The Current's Rock and Roll Book Club: Stephen Witt's 'How Music Got Free'


Mac Wilson with
Mac Wilson with "How Music Got Free" (Jay Gabler/MPR)

At The Current, we love music and we also love books about music. In partnership with MPR's The Thread, we've started a new series we're calling The Current's Rock and Roll Book Club. Each month, we're picking a book about the music we love, and one of our staff members is sharing his or her take on the book. We hope you'll read along with us, and share your thoughts both in the comment section and via social media: #RockandRollBookClub.

Our previous picks include Kim Gordon's Girl in a Band, Jessica Hopper's First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic, and Morrissey's Autobiography. This month, Mac Wilson writes about a fascinating new history of the digital music era.

Stephen Witt's How Music Got Free chronicles the very events of its title, starting in the late 1980s, through the salad days of the record industry of the 1990s, before finding ourselves here, in the 2000s, where any song can be dialed up at the drop of a hat. It's a startling progression, even after reading about it, and one of Witt's goals is to take a step back and explain how this happened, so fast, before our very eyes.

How Music Got Free fits into many categories, all at once. It's an interesting historical procedural, an illuminating biography, and a gripping crime caper, all unfolding in three parallel stories. The book is divided into three alternating sections (e.g. the chapters repeat the pattern in sequence), each telling their own separate story, while interweaving in fascinating ways.

Before delving into each plotline, I should acknowledge that this structure has its benefits and its drawbacks. On the upside, the format allows each story to unfold, as they gradually begin to intersperse with each other. The effect is similar to Steven Soderbergh's Traffic, in that while each plotline affects the other, the focus remains squarely on the overall subject. The downside to this structure is when one plotline overtakes the others (as we will see), and the less-compelling chapters begin to feel more obligatory than enlightening.

One plotline outlines the history of the development of the MP3, spotlighting Karlheinz Brandenburg, the Fraunhofer Society, and their hard-fought path to success. These sections are the most technically-oriented chapters, but Witt does a nice job of making Fraunhofer's trials understandable for even the tech-illiterate. There's an interesting tidbit about how the team often used the intro to Suzanne Vega's "Tom's Diner" as their test case, as they knew that digital audio would need to faithfully replicate any musical element—including a cappella voices. If the sound of a human voice was unconvincing, a program would fail. The litany of tests to which the MP3 was subjected is staggering; it's almost claustrophobic to picture the engineers listening to Suzanne Vega for hours on end, for years. The history of the MP3 adds a layer of knowledge to better understand how music was able to undergo such widespread digital dissemination.

Another section spotlights the life and career of music mogul Doug Morris, who worked with Warner, MCA, Universal, Sony, and as the eventual founder of VEVO. The Morris sections of the book are notable for the look into the machinations of the record industry during its most profitable years: the late '80s to the early 2000s. Witt outlines numerous instances of the record industry blowing off the threat of digital piracy, even as they enjoyed tremendous profits, and an air of comeuppance for the RIAA and the major record labels hangs over every stage of the story. Morris is an interesting figure, but as his story progresses, it's tough to shake the impression of him as a wealthy white guy who manages to fall upwards into progressively incredible gigs (he starts as the writer for "Smokin' in the Boys Room" and winds up the CEO of Sony). Still, his section is worthwhile mostly for its (often wry) insights on the record industry.

The third prong of How Music Got Free is its most compelling, and the one for which Witt will receive the most of his well-deserved accolades. The story first appeared in The New Yorker, as "The Man Who Broke the Music Business," and I could easily see it garnering its own reputation, and perhaps even appearing as its own stand-alone piece down the line. It is the story of Dell Glover, a factory worker in a CD plant in North Carolina, who, over the span of a decade, leaked countless albums to the nascent digital universe. Glover's story is remarkable; it's a crackling tale of an enormous, sustained heist that incorporated elements beyond what any screenwriter could dare. The fewer details I reveal, the more enjoyable the reading experience, but I assure that your jaw will physically drop at multiple points.

How Music Got Free provides a nice background regarding some of the building blocks of how and why we listen to music in the digital realm. The book succeeds even more, though, in pointing out the elements of our music-listening experience that we take for granted, yet must have had influenced by human hands (at least metaphorically!) at every stage. For instance, one could go online right now, and after a few moments of searching, wind up with the MP3 leak of the new Beach House album. A book like How Music Got Free illustrates all the labor that went into making sure that the Beach House album can appear as audio, online, in perfect fidelity; how a band like Beach House got signed and rose through the ranks to get to the point where their leaked album is a hot commodity; and the fact that the leak had to have materialized online via someone's very ingenious means.

There was a lot of work that had to happen in order for one to be here, listening to the Beach House leak, months ahead of its release. Of course, the next, logical, cynical leap of reasoning, is that said effort took place independently of the labor of the musicians themselves...but maybe that's a book for another day.

comments powered by Disqus