Songs in the key of free

Stephen Witt shares the se­cret history of mu­sic piracy, com­pres­sion tech­nol­ogy and con­sumers’ skewed views of en­ti­tle­ment

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - BY LOUIS BA­YARD book­world@wash­post.com For more books cov­er­age, go to wash­ing­ton­post.com/books.

If you were cast­ing the part of Man Who Brings Record In­dus­try to Its Knees, Dell Glover prob­a­bly wouldn’t make the cut. An un­skilled la­borer with no col­lege ed­u­ca­tion, he lived in a small Bap­tist town in western North Carolina, slaved for long hours at low pay and re­served his spare time for dance clubs, street bikes, guns and pit bulls.

But he knew a lit­tle bit about com­put­ers, and in 1999, af­ter mak­ing in­roads with an uber-se­cre­tive In­ter­net group called Ra­bid Neu­ro­sis (RNS), he dis­cov­ered his life’s mis­sion. Draw­ing on his ac­cess as a shrink-wrap­per at the lo­cal com­pact-disc man­u­fac­tur­ing plant, he would smug­gle out vir­tu­ally ev­ery ma­jor CD re­lease as soon as it was pack­aged and turn it over to an online spy­mas­ter named Kali.

In this fash­ion, hun­dreds upon hun­dreds of discs — from artists such as Jay Z, Mariah Carey, Eminem, Mary J. Blige, Kanye West and Bey­oncé — were up­loaded free to the In­ter­net two weeks be­fore their price-tagged coun­ter­parts hit the stores. Glover be­came the world’s premier mu­sic pi­rate, and with his help RNS be­came, in the words of the U.S. gov­ern­ment, “the most per­va­sive and in­fa­mous In­ter­net piracy group in history,” leak­ing some 20,000 al­bums over 11 years and cost­ing the record in­dus­try mil­lions.

Maybe you’d like to know how such a thing could hap­pen. Or maybe you’re won­der­ing where all the Tower Records stores went, or why your kids lis­ten to mu­sic on YouTube, or what mo­ti­vated J.K. Rowl­ing to take down an op­er­a­tion called Oink’s Pink Palace, or what it’s like to lis­ten to “Tom’s Diner” 2,000 times in a row (be­cause some­body did). What­ever the case, you need to get hold of Stephen Witt’s jaun­diced, whip-smart, su­perbly re­ported and in­dis­pens­able “How Mu­sic Got Free.”

Only then can you meet the fella who made wide-scale mu­sic theft pos­si­ble: a bearded Ger­man elec­tri­cal engi­neer with the 18th-cen­tury name of Karl­heinz Bran­den­burg. While still a grad­u­ate stu­dent, Bran­den­burg de­vel­oped a rudi­men­tary pro­gram for com­press­ing au­dio into the small­est pos­si­ble num­ber of bits — which is to say, the bits the hu­man ear could ac­tu­ally dis­cern. At the state-run Fraun­hofer So­ci­ety, Bran­den­burg and his team turned that al­go­rithm into a tech­nol­ogy that could re-cre­ate the fi­delity of a CD at onetwelfth the size.

“Do you re­al­ize what you’ve done?” cried one im­pre­sario. “You’ve killed the mu­sic in­dus­try!”

Bran­den­burg didn’t be­lieve it at first, and nei­ther did the in­dus­try. In the late 1990s, Amer­i­cans were spend­ing more on recorded songs than they ever had, and the ac­cepted ve­hi­cle for that trans­ac­tion was the com­pact disc: sleek, prac­ti­cal, easily repli­cated, and with at least a nod­ding kin­ship to the vinyl al­bum it had su­per­seded.

But the sud­den avail­abil­ity of Bran­den­burg’s tech­nol­ogy turned day into night. “On web­sites and un­der­ground file servers across the world,” Witt writes, “the num­ber of mp3 files in ex­is­tence grew by sev­eral or­ders of mag­ni­tude. In dorm rooms ev­ery­where in­com­ing col­lege fresh­men found their hard drives filled to ca­pac­ity with pi­rated mp3s. . . . Mu­sic piracy be­came to the late ’90s what drug ex­per­i­men­ta­tion was to the late ’ 60s: a gen­er­a­tion-wide flout­ing of both so­cial norms and the ex­ist­ing body of law, with lit­tle thought of con­se­quences.”

Of course, un­scrupu­lous op­er­a­tors had been run­ning roughshod over copy­right for cen­turies, but this was piracy on an un­prece­dented scale, and it was pred­i­cated on the most ba­sic of no­tions, that “if some­thing was avail­able for free, and could be freely and in­fin­itely re­pro­duced for free, with no degra­da­tion in qual­ity, why would any­one pay to own it?”

With the ar­rival of Nap­ster, users any­where could ac­quire vir­tu­ally any song, free, in a mat­ter of sec­onds. The ef­fects were not long in be­ing felt. Be­tween 2000 and 2007, CD sales plunged by 50 per­cent. By the end of the decade, the record­ing in­dus­try it­self had been halved. Record com­pa­nies merged or van­ished; record stores dis­ap­peared (bye, Tower); and pow­er­ful ex­ecs like Doug Mor­ris, then­head of the Uni­ver­sal Mu­sic Group, be­gan to won­der if they were pre­sid­ing over the liq­ui­da­tion of their own em­pire.

The in­dus­try’s ini­tial re­sponse was ham­fisted: a cam­paign of “ed­u­ca­tional” law­suits aimed not at pi­rate mas­ter­minds but at in­di­vid­ual file-shar­ers, many of whom were too poor to cough up dam­ages. Mor­ris at least had the in­spi­ra­tion to launch Vevo, a YouTube chan­nel that trans­formed mu­sic videos from pro­mo­tional free­bies into profit cen­ters. But the sur­prise sav­ior was prickly vi­sion­ary Steve Jobs, who ap­pre­ci­ated bet­ter than any­one the im­por­tance of in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty. Ap­ple’s iTunes pro­vided an easy way to down­load mp3s at a small cost to users, and Ap­ple’s iPod of­fered the con­sum­mate lis­ten­ing gad­get.

End of story? Not quite. To date, dig­i­tal rev­enues haven’t fully plugged the deficit. Nap­ster is long gone, but stream­ing media such as Spo­tify have de­vised sub­tler ways to stiff cre­ators. And yet, against all prog­nos­ti­ca­tions, CDs (like printed books) live. Even in 2013, Witt tells us, “more than a third of the U.S. mu­sic in­dus­try’s rev­enues still came from phys­i­cal al­bum sales, and more than half glob­ally.”

These are, in short, un­easy times, and no one should go too easy on him­self. Least of all Witt, who ac­knowl­edges up front that he is a “mem­ber of the pi­rate gen­er­a­tion,” with hun­dreds of boot­legged songs in his com­puter files. In the book’s clos­ing tableau, his ac­cu­mu­lated hard drives are tossed in a Dump­ster, but what sur­vives is the mil­len­nial as­sump­tion that pay­ing for cre­ative ex­pres­sion is, in the words of the Swedish Pi­rate Party, “in­fring­ing on fun­da­men­tal hu­man rights.” Art? Meet en­ti­tle­ment. Louis Ba­yard is a nov­el­ist and re­viewer. His most re­cent book is “Roo­sevelt’s Beast.”

JAN-PETER KASPER/PIC­TURE-AL­LIANCE/DPA/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

HOW MU­SIC GOT FREE The End of an In­dus­try, the Turn of the Cen­tury, and the Pa­tient Zero of Piracy By Stephen Witt Vik­ing. 296 pp. $27.95 Karl­heinz Bran­den­burg, shown in a movie theater in Il­me­nau, Ger­many, in Fe­bru­ary 2003, de­vel­oped a rudi­men­tary pro­gram for com­press­ing au­dio into the small­est pos­si­ble num­ber of bits.

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