MP3 technology enabled wholesale piracy of songs and, as Steven Poole explains, brought the music industry to its knees
The humble MP3 is one of the most momentous inventions of modern history. By shrinking musical data to a 12th of the size of an ordinary CD, it enabled songs and albums to be distributed over the limited bandwidth of internet connections in the 1990s and 2000s. It made possible the culture of downloading commercial music without paying that brought the global music industry to its knees.
Yet this vehicle of mass copyright infringement would never have been invented itself without the guarantee of strong copyright protection. It took a decade of research funded by the German government for the engineers behind it to figure out the "psychoacoustic" principles according to which most of the information in recorded music is in fact inaudible to the human listener and can be thrown away. And it was those same engineers who enabled the piracy revolution by releasing for free on the web the first ever MP3-encoding software, with which the user could "rip" MP3s from CDs onto a computer.
In most histories of these developments, the users who began swapping MP3s on the internet are presented as ordinary folk: college students on Napster and then pretty much everyone on BitTorrent. This gives the story a democratic feel, with the music-loving people rising up against the venal idiocies of the corporate music world. But, as Stephen Witt shows with a kind of gonzo glee in his closely reported and brilliantly written book How Music Got Free, it was not ordinary people who were doing most of the "ripping". There was in fact an organised criminal conspiracy to steal music.
Defenders of downloading stuff without paying, of course, don't like the verb "to steal". They point out that downloading an MP3 of a commercial album doesn't deprive anyone else of a copy, whereas if I steal your cigarettes then you no longer have any cigarettes. So downloaders prefer the term "sharing", which sounds positively virtuous. (Isn't it good to share?) Yet you can't really be said to "share" what was never yours in the first place. As it happens, the MP3s that everyone began "sharing" were originally made available by a network of people who literally stole discs of forthcoming albums from CD pressing plants.
Partisans of “sharing” sometimes liked to say that they were hitting back against fat-cat music executives. In fact, all they were doing was hurting musicians
This book tells the story, based on extensive interviews with one such pilferer, an entrepreneurial and eccentrically likable dude called Dell Glover, who worked at a record company manufacturing plant in North Carolina. Witt draws an amusingly sympathetic portrait. (At one early crisis point, he writes of Glover: "His girlfriend was unhappy, his tattoos were stupid and he was driving himself into debt.") With accomplices in the plant, Glover smuggled out copies of new albums, and uploaded them to a secretive group on the internet that was part of the "Scene": a network of people trading music, commercial software, video games and movies. Members of the Scene went by pseudonyms and used encrypted communications; they cultivated sources inside CD plants, radio stations and anywhere else that pre-release material could be found. It was an efficient and knowing conspiracy: Glover's own group leaked an amazing 20,000 albums over a decade. As Witt relates in fascinating detail, their tradecraft would have done justice to a network of terrorist operatives: top Scene cells eluded the FBI for years.
At the same time, the music industry was hardly covering itself in glory. As the US Federal Trade Commission found, the big record companies conspired over years to keep CD prices artificially high. When they were approached in 1997 by one of the MP3's inventors, who recommended they adopt a new copy-protected version of the file, he was "informed, diplomatically, that the music industry did not believe in electronic music distribution". And companies made weird business decisions that Witt outlines with a highly entertaining bafflement. (He describes Time Warner's decision to sell itself to AOL at the height of the dotcom bubble as "the stupidest transaction in the history of organised capitalism".) A music-industry lobbying group, the Recording Industry Association of America, eventually decided to start suing ordinary downloaders for obscene sums of money rather than going after the real thieves of the Scene. (They won a lot of these lawsuits, which they sadistically termed "educational", before juries began to rebel and acquit.)
Partisans of "sharing" sometimes liked to say that they were hitting back against fat-cat music executives. In fact, all they were doing was hurting musicians. The bosses continued to do very nicely. Another central character in this book is Doug Morris, who rose to become head of Universal. By 2007 CD sales had fallen by half since 2000, yet as Witt notes, Morris was still earning almost US$15 million a year by cutting artists from the roster and concentrating on sure-fire hits. Witt's portrait, however, is nuanced: Morris is presented not only as a seasoned hit-spotter but also as a man who took rational decisions in the face of epidemic piracy. ("He didn't need a PhD in economics to know that if something was widely available for free, people were less likely to pay for it.") After being courted by Steve Jobs for ages, Morris agreed to sign Universal's catalogue up to the iTunes Music Store, and he also had the excellent idea of forcing YouTube and other websites to pay the labels a slice of the advertising they sold against music videos.
After Morris and Glover, the third main character of the book is Karlheinz Brandenburg, the mathematical genius who led the development of the MP3 itself at the Fraunhofer Institute in Erlangen, part of a government-funded research network that the author describes as "Germany's answer to Bell Labs". Witt's description of technical audio matters is exemplary in its clarity, and this story is full of surprises as well. It turns out, for example, that after inventing the MP3 itself, the Fraunhofer group also invented the first-ever portable MP3 player. But they didn't think it was worth patenting. Indeed, when they showed it at an engineering fair in 1995, an executive from the Dutch electronics giant Philips told them: "There will never be a commercial MP3 player."
Witt confesses in his introduction that he too was an inveterate downloader of stuff, and he correctly diagnoses the motivation as something other than a profound love for all music. "Most of this music," he writes of his vast MP3 collection, "I never listened to." The allure was instead that of belonging to a "subculture", an "elite and rarefied group" with access to everything.
At the end of the book, he points out that now such digital hoarding no longer really makes any sense, since everything is theoretically accessible in the cloud. "Finally I caved," he writes, and "bought a Spotify subscription". Of course, Spotify and other streaming services notoriously pay musicians as little as they can get away with. And so the real losers in this story are the quite important group of people who feature only at one remove: the artists who made all that deliciously collectible music in the first place.