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.

Book Review of “How We Got to Now”

"Hubble's New Eyes: Butterfly Emerges from Stellar Demise in Planetary Nebula NGC 6302", Image by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

“Hubble’s New Eyes: Butterfly Emerges from Stellar Demise in Planetary Nebula NGC 6302”, Image by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Remember back in high school when some teacher insisted that “science is fun” followed up by the inevitable directive to “pay attention and learn something”, all of which was about as well received by most of the class as a tooth ache?

Well, at least for some of us, the fun never left. Moreover, it has recently been revitalized by virtue of PBS’s recent TV series and the simultaneous publication of an accompanying book entitled How We Got to Now (Riverhead Books, 2014) , both hosted and written by the renowned and bestselling science author Steven Johnson. In each of the episodes and corresponding chapters, Johnson masterfully examines how innovations in glass, cold, sound, clean, time and light have evolved over the centuries to bring us into modern times. His onscreen and in-print enthusiasm, insight and eloquence make for an enlightening experience from start to finish.

Focusing particularly on merits of the book, the entire package of the author’s accessible and evocative  prose plus the generous helpings of photos and graphics have produced a work of science literature to behold. It is one of those uncommon instances where vivid narrations of science history combined with original analyses and supporting visuals take immediate hold of the reader’s imagination during every one of the six spheres of discovery. Clearly, he worked very hard to get all of this just right.

The most impressive accomplishment is how Johnson positions and threads several consistent themes throughout his text. First, is a phenomenon that lies at the very heart of this book: Innovations made to solve problem X often have completely unforeseen results upon issue Y. Just one of many extraordinary examples cited in every chapter involves the creation of a “flash light” by the famous muckraking writer and photographer Jacob Riis that enabled his to dramatically document the interiors of the squalid slums in New York with photographs in the late 19th century that later led to social reforms.

Second, inventors and their innovations benefit from networks of ideas and among like-minded entrepreneurs and scientists. This allows for new ideas to more readily be pollinated among innovators. Along similar lines, new breakthroughs often result in improvements and/or combinations built upon earlier and, at times, unappreciated advances. The author points to, among others, Thomas Edison and Steve Jobs in this regard.

Third, innovators can be through of as “time travelers” who are so ahead of their time that the world is just not ready to appreciate and implement their work until years later when new and wholly unanticipated needs arise. Johnson concludes his book with the compelling story of how Lady Ada Lovelace developed the world’s first computer code while working with Charles Babbage on what historians consider to be the world’s first mechanical computing device, during the 1840’s and 1850’s. Who knew that their work would not be fully comprehended let alone implemented until more than a century later? No need to look any further than at the nearest desktop/tablet/smartphone to see what they ultimately have wrought across the entire world.

While this book is so thoroughly grand in its scope across six sectors of innovation including items ranging from the finely carved oil lamps in King Tut’s tomb to posting selfies on Instagram and many other world-changing leaps in between,  it nonetheless steadily maintains a personally boundless and infectious sense of wonder about the world. In so doing this, Johnson’s text effortlessly moves back and forth between a close-up examinations of specific new developments and then focusing on the cumulative perspective of how all of these advances continue to coalesce and evolve on a global scale. Indeed, for regular fans of quality science literature as well as for those readers who would otherwise prefer reading a grocery list to anything scientific, this book fully and expertly asks and answers just exactly how we got to now.

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I also recommend another review of this book in the December 28, 2014 Book Review section of The New York Times, written by Jon Gertner. In turn, for any interested in reading further about the nurturing  of modern innovation, I further and highly recommend his own recent book entitled The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation (Penguin Press, 2012).