How Music Got Free by Stephen Witt • online piracy • music industry

Book cover of How Music Got Free by Stephen Witt

How Music Got Free is a look at basically mp3, file-sharing, online piracy and what that did to the music industry between the mid-nineties to the mid-2000s.  It is also a story of obsession, music, crime and money. It’s also a great picture of how we and our companies change. If you have ever looked at your music library on your PC or an mp3 player and asked yourself a question how all these recordings got here, here is a book which helps you to understand the whole process. Stephen Witt, the author of How Music Got Free, once stated the same question I began to investigate this. Surprisingly, he discovered that all the files that he had on his PC could be traced back to just three people.

Anyway, one of the men was named Karlheinz Brandenburg a brilliant German inventor who had spent his life investigating the properties of the human ear and how to delete frequencies that were invisible to it. He had spent decades investigating in human anatomy and what the ear could hear. So, when we hear noise what’s actually happening is it like vibrations in the air are coming and hitting our eardrum that’s transferred through something called the bony labyrinth to a small little organ inside your skull and your inner ear. It is called the cochlear which shaped like a snail’s shell. Inside the cochlear, there are these little hairs that vibrate and if you get enough for them vibrating they transfer a neuron in the brain. 

Karlheinz Brandenburg during his studies, suddenly, came up with something that we now call the mp3 encoder which had the ability to take the information on a compact disc and shrink it by about 90% with very little loss in audio quality and, eventually, became the major medium for online piracy . Unfortunately, he was totally unable to monetise this invention and in desperation in 1995 he posted it for free public download to his website. Within a couple years the Pirates got a hold of it and he ended up making hundreds of millions of dollars from intellectual property.

The second person was Doug Morris, a powerful music executive at Warner Music Group in the mid-90s. He started to realise that the future of pop music was really bad so he started working with big names, major rappers such as Tupac Shakur, Dr Dre, Snoop Dogg. It seems that their audience has found the concept of online piracy resonating and boosted the market.

The third person, Dell Glover, was the most fascinating one and the core story of this book. He was a compact disc manufacturing facility worker at the Kings Mountain CD pressing plant in North Carolina. As he worked at the packaging line and all of this music was literally at his fingertips he figured out how to sneak out all unpublished discs.  He contacted similar leakers and joined online pirate groups. There are some estimations that throughout his activity, over the course of seven years, he might smuggle approximately 2,000 discs out of the plant and ripped them to mp3. 

Within hours this music would be found in peer-to-peer servers like Kazaa, Napster or LimeWire torrents.  Anyway, Dell’s pirate group, Rabid Neurosis (RNS), become the premier music piracy group in the world and they by recruiting music journalists, radio DJs and people who worked in music stores, but Dell was their key inside man. For example, he leaked Nickelback, The Eminem Show, Jay-z, Kanye West, U2 and many others.

Because the music industry was losing tons of money they did an analysis which showed that the only way to stop piracy is to make it costly and expensive by throwing the pirates in jail and that is the approach that they took. So next part of the book discusses a campaign that was launched by the record companies to crack down on anyone who was downloading music illegally it tended to focus on everyday people just people off the street who may or may not have known what they were doing. Eventually, it was a PR nightmare for the record labels as they tried to sue some poor single parents who downloaded single obsolete songs.

In conclusion, this is a great tale of digital music piracy which interweaves several different stories all connected by the advent of digital music. I also felt very personally connected to this story because during this time period  I was in middle school and was a kind of beneficiary of the phenomenon of online piracy.

How Music Got Free: A Story of Obsession and Invention
by Stephen Witt

Final rating:

Interesting story
Complexity of ideas
Flourish language

In the article I made use of a few authors’ interviews.

Book details:

Size: 296 pages
Published: 2015


Other information and reviews of this book on Goodreads:

Other useful links:
Rabid Neurosis (RNS) on Wikipedia (famous mp3 piracy group dealing with
Dell Glover): 
Kazaa on Wikipedia:
Napster on Wikipedia:

4 thoughts on “How Music Got Free by Stephen Witt • online piracy • music industry

  1. Interesting sounding book. It’s sad that so much music was pirated. I buy my music and occasionally listen to Pandora, but that’s not to say that perhaps some pirated music ended up as part of my collection. Although I do have CD’s that friends made for me, and I’ve certainly shared music with friends. I know that this entire problem is making it much harder for musicians to make money off their music, after spending much time creating it, recording it, etc.

    Thanks for following my “Walk with me” blog and introducing me to yours!

    1. There are two sides to every coin. On one hand, piracy hits music producers and artists. On the other hand, in some cases, piracy was the only way to listen to your favourite stars. I’m thinking about myself and my peers. When I was a kid one tape cost 1/100 of my parents pay. CD was out of my scope. I’m not proud of that, but pages like Napster gave us a chance.

      Hope U understand 😉

  2. Interesting story Sir. I would have reblogged this article for you onto the WordPress blog I have if that had been one of the possibilities offered.

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