Did free downloads lead to the death of the music industry?

Stephen Witt has documented how a generation came to expect all their music for free, writes Eoghan O’Sullivan.

What happens when an entire generation commits the same crime?

That’s the question posed by Stephen Witt’s book, How Music Got Free. Witt declares in the introduction that he is a member of the pirate generation, collecting over 100,000 mp3s — nearly 15,000 albums worth — on 1,500 gigabytes of music.

His downloads are a drop in the ocean of what he calls the death of the music industry, with 100bn files shared and $21bn lost from 1996 to 2010.

Through three vastly-different characters — a German scientist called Karlheinz Brandenburg, who invented the mp3 and thus paved the way for music piracy to flourish; music executive Doug Morris; and factory-line worker Bennie Lyndell Glover, aka Dell Glover, aka the patient zero of internet music piracy — Witt tells a story he says has never been told before.

“You think you know this story about technology and history and piracy, but you really don’t, and the actors who made it happen are just the most obscure and fascinating figures.”

Glover is our unknowing hero, the normal, everyday guy who just happens to be smuggling pre-release CDs out of a factory in the town of Shelby, North Carolina. How he does so is so simple that it beggars belief.

So, in the early years of the 21st century, as piracy began to eat into the music industry’s seemingly never-ending pockets, Glover is at the centre of it, “the world’s leading leaker of pre-release music”, responsible for helping to get everything from Blink 182 and Bjork to Nelly, Jay-Z, and Eminem online weeks before they were on shop shelves.

He’s also making money on the side, bootlegging CDs and DVDs.

Born in New Hampshire and raised in the midwest, Witt is a affable, laughing throughout our talk at how incredulous is this story of piracy.

He had worked with a hedgefund for a number of years, but was involved in economic development in east Africa when the idea struck of becoming a journalist and investigating just how the thousands of illegally-downloaded mp3s had actually made their way online and on to his computer.

“I had always been interested in becoming a writer and I knew that this subject was really fascinating and there was a large body of evidence that had never really been uncovered.”

Witt was fascinated by Dell Glover, coming across him early into his research for the book, having examined hundreds of government files on music pirates.

“He’s always got something on the side that he’s pushing. So, in addition to bootlegging these DVDs and selling them out of the trunk of his car... he eventually started downloading all this material and feeding it to people through this centralised server.

"So he was essentially running a streaming service — it wasn’t quite a streaming service but it was something like a streaming service — years before it was officially available to the public.”

Glover wasn’t leaking the music online himself — he goes through a conduit, Kali, whose identity is never uncovered, and a handful of others.

These people “knew what they were doing” — they were very intelligent, calculated, deliberate in their decisions, Witt says.

“What I find interesting is that even though all of these guys had at least some idea that they could get into a lot of trouble for this, that didn’t stop them. They continued to leak almost compulsively.

"And actually we see that today. There’s still movie and music and TV leaking groups that are out there infiltrating supply chains of the entertainment industry, and posting that stuff to the net, often leaked: Game of Thrones, stuff like that.

"And doing so at great personal risk to themselves without any obvious reward.”

The music industry, meanwhile, practically headed by Doug Morris, was always too slow to react. This man, writes Witt, was popular music.

“From Stevie Nicks to Taylor Swift, there had been almost no major act from the last four decades that he had not somehow touched.”

There are many points in How Music Got Free where the reader is willing Morris to act, before it’s too late, to save the music industry.

Instead, Morris leads the industry from one mistake to another: Too late to Apple’s iPod party, for example, Morris, the head of Universal Music, puts all his faith in the Microsoft Zune.

“It’s really one of the great failures in the history of technology,” Witt says.

“Morris had a personal financial stake in the Zune, all of Universal did, and so did the major labels. So, if it had actually succeeded, it might have actually saved the industry and if they’d been savvy enough to negotiate a similar deal with Apple, it would have really saved them years earlier.”

It’s a recurring theme that Witt sums up succinctly: “The entire era of the mp3, the music industry completely botched it.”

What does Morris, who has since been made the CEO of Sony Music Entertainment, think of the leakers, eating into his company’s profits?

“He hates them,” Witt says. “He thinks they all belong in jail. He sees them as a direct threat to his livelihood. He has no time or sympathy for any argument that’s sympathetic to any kind of copyright infringement.”

Anybody who has watched a music video on YouTube will have come across Vevo and its irritating pre-roll advertisements. They have Doug Morris to thank for this.

“Morris is never going to admit he was wrong about anything. It’s just not in his nature. And he’ll take credit for a lot of stuff as well. So Vevo is the primary thing he takes credit for. I think he deserves it," Witt says.

"This is sort of their music streaming syndication service that relies on advertisement- supported money to stay afloat. The problem is it doesnft generate that much money right now."

The book, a meticulous investigation, ends in 2010, with the music industry left looking like a boxer on their last legs, bloodied, and with nothing to give.

There is next to no mention of Spotify, but, Witt tells me, this streaming service, along with the likes of the recently-launched Apple Music and various others, are pretty much all that the remaining record labels have left, but itfs still unclear if theyfre going to succeed.

"Really [the labels are] fighting a two-front war now, between the pirates on the one hand [who havenft gone away; big albums are still being leaked weeks, if not months, ahead of schedule] and the streaming services, on the other.

"Both of those models, essentially, lead to the obsolescence of paying for music a la carte; both models are giving up on digital downloads or selling albums piecemeal. Itfs more about which library do you end up being a participant in... Who knows how itfs going to play out?"

  • How Music Got Free is out now



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