Wednesday 21 March 2018

How MP3 killed the CD star...

Non-fiction: How Music Got Free, Stephen Witt, Bodley Head, hbk, 288 pages, €13.60

Leaked albums: US rappers Kanye West and Jay-Z
Leaked albums: US rappers Kanye West and Jay-Z
Stephen Witt
How Music Got Free
John Meagher

John Meagher

Stephen Witt tells the tale of the lowly CD packer who brought the music industry to its knees

The music industry has been beset by bootleggers and pirates for decades. For those of a certain vintage, making a mixtape to share with our friends was a fundamental part of growing up, and few ever stopped to think that we were doing anything illegal. Technically, we were.

But in those days - the 80s and early 90s - the music industry was making so much money, it barely cared. Twenty years ago, it was not uncommon to cough up £15 for a new release CD and pressing plants could barely keep up with demand.

Fast-forward to today and the sucker-punched industry is wheezing in the corner as anyone who so chooses can get to hear whatever music they want and not pay a cent for it.

Stephen Witt's brilliant book - subtitled What Happens When an Entire Generation Commits the Same Crime? - focuses on three figures who played their part in its transformation: a pirate, a tech expert and a record company mogul. And when it comes to the story of the pirate, Dell Glover, Witt's account is every bit as riveting as a thriller.

When big-name albums, such as The Eminem Show, first started being leaked weeks in advance, industry figures suspected music journalists or disaffected studio employees, both of whom had early access. But it turns out the culprits came from a more prosaic source - the factories where the CDs were being pressed.

Dell Glover was a lowly paid employee at a huge CD-packing facility in North Carolina when he first started sneaking albums past security. He had to summon up all the powers of his ingenuity to smuggle them out and hit upon the idea of hiding them behind the enormous buckles of belts that were popular at the time.

Initially, he started knocking out copies using a rudimentary CD burner which he sold on the black market. But soon he was engaging with pirates on internet chatrooms who were using the latest technology to make music freely available for all, or at least those who were tech-savvy.

Witt calls Glover "the man who broke the record industry", but acknowledges that there were many more like him. And while Glover says he did not make much money himself, he undoubtedly cost the record industry tens of millions of dollars in lost revenue. To get a sense of the scale of his crime, it's estimated that he was responsible for the leaking of 2,000 albums, including heavyweight releases from rap superstars Jay Z and Kanye West.

Glover was eventually apprehended and jailed and is now telling his story for the first time, simply because Witt - a hedge fund manager-turned journalist - managed to track him down and was the first to ask him.

The second figure focused on is Karlheinz Brandenburg, an obscure German mathematician responsible for MP3. This digital compression format was initially rejected 20 years ago, but would soon become the standard bearer for a generation who were switched on by, first, Apple and its iPod, then, the streaming services, and of course, it's the format that makes the illegal sharing of millions of music files possible. The story of MP3 is fascinating in its own right, not least the years of research conducted by Brandenburg which showed that the human ear is only capable of processing a small portion of recorded sound. He was able to demonstrate that a music file could be compressed to a tenth of its original and it would still sound virtually the same. Remarkably, his format almost lost out to a rival, just as VHS came close to being usurped by Betamax a decade earlier.

Brandenburg tried to interest the music industry in his invention but he was roundly dismissed. Several senior figures told him MP3 had no future and it was not seen as a threat to the then buoyant sales of compact discs. Why worry about some newfangled innovation when Linkin Park were selling five million copies of their debut album in the US in its first year of release (2001)?

Much like the famed anecdote of Decca boss Dick Rowe rejecting The Beatles in their formative years, How Music Got Free is full of stories about the music industry's brightest and best failing to see the wood for the trees.

Had it fully understood the significance of Brandenburg's format in the mid-1990s, it would have been far better placed to deal with the tsunami that was heading its way from Napster onwards.

The third figure Witt features is Doug Morris, the former head of Universal, the world's largest music group. Morris comes to embody many of the mistakes made by the industry, especially its lack of foresight, but he also represents its dogged resilience. One of his last acts before retirement was to secure advertising revenue from online music videos. They may be embattled, but record companies have managed to survive seemingly insurmountable obstacles before and may well do so again.

How Music Got Free, Witt's first book, is required reading for anybody interested in how we came to consume music today.

The Glover part is especially engaging, and will surely be given the Hollywood treatment one day. And how ironic that would be - among Glover's nefarious enterprises was the sale of illegally-ripped movies.

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