Thrilled to have received my copy of Stephen Witt’s "How Music Got Free" in the post on its date of official publication, I made myself comfortable, put on a full pot of coffee, and eagerly dove into what I anticipated would be a fast-favorite addition to my library.
The book quickly settles into an exciting rhythm – its chapters circling around the activities of key figures in the story of the music industry and of music piracy in the last thirty years. It begins with the struggle of Karlheinz Brandenburg to develop his MP3 audio compression format over twelve years of fine-tuning, and a constant battle for acknowledgment by a fiercely competitive industry.
The action then jumps to a few seemingly inconsequential men working at the PolyGram compact disc manufacturing plant in North Carolina – an unsuspecting locale for the most pivotal characters in the end of an industry.
A chapter later, we are privy to private exchanges between the newly-appointed CEO of Warner Music, and his fellow overseers of the empire. As the story unfolds, we follow these figures through label acquisitions and purges, through major shifts in industrial policy, and through aimless crackdowns on “pirates”-- including the elderly, the deceased, and a 12-year-old girl who’d downloaded the theme song to the TV show, Family Matters.
As these individual stories progress, the reader develops an in-depth perspective on the tumultuous end of an era for recorded music. The author offers an astoundingly detailed account of the lives and conversations of core members of the Rabid Neurosis warez group and their suppliers. The storytelling is exciting, calculated, and fast-paced. In elegant Hollywood style, each chapter leaves one scene at a critical cliffhanger, only to pick up at a similar point of action from another of the sub-plots in the puzzle that was turn-of-the-century music.
I read "How Music Got Free" eyes wide, from cover to cover, captured by every thrilling twist in the tale. What could have been a dry and drab account of compression algorithms and legalities is instead an action-packed saga of a dangerous underground organization where anonymity is critical and risk is always high.
The book also explores the advent of the iPod and the birth and death of numerous file-sharing services like Kazaa, Grokster, Limewire, Bearshare, the rise and fall of TPB, and Oink, as well as a few contemporary players I’d never expected to see named in print.
The ending is incredibly satisfying, and even evokes a strong sense of emotion and empathy in the reader – yet another surprise I hadn’t anticipated from a text on piracy. Witt’s book is a fascinating read, and adds a much-needed perspective to a story which is still being played out before our eyes. This is easily my favorite title of the year.