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How Music Got Free: A Story of Obsession and Invention Paperback – June 14, 2016
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“The richest explanation to date about how the arrival of the MP3 upended almost everything about how music is distributed, consumed and stored. It’s a story you may think you know, but Mr. Witt brings fresh reporting to bear, and complicates things in terrific ways. . . . [How Music Got Free] has the clear writing and brisk reportorial acumen of a Michael Lewis book.”
—Dwight Garner, The New York Times
“Taut, cleareyed. . . . Witt, a first-time author, comes from the world of finance, and his old-fashioned, connect-the-dots reporting presents a nuanced depiction of an issue usually reduced to emotional absolutes. . . . [A] complex, groundbreaking story.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“[W]hip-smart, superbly reported and indispensable.”
—The Washington Post
“A lucid, mordantly funny account of the rise of digital music piracy, starting with the story of a worker in a North Carolina CD-pressing plant who personally leaked more than 2,000 albums over eight years.”
“Witt’s book is more than just a simple history — or defense — of file sharing, a development most people associate with Napster, but which, according to Witt, involved a much more wide-ranging—and fascinating—story.”
—The Seattle Times
“A must-read on the rise of privacy. . . . Suspenseful, entertaining. . . . Essential reading for all students of the music business.”
“Incredible, possibly canonical. . . . A story that's too bizarre to make up, but needed to be told. . . . Even if you're not a music geek, How Music Got Free is one of the most gripping investigative books of the year.”
“How Music Got Free doubles as a detailed ode to the MP3 as it tells the story of three men grappling with digital compression technology and its widespread fallout. . . . According to Witt’s account, these three relatively unknown figures spurred on the tectonic shifts within the music industry over the last few decades and changed how we listen to and consider music today. . . . How Music Got Free tells of supreme innovation as well as stubborn hard-headedness, and though its trio of principle characters never actually cross paths in real life, it’s tempting to consider what would have happened if they did, what crises may have been avoided.”
“The story of the music industry’s epic struggle with the technological developments that swiftly and irrevocably changed it forever. . . . Recounted by Witt with the clarity and momentum of any fictional page-turner.”
“Witt uncovers the largely untold stories of people like the German entrepreneurs who invented the mp3 file and Dell Glover, the compact disc factory worker who leaked some of the biggest albums of the aughts, leaving record label execs frustrated and scared.”
“Brilliantly written. . . . Fascinating. . . . Highly entertaining. . . . Full of surprises.”
“An enthralling account of how technology has turned the music business upside down . . . This is a terrific, timely, informative book.”
—Nick Hornby, The Sunday Times (UK)
“Compelling . . . . An accomplished first book.”
“[Witt] organizes his narrative around alternating chapters that each focus on a separate protagonist: an engineer, an executive, and a criminal: Universal chairman Doug Morris and two nemeses Morris didn’t even know he had: German engineer Karlheinz Brandenburg, and music pirate Dell Glover, a Polygram/Universal employee at the Tennessee CD manufacturing plant.”
—The Daily Beast
“How Music Got Free is the result of five years of tunnel-vision focus on the history of digital music.”
—The Village Voice
“[An] excellent history of the MP3 and its effect on the recording industry. . . . An essential read for musicians.”
—John Colpitts, The Talkhouse
“The riveting story of post-millennial technology, piracy, and corporate futility.”
—Los Angeles Review of Books
“A captivating new book that unearths the story of mp3s, pirates and a recalcitrant music business.”
—Lincoln Journal Star
“[A] fascinating account of the rise of music piracy. . . . An engrossing story. . . . The year's most important music book.”
—The Independent (UK)
“A virtuosic, briskly readable account of when the music industry was briefly, seemingly, brought to its knees. . . . There's a lot to learn from the music business' antagonistic relationship with the technology that defined it, and Witt lays it all out on the page.”
—The Portland Mercury
“The story of how the Internet brought the imperious music business to its knees has never been told more succinctly and readably than it is here. . . . How Music Got Free cries out for a movie treatment like The Social Network.”
“A fascinating peek behind the scenes of a worldwide cultural phenomenon that blew apart the music business structure while at the same time creating a new one in which no one company holds all the cards (though a few of them still hold plenty). . . . An engaging account of how the music industry had to change in order to survive, thanks to the efforts of a few technologically savvy people from diverse backgrounds.”
—Shelf Awareness for Readers
“A riveting detective story . . . Witt’s exposé of the business of mainstream music will intrigue fans and critics of pop culture and anyone who has bought a compact disc, downloaded an MP3, or used a streaming music service.”
“A propulsive and fascinating portrait of the people who helped upend an industry and challenge how music and media are consumed.”
“Like Bond meets 28 Days Later . . . Witt tells a thrilling tale, with a cast of music biz bigwigs, painstaking German boffins, and pirates and petty thieves. Witt’s writing reminded me of all my favourite modern essayists: Remnick, Franzen and John Jeremiah Sullivan. I loved it.”
—Colin Greenwood, Radiohead
“How Music Got Free is as much a story about greed, friendship, genius and stupidity as it is about music piracy. And it tells an amazing story of a part of the Internet (not to mention the criminal underground) that I took for granted. I burned through it--you will too.”
—Christian Rudder, author of Dataclysm
From the Hardcover edition.
About the Author
Stephen Witt was born in New Hampshire in 1979 and raised in the Midwest. He graduated from the University of Chicago with a degree in mathematics in 2001. He spent the next six years playing the stock market, working for hedge funds in Chicago and New York. Following a two-year stint in East Africa working in economic development, he graduated from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism in 2011. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
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In brief, the story is this: a fledgling technology, the mp3, is basically losing out to the industry's preferred mp2 and the Compact Disc... until music hackers discover the amazing potential for ripping music from CDs and keeping them on their computer. This, obviously, affects the music industry, who never anticipated (or didn't know how to think about) the mp3's rise to prominence. So, the music industry needed a way to stop this technology or incorporate it into their fold, which eventually they did with the rise of the mp3 player (which had questionable legality in its early years, as mp3s were primarily associated with hacking). Now, the music industry deals almost exclusively in selling digital media via the mp3, but even now, the music industry is a shell of its former self in terms of sales. The mp3 basically nudged them to monetize in less profitable ways; not only do they sell songs cheaper than via compact disc (and can't rely on selling whole albums), but venues like Spotify monetize music by selling advertising along with it.
So, this is a story ab out how the mp3 had huge effects all over the music industry; not bad for a technology that was largely declared dead in the water during its development. One thing Witt does really well - besides pacing the story like an expert journalist - is that he doesn't moralize too much. Was the mp3's rise because it allowed easy theft so that people could enjoy the fruits of others' labor for free? Or was it a natural and understandable reaction to the cartelization of the music industry (which, during the mp3's rise, was found guilty of collusion to keep the price of CD's up)? Witt doesn't say. If I had to guess, he sympathizes more with the latter (and suggests in the intro that he was one of the kids who got all his music by file sharing services). But he seems to keep the story a bit neutral, allowing each to come to their own conclusions (or read their existing conclusions in).
This was just a FUN book to read. It is about entrepreneurship, economics, hacking, and technology's capability to disrupt (not to mention... MUSIC) all in one. I found it gripping. Any music fan - and especially those who think the medium is the message - will too.