Review: HOW MUSIC GOT FREE
How Music Got Free: The Inventor, the Mogul, and the Thief
London: Vintage Books, 2016
My rating: 5/5
The premise of Stephen Witt’s How Music Got Free didn’t take long to convince me - the book promised a thrilling adventure into the belly of the beast that is the music industry, and that’s exactly what I was looking for. But first I had to check something - the publication date. Technology and entertainment develop so quickly that a book from 2009, for instance, would be borderline irrelevant (for the sake of perspective, Spotify was only making it’s first baby steps back then). After flipping to the title page and confirming that the book was indeed recent (2015), I snapped it shut, paid a couple of bucks at the till, tucked it under my arm, and off I went.
I don’t really know what happened to my 45 minute metro ride home - it seems to have disappeared from my memory. The book pulled me right in. It was the way the author introduced the characters - they came alive off the pages. Their quirks, their determination, their way of speaking, their family lives - Stephen Witt’s precise and revealing language effectively highlighted the telling details. Ask any Hollywood screenwriter and they’ll tell you how important this is. But this book is not a Hollywood screenplay. It's about real people in real life making real decisions, and that's what forms the foundation of the book’s thrill.
While How Music Got Free is going to be of particular interest to those who want to know more about music or, more precisely, the music industry, even if you fall in neither of these categories then I still say that this book is worth your consideration. You probably listened to music earlier today. You might even be listening to it now, your music player conveniently tucked behind the current window. Aren’t you curious to find out just what kind of history hides behind that .mp3 file extension? Do you know who invented that format? Ever heard of the mp2?
If the technology behind the revolutionary audio format doesn't fire you up, then let me reassure you - this book is about so much more than just that. It's about innovative thinking, perseverance, risk, business, politics, law, culture, trends, crime, dissonance between generations, technology, competition, economics, stardom, and strategy. We get to sit in Doug Morris’ office at Universal Music Group. We get to negotiate contract terms with the industry’s key players. We get to rub shoulders with some chart-toppers. And all this is before we even leave the skyscrapers to go underground through the complex internet networks to discover the expansive and secret world of piracy run by masterminds as powerful as any other. With them we get to rip some pirated music from CDs and then log into an invitation-only chat to brag to other elite leakers hiding behind cryptic acronyms. You will quickly discover when reading this book that the invention of the mp3 format is just the starting point for a much bigger story - the story of how music escaped from the jewel case and got into your earbuds.
If all this is beginning to sound too much like a trailer for a blockbuster, and you are beginning to doubt the authenticity of the book, then flip to the back - you will be glad to read the several pages of notes from the author explaining his research process and sources. I personally found it to be very reassuring. The notes are a cherry on top because Stephen Witt maintains perfect journalistic distance from the story and avoids making judgements or contributing personal opinions that could distort the facts. Meanwhile his style and rhythm make this book feel like a high stakes poker game. The bright cover does not imply that in any way, but its rubbery feel confirms otherwise - this is the kind of book that grips.
The paperback version of this book as reviewed here has a 10 page addendum complete with some insider information that the author received from an early pirate after the hardback version of the book had already gone to print. This additional information throws even more light into the deep shadows of the music leaking scene and allows us to meet one of the leakers as he is today - grown up and distanced enough from his past to be able to judge it with fresh eyes. It is this particular individual who provides a definitive closure to the debate about the future of the mp3.
To wrap this up: if you want to better understand the wild animal that is the music industry then this book is a must-read. It is a sobering look at the business, and if you still maintain any illusions about it, this book will sweep them away. You’ll never hear a hit song on the radio the same way.
A brilliant, relevant, tense read. I highly recommend.