30/10/2016

How Music Got Free

Stephen Witt
2015

Entertaining but over-simplified account of the rise of music online

I really enjoyed this book and learned a lot, but don't feel it lives up to its own billing. The book jacket's intruiging strapline - "What happens when an entire generation commits the same crime?" - tempted me in but really, there's no further exploration of this. Although, to be fair, we know the answer: the music business goes into freefall. I guess the question I was interested in was the "why". We don't really get that either.

What we do get is the stories of three, largely unconnected, people: Karlheinz Brandenburg, the "inventor" of MP3 technology; Dell Glover, a music pirate; and Doug Morris, CEO of Universal Music. In telling their histories, Witt explains the initial technical catalyst for pirating, the reason why one person got involved, and the industry's response.

However, when it comes to a sociological phenomenon like the mass pirating of music that occurred in the early 2000s, then just looking at one or two individual stories is almost inevitably going to miss the point. It marked a complete shift in the public's experience and expectation of music consumption and so was fuelled by numerous factors - millions of individual stories, if you will - that cannot be easily condensed into those of three people.

Still, as I said - an enjoyable book, well-paced and interesting. Worth reading.

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