Tag Archives: Stephen Witt

How Music Got Free

I just re-read Stephen Witt’s How Music Got Free: The End of an Industry, the Turn of the Century, and the Patient Zero of Piracy for my company’s book club, and thought I’d share a playlist I made (Apple Music/Spotify). This list contains songs that were mentioned in the book, along with some singles from albums that were mentioned.

The book was a fun read because the author is just a few years older than me, so his experience of early digital music was similar to my own (although I suspect he was a member of the music piracy leaking “Scene”, while I was not). It’s a cleverly crafted story that follows three separate threads through the ’90s and ’00s: the team who invented the mp3; Doug Morris, who has been an executive at all of the remaining majors; and Donald Glover, a blue-collar worker, who was the source of a staggering amount of leaked music.

One of the most startling observations was that almost all of the music that was leaked during that period came from a very small, elite group. I thought of the peer-to-peer revolution as a crowd-sourced phenomenon, but that wasn’t true. The music that was leaked early was subject to circumstance, the availability of the CDs, and the cunning and whims of a few key people.

As I’ve mentioned in another post, it boggles my mind that content is often restricted, making piracy relevant still. We had a spirited discussion about this during the book club meeting. We all agreed that if only the media we wanted was available and convenient, we’d be happy to pay for it. I think pirates will always exist – there are bragging rights involved, after all –  but services and artists are not as helpless as they think. Taking content down from a streaming service ensures it will show up on The Pirate Bay. Digital distribution agreement terms might not always be ideal, but I think a collaborative approach will get us all further than restricting content.

Our book club also talked a bit about the transition from music ownership to all-access streaming (which was not covered at length in the book, but here is a great article about that shift). When my generation was young, we bought CDs at $17 a pop. We’d have to really think about what we wanted to buy, because it could be a while before we’d saved up enough money for another. When I was in high school, our CD binders always rode shotgun.  Suddenly, everything was available in mp3 form. It was important to amass the best collection of downloads in order to DJ college parties. Now, music is hosted elsewhere, and we don’t own any of it. But, of course, we never really did. We owned physical copies of intangible music. We never held the distribution rights.

Odds & Ends

Happy Friday! Here are some things I read this week and wanted to share:

  • The Every Child Achieves Act is working its way through Congress. It passed the Senate and will be up for a vote in the House soon. If passed, this bill will ensure that music and arts are part of the core curriculum for elementary schools in the US. Having seen the effects of music education underprivileged students, and having enjoyed the benefits of a solid music education myself, I’m excited about this one.
  • My company’s blog has a good explainer this week on high-def music. For anyone interested in more “plain English” information on audio compression, I’ll recommend the book I’m currently reading: Stephen Witt’s How Music Got Free – which contains a surprisingly fascinating background on how the MP3 came about. Basically, a bunch of audio obsessives worked on compression using methods like auditory masking. For their research, one of the songs they listened used as a benchmark was Suzanne Vega’s 1981 song “Tom’s Diner”. The thought of them listening to such an insanely repetitive song repeatedly makes me think of Ravel’s Boléro and Anne Adams’s Unraveling Boléro.
  • Speaking of Stephen Witt, he wrote an interesting piece this week on Grooveshark‘s downfall and the sad, mysterious death of its young creator, Josh Greenberg. (Though I will have to disagree with Witt on one point: this field still feels like the wild west at times!)
  • Record labels have always served as marketers and tastemakers. In the age of social media marketing, I guess we have nobody but our collective selves to blame for Jack & Jack.