seem like he’s trying to be cool. Yet his musical perspective throughout the book—in which an overclass of album-oriented rock and triumphant rap breakthroughs tower above a vast wasteland of worthless pap—is severely out of step with contemporary pop criticism.

In fact, granting him even that much musical acumen is too generous. I have never read a book about music that displayed so little understanding of and enthusiasm for the art form. Witt has a clear admiration for technical innovation, business strategy, and even underworld cunning, but he treats the love of music shared by many of his subjects as a weakness. While he does devote a bit of space to the anticopyright positions of some Oink users, as well as Sweden’s political Pirate Party, he generally takes it as a given that music’s “getting free” has been an economic disaster and a foolish crime: His crowning point is that without the intellectual-property protections that enabled the MP3 project to come to fruition, the pirates would have nothing to pirate.

I ultimately agree that musicians and others need to be compensated for their creations, but Witt seems to have absorbed too much of Morris’s point of view to think critically, for example, about whether multinational music conglomerates offer the best modern structure for such transactions. Neither does Witt pause to consider that Internet listening arguably has broadened young fans’ tastes; broken down genre barriers; spawned a huge, imaginative remix culture of sampling and pastiche; and touched off a revival of amateur music-making not seen since the days of the parlor piano, or perhaps the ’60s folk revival, as verified by sizable increases in instrument sales. Today’s new musicians are taking lessons from YouTube videos and then posting their own performances there or as six-second loops on Vine (for instance, the recent Canadian teen breakout star Shawn Mendes, a kind of Justin Bieber 2.0).

These phenomena, which highlight the joyful sides of today’s musical free-for-all, are extraneous to the story Witt wants to tell only if one separates out music as a business and elevates it above the experience of “musicking,” in the phrase of the great musicologist Christopher Small. However Witt may feel personally about the pleasures of music, his superior authorial tone communicates disdain. How Music Got Free concludes with a stand-alone set piece (so I don’t think it gives away too much to describe it) in which Witt hauls all nine hard drives containing his mammoth music collection to a disposal specialist, who shatters their cores with a nail gun and throws them in a Dumpster. Witt may have intended this as a symbol of penance for his own piracy, a kind of purgation of his sins, or perhaps as a lament over how the events of his narrative have rendered music so literally throwaway. But for all that I learned from his investigation, the only subtext I could hear at that point was a sour “good riddance.” Perhaps his title ought to have been How I Got Free of Music.

Carl Wilson is the music critic for Slate as well as a contributor to Billboard, the New York Times, and many other publications. His book Let’s Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste was reissued in a new, expanded edition by Bloomsbury last year. He lives in Toronto.