1 Jul 2015

How Music Got Free

From Jesse Mulligan, 1–4pm, 2:10 pm on 1 July 2015

How Music got Free book cover detail

When music executives turned away a German engineer who had come up with a way to compress music into digital files, it started the beginning of a new way of pirating music, and the end of the glory days for the music industry.

Author and Journalist Stephen Witt tells Paul Brennan on Afternoons about the clash of old ideas and technology.

“The music industry had a flawed mentality. They saw those racks of compact discs at the mall like an inventory, that’s how an executive or music store manager would think of it. But to a digital engineer like Karlheinz Brandenburg, those racks of cds were just an array of inefficiently stored data”

Stephen Witt’s book How Music Got Free, What happens When an Entire Generation Commits the Same Crime chronicles the history of  free downloading and the people who made it possible.

Witt is a self-confessed former music pirate. In 1997, his collection included 15,000 albums. “It would have taken a year and a half to listen to them all”. He was able to hoard music, as many people did, thanks to MP3 technology which was made available for free online in 1985 after record companies turned down the technology.

In the early days of piracy, a man Witt calls the Edward Snowden of free music, Bernie Dell Glover, supplied much of the music. He worked at a CD manufacturing plant in Kings Mountain North Carolina. “He devised methods for smuggling the CDs out of the plant. He would take CDs home rip them to MP3 and upload the files to the internet. From there it would move quickly to the peer to peer sites” Witt explains. He put more than 2000 albums online, many before they were released to the public.

Witt says the music industry will likely never see the profits it did at the height of the CD market in 2000, and that streaming services like Spotify and the new one launched by Apple are slowing the pace of music piracy. “When artists started signing up for Spotify in 2007,2008 it was a dark dark time for the industry and they were trying to do anything they could to recapture any kind of profit.” Witt says.

But the industry is still going through turmoil. Apple music recently relented and agreed to pay artists during their free 3 month music trial thanks to a stand by Taylor Swift. “I think she can get away with playing hardball. I think for other artists it would be tougher” he says.