The word pirate should give a thrill of excitement. Think of pirates and you can come up with anything from rum smashing buccaneers blowing Spanish gold in Caribbean brothels, to inner city kids abseiling down the side of tower blocks to set up illegal radio stations broadcasting low end frequencies. So if we’re honest, the internet pirates of the last decade have been doing the terms inherent sexiness something of a disservice, what with their living with their mums, their screen tan pallor and their almost entire lack of social skills.
This makes the task of keeping the story of the music piracy explosion of the 21st Century interesting a tricky one. However, in How Music Got Free, Stephen Witt proves he’s got the skills to tease a story from the least promising of source material. His best idea is his first- dividing the narrative into three perspectives. Thus we have chapters that alternate between the story of mp3 inventor Karlheinz Brandenburg, music industry giant Doug Morris, and Dell Glover, the pressing plant worker who single-handedly leaked more albums than anyone else on the planet.
The opening chapter, dealing with Brandenburg’s experiments with psycho-acoustic technology that lead to the creation of the mp3, is the book’s most technical, discussing as it does the technology that makes compression work. Still, even here, Witt invests his characters with life, nailing odd personality ticks and physical traits with humour and precision – Brandenburg “was very tall, but he hunched… He constantly rocked on his heels, lurching his gangly body forward and back, and when he talked, he nodded his head in gentle circles…stray hairs protruded like whiskers from his scraggly beard.”
He has more fun with Doug Morris, the executive who ended up in top positions at Sony, Warner Brothers and Universal, and who found his empire under assault from a new generation of pirates. Doug is a garrulous New York Jew, a walking music industry stereotype who has a knack of making shit loads of cash – both for himself and others - everywhere he goes. The depiction of Morris is particularly interesting – it can be easy to fall into the trap of viewing major label heads as money leeching lizards lurking behind the scenes and getting fat off their artists. And to be fair, there is a bit of that about Morris. But he’s also loyal, driven and not shy of spreading the cash about the place. As a hip hop fan, I found the controversy surrounding Morris’s championing of Death Row records particularly interesting. Whole swathes of the internet often claim gangsta rap is a conspiracy created by major labels to keep black men in prison (I’ve been swayed by this argument before), but the sheer horror the rest of Time Warner felt at the material Interscope records were putting out, ultimately firing Doug Morris over it, tells a more complex story.
Morris, hanging with Beyonce and Jay-Z
The third player, Dell Glover, refutes all the pirate clichés I threw about in the open of this review. A working class African American, Glover liked souped up cars, hanging out in clubs and had lived with his girlfriend and their kids. It was precisely these details, along with Glover’s remarkable organisational skills, that allowed him to smuggle some 20,000 CDs out of the pressing plant he worked. Even when leaks were suspected, he was simply not a suspect – no one could imagine that this blue collar black guy who liked rap was also a technically gifted pirate who had risen to the highest level of the illegal mp3 scene.
As the book progresses, the three players find themselves embroiled in the changing face of music – Brandenburg finally got the mp3 accepted as the standard digital format, made millions, and inadvertently bought about the destruction of the CD. Morris ended up creating Vevo, and working out a way of monetising music into the 21st Century, and Dell – well, no spoilers here.
How Music Got Free is a pleasure to read for both music nerds and fans of a good story alike. It’s hyper detailed research, clear annotation and careful conclusions, should ensure it becomes the text book on the subject for a number of years. Witt writes in a kind of Truman Capote journalistic style, richly descriptive and packed with teasers, with chapters often ending on tantalising cliff hangers. Dialogue is snappy and delivered with an ear for accent (Morris is noted as saying ‘yooge’ rather than ‘huge’), and the pacing hurtles along, without sacrificing accuracy. Best of all, he’s managed the hardest task - making pirates sexy again.
How Music Got Free is available now from the Caught by the River shop