There are quite a few stories to be told in Stephen Witt‘s book, How Music Got Free: The End of an Industry, the Turn of the Century, and the Patient Zero of Piracy, out not from Viking. You have the story of how the mp3 algorithm was created, you have how the music industry failed to meet the demands of a new digital age, and you have the story of how one man in North Carolina managed to leak many of the top albums of their day.
It’s fascinating, and though I came to it with many of the same touchstones as author Witt (we’re the same age), there’s a lot to this for everyone, not just those of us who hit college right as file-sharing, broadband, and big hard drives all converged. I mean, granted: if you’re a mid-to-late ’90s high school graduate who lived in a college dormitory during the tag end of the last century, there’s a lot of obscure references in How Music Got Free that will open mental doors to which you’d long since lost the keys.
But even for those who didn’t look to RNS as a mark of quality or Oink as the the be-all, end-all of musical treasure-hunting, there’s still so much here. If ever there were a textbook case of how a perfect storm came to wash away vast swatches of an industry, this is it. Witt’s book answers every question you’ve ever had about piracy:
* Why the hell did they sue 11 year-ols and grandmas, but I still have 3000 albums on my hard drive to this day?
* Why were CDs so goddamn expensive, even as the technology got cheaper?
* What does it take to get your hands on an album that far in advance?
* How did the labels repeatedly fail to get on the ball with digital music?
It’s three stories, all interwoven, and it’s brilliant. Like an epic episode of Frontline, but told with the wit and wink of This American Life, Witt’s How Music Got Free documents the way piracy came to be a way of being. It’s a cultural and technological history that will leave you enraptured. My only regret is that I’ve sat this long trying to figure out how best to sum it up.
My recommendation: buy it, take two days off work, and get ready. You’re not going to want to put this down once you start it. How Music Got Free: The End of an Industry, the Turn of the Century, and the Patient Zero of Piracy is available to purchase from Amazon.