Book Review of “How Music Got Free”

"CD", Image by Dean Hochman

“CD”, Image by Dean Hochman

It is nearly impossible to compete in a consumer market when a previously lucrative product is suddenly available for free. This phenomenon adds a whole new meaning to the notion of “priced to sell”.

No industry illustrates this tectonic disruption brought about by the Net more than the music business during the last 20 years. While there has been an ocean of ink and a quantum of bits expended telling this story, I have come across none more compelling, thorough and entertaining than How Music Got Free: The End of an Industry, the Turn of the Century, and the Patient Zero of Piracy by Stephen Witt (Viking, 2015). This is a great story well told with clarity, precision, style and humor.

While the tales of Napster and the other peer-to-peer sharing networks, the lawsuit by Metallica and other litigation by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) to stop them, and precipitous drop in CD sales since then have all been previously told at length elsewhere, the author takes us down some new and alternative narrative paths. Witt has accomplished this skillfully weaving together the stories of the German engineers who created the MP3 format, a prolific music pirate, and a music industry mogul. The intersection of their activities in the music downloading revolution makes for hours of absorbing and instructive reading.

The book succeeds simultaneously as a business case study and a human interest story. It deftly leverages all three main plot threads in a narrative that heightens the reader’s interest as the events steadily crisscross the real world from rural Kentucky to Germany to New York City, and then likewise online across the web. Any one of these stories would have made for engaging reading on their own. Yet they are carefully fitted together by the author in a manner that relentlessly propels the all of them forward.

He also wisely wastes none of his text on superfluous side trips. Rather, he maintains a consistent focus throughout on how the music biz got turned upside down and inside out by a series of fast-breaking developments it neither fully understood nor had any viable alternatives ready to counter it.

A roster of A-List Hollywood writers and talent agents could not have possibly done better in creating the members of the real life cast. There are many useful lessons to be learned from them about business strategy, marketing, competition, and the strength of the human character in the face of the unprecedented and massive disruption* of what had been such a highly leveraged and lucrative market.

First and foremost among them was Benny “Dell” Glover. The details of his online and offline exploits read as though they were extracted from deep inside the You Can’t Make This Stuff Up file. He worked in a rural CD manufacturing plant and that afforded him access to the latest releases by music industry’s top acts. Often a month in advance of their commercial debut, Glover would smuggle them out of the plant, encode them using the MP3 format, and upload them for free distribution online through Napster and a host of other peer-to-peer networks. He was also part of a larger band of well-organized, tech savvy and daring digital music pirates who referred to their collective activities as the “Scene”.  Glover was likely responsible for the largest volume of free music that ever got digitally disbursed.

Second was Karlheinz Brandenburg, the lead engineer and inventor of the MP3 technology. He ran the group that devised MP3 technology without any intent whatsoever of how it eventually ended up being used. It was a technological accomplishment that at first drew little attention in the audio industry. There were other competing compression formats that were gaining more traction in the marketplace. Nonetheless, through perseverance, superior technical skills and a bit of favorable circumstances, MP3 began to find success. This was first in the broadcast marketplace and later on as the tech of choice among the music pirates and their audience. Brandenburg’s transformation over time from a humble audio engineer to an experienced business executive is deftly told and threaded throughout the book.

Third was Doug Morris who, during the events portrayed in the book, was the CEO of Universal Music Group (UMG). While Glover’s and Brandenburg’s parts in this narrative make for some engrossing reading, it is Morris’s meteoric rise and determination in the music industry that pulls the entire story together so very well. Not only does he reach the pinnacle of his field as a top executive in the largest music companies, he does everything in power to try to keep UMG economically competitive while under siege from freely downloadable MP3s recorded by his deep and wide talent bench.

While he did not have a hacker’s understanding of MP3’s technical ministrations, he fully understood, reacted and resisted its profound impacts. His initial line of attack was litigation but this proved to be ineffective and produced much negative publicity. Later he successfully monetized UMG’s vast trove of music video by forming the hosting and syndication service on Vevo. He is the most resourceful and resilient player in this story.

These three protagonists are vividly brought to center stage and fully engaged in Witt’s portrayal of their roles and fates in this Digital Age drama.  Just as the superior acoustics in a musical venue can enhance the performances of musicians and actors,  analogously so too does the author’s reporting and expository skills animate and enliven the entirety of events across his every page of his book. Indeed, “How Music Got Free” completely fulfills its title’s promise and, clearly, hits all the right notes.


At the time of the events portrayed in How Music Got Free, there was widespread fear that it would become increasingly difficult for artists and entertainment companies to ever profit again as they had done in the past. As a timely follow-up exploration and analysis how this never quite came to pass, I very highly recommend reading The Creative Apocalypse That Wasn’t by Steven Johnson, which was published in the August 23, 2015 edition of The New York Times Magazine.  (Johnson’s most recent book as also reviewed in the January 2, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled Book Review of “How We Got to Now”.)


*  The classic text on the causes and effect of market disruptions, disruptors and those left behind, read The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton Christensen (HarperBusiness, 2011). The first edition of the book was published in 1992.

IBM’s Watson is Now Data Mining TED Talks to Extract New Forms of Knowledge

"sydneytocairns_385", Image by Daniel Dimarco

“sydneytocairns_385”, Image by Daniel Dimarco

Who really benefited from the California Gold Rush of 1849? Was it the miners, only some of whom were successfully, or the merchants who sold them their equipment? Historians have differed as to the relative degree, but they largely believe it was the merchants.

Today, it seems we have somewhat of a modern analog to this in our very digital world: The gold rush of 2015 is populated by data miners and IBM is providing them with access to its innovative Watson technology in order for these contemporary prospectors to discover new forms of knowledge.

So then, what happens when Watson is deployed to sift through the thousands of incredibly original and inspiring videos of online TED Talks? Can the results be such that TED can really talk and, when processed by Watson, yield genuine knowledge with meaning and context?

Last week, the extraordinary results of this were on display at the four-day World of Watson exposition here in New York. A fascinating report on it entitled How IBM Watson Can Mine Knowledge from TED Talks by Jeffrey Coveyduc, Director, IBM Watson, and Emily McManus, Editor, TED.com was posted on the TED Blog on May 5, 2015. This was the same day that the newfangled Watson + TED system was introduced at the event. The story also includes a captivating video of a prior 2014 TED Talk by Dario Gil of IBM entitled Cognitive Systems and the Future of Expertise that came to play a critical role in launching this undertaking.

Let’s have a look and see what we can learn from the initial results. I will sum up and annotate this report, and then ask a few additional questions.

One of the key objectives of this new system is to enable users to query it in natural language. An example given in the article is “Will new innovations give me a longer life?”. Thus, users can ask questions about ideas expressed among the full database of TED talks and, for the results, view video excerpts where such ideas have been explored. Watson’s results are further accompanied by a “timeline” of related concepts contained in a particular video clip permitting users to “tunnel sideways” if they wish and explore other topics that are “contextually related”.

The rest of the article is a dialog between the project’s leaders Jeffrey Coveyduc from IBM and TED.com editor Emily McManus that took place at Watson World.  They discussed how this new idea was transformed into a “prototype” of a fresh new means to extract “insights” from within “unstructured video”.

Ms. McManus began by recounting how she had attended Mr. Dario’s TED Talk about cognitive computing. Her admiration of his presentation led her to wonder whether Watson could be applied to TED Talks’ full content whereby users would be able to pose their own questions to it in natural language. She asked Mr. Dario if this might be possible.

Mr. Coveyduc said that Mr. Dario then approached him to discuss the proposed project. They agreed that it was not just the content per se, but rather, that TED’s mission of spreading ideas was so compelling. Because one of Watson’s key objectives is to “extract knowledge” that’s meaningful to the user, it thus appeared to be “a great match”.

Ms. McManus mentioned that TED Talks maintains an application programming interface (API) to assist developers in accessing their nearly 2,000 videos and transcripts. She agreed to provide access to TED’s voluminous content to IBM. The company assembled its multidisciplinary project team in about eight weeks.

They began with no preconceptions as to where their efforts would lead. Mr. Coveyduc said they “needed the freedom to be creative”. They drew from a wide range of Watson’s existing technical services. In early iterations of their work they found that “ideas began to group themselves”. In turn, this led them to “new insights” within TED’s vast content base.

Ms. McManus recently received a call from Mr. Dario asking her to stop by his office in New York. He demo-ed the new system which had completely indexed the TED content. Moreover, he showed how it could display, according to her “a universe of concepts extracted” from the content’s core. Next, using the all important natural language capabilities to pose questions, they demonstrated how the results in the form of numerous short clips which, taken altogether, were compiling “a nuanced and complex answer to a big question”, as she described it.

Mr. Coveyduc believes this new system simplifies how users can inspect and inquire about “diverse expertise and viewpoints” expressed in video. He cited other potential areas of exploration such as broadcast journalism and online courses (also known as MOOCs*). Furthermore, the larger concept underlying this project is that Watson can distill the major “ideas and concepts” of each TED Talk and thus give users the knowledge they are seeking.

Going beyond Watson + TED’s accomplishments, he believes that video search remains quite challenging but this project demonstrates it can indeed be done. As a result, he thinks that mining such deep and wide knowledge within massive video libraries may turn into “a shared source of creativity and innovation”.

My questions are as follows:

  • What if Watson was similarly applied to the vast troves of video classes used by professionals to maintain their ongoing license certifications in, among others, law, medicine and accounting? Would new forms of potentially applicable and actionable knowledge emerge that would benefit these professionals as well as the consumers of their services? Rather than restricting Watson to processing the video classes of each profession separately, what might be the results of instead processing them together in various combinations and permutations?
  • What if Watson was configured to process the video repositories of today’s popular MOOC providers  such as Coursera or edX? The same as well for universities around the world who are putting their classes online. Their missions are more or less the same in enabling remote learning across the web in a multitude of subjects. The results could possibly hold new revelations about subjects that no one can presently discern.

Two other recent Subway Fold posts that can provide additional information, resources and questions that I suggest checking out include Artificial Intelligence Apps for Business are Approaching a Tipping Point posted on March 31, 2015, and Three New Perspectives on Whether Artificial Intelligence Threatens or Benefits the World posted on December 27, 2014.


*  See the September 18, 2014 Subway Fold post entitled A Real Class Act: Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are Changing the Learning Process for the full details and some supporting links.