With a smile on his face, author Stephen Witt told me that before publishing his first book, "There was no mention anywhere that the only reason the MP3 succeeded as a technology was because of the greatest wave of copyright infringement and piracy that the world had ever seen." MP3s are as ubiquitous as music itself, but have we ever really asked ourselves how this new technology came to be so universal, or who exactly was responsible for its pandemic spread, which crippled the music industry at large?
In Witt's incredible, possibly canonical How Music Got Free (out now from Viking), the writer traces how the audio compression technology went from almost dying in a format war with the MP2 (a Betamax vs. VHS type of battle) and tracks down the patient zero of music piracy and album leaks: a savvy rough rider named Dell Glover, who worked in a North Carolina CD plant and smuggled out almost every major album released in the aughts under his oversized belt buckle. Without this one tatted-out guy, online piracy would have been impossible, MP3s wouldn't have gained an online user base, and the technology would have likely become just be a blip in media history.
It's a story that's too bizarre to make up, but needed to be told. Over the course of 300 brisk, engaging pages, Witt's book focuses on three eccentric characters—Karlheinz Brandenburg, one of the men who invented the MP3; Doug Morris, the head honcho of Universal Music; and Glover, "the guy who destroyed the music industry to afford to put souped-up rims on his car," in the author's words. The subjects' unique positions within the music industry offer a succinct vantage into the evolution of how today's music landscape became the way it is. Forget about Napster and peer-to-peer exchange networks—these narratives are essential to understanding why people say the physical album is dead and how we got to a place in culture where everyone actually pays for services like Spotify.
Even if you're not a music geek, How Music Got Free is one of the most gripping investigative books of the year—my mind reels at who will play Glover in the inevitable movie adaptation. As brand-spanking-new streaming platforms like Apple Music, Google Play, Tidal, and Spotify gear up to destroy one another in a new type of format war, Witt's book could not have come out at a better time. The writer and I met in Brooklyn to discuss Robert Ebert's influence on how he approached writing a historical text, how he got access to his subjects, and why he's surprisingly optimistic about the future of the music industry.
VICE: What was the question that you wanted to answer in writing this book?
Stephen Witt: The original question was, "How did the MP3 [go] from being this obscure, academic German software to the pirate format of choice?" And that really happened—someone showed me an unearthed floppy disk with an e-zine on it that these early online software pirates used to send through snail mail. In the e-zine, they talk about how they might pirate music with this new technology. My first idea was to track down the first guy to pirate an MP3 officially. I failed to do that. But I learned a lot about this underworld of media leakers called the Scene. I thought, God, this shit is fascinating.
Can you tell me about how you found Dell Glover?
There's a government database called PACER—Public Access to Court Electronic Records. For a fee, you can download case dockets for every prosecution that the Department of Justice has ever brought against anyone. I probably pulled a hundred such cases, just getting names from FBI press releases and looking for interesting piracy cases. Eventually, I hit Dell Glover and I was like, fuck, forget the other 99 guys—this guy did more than the other 99 cases I pulled combined. It's just this one guy that leaked so much fucking stuff.
I asked myself, "How do I find this guy? How do I talk to him?" So I started hunting on Facebook for people that matched his name, his rough geographic location, and his general demographic situation. I found a guy in North Carolina, about the right age, ethnicity, who looked like he lived near the place where all the leaking was happening [at the PolyGram pressing plant]. I sent him a Facebook message saying "I'm a reporter, I'm writing about this stuff, I think your story's really interesting, give me a call." I never expected to hear back, but the next day he called me on my cellphone.
There is actually no real digital property, in a physical sense. The limits we decide to put on digital property rights are entirely arbitrary.
How did you convince him to tell you his whole story?
Dell was all phone calls for a while, and I used those conversations to write my master's thesis at Columbia. Eventually, he asked to read it, but I didn't want to send it to him because I was afraid he'd post it on the internet—well, leak it. I told him I'd come down to Shelby, North Carolina, and read it to him. So I drove down, sat on his couch, and I read him the entire thing. And he was like, "It's a great story, but there's a lot you don't know about…" and then he started talking about the DVD bootlegging ring, his souped-up car, and everything else. He's not a talkative person, and I was worried it would seem like I'd be trying to pry information from him, but I guess I gained his trust after reading him my master's thesis about him.
Now we're friends, especially after [the book came out]. At the time, he was a source. You have to be careful; you don't want to be friends with your source.
I met him in person four times, I believe, plus plenty of phone calls. I also got a lot of information from Facebook, photos, and people in his community [who] wrote close to 20 clemency letters for him. I even talked with his mother and father.
Prior to this book, was there any media coverage of Glover getting arrested or being a major player in the leaking scene? You wrote that it was included at the bottom of an FBI press release, but was that it?
No. Well, that's the thing. The FBI caught up to him in '07. They kept it very secret that they had caught him for a while because they were hoping to use him as an asset to flip against the other guys in the pirate groups, which they eventually were sort of able to do. They couldn't have any court documents related to his name in the public record that somebody else could find out about for operational security reasons. I think that's why the FBI covered it up.
But you still managed to find the patient zero of music leaks…
It was nuts. I don't think I'll ever be able to do that again. [Laughs]
So you wrote that he's working at a manufacturing plant for car grills now, but does he have any tech side-hustles? Is he actually removed from piracy and internet subcultures?
He has a side business, and he doesn't think it's illegal. He's buying these commodity computers in bulk—like, piece-of-shit computers from China. They have very limited computing power, but it's enough to run a home media server. They have Windows installed on them, he wipes it off, and then puts this home-media-software server on an open-sourced platform of sorts.
It's all legal. It costs him probably 50 bucks to get one of these computers and he can sell it for $200. Once you have one, and if you know what you're doing, you can go and find pirate media streams out in the ether somewhere and get HBO, Netflix, Hulu, whatever to stream in your house—for free. Dell does not install and doesn't point you to any specific pirate networks, though. You could use this to legally subscribe to Netflix, too. He's just selling a computer with some open-source home-theater software installed on it.
Remember, in the book I called him "the guy who destroyed the music industry to put rims on his car"? So now he's moving away from those interests, but he's gotten really into fishing. There's a lake near his house. I think now he's the guy who's undercutting the entire entertainment-complex cable companies to buy a pontoon boat. He's one of my favorite people I've ever met.
Everybody hates [the record-label executives], but they have their own goals and motivations. I became more interested in that perspective than the musicians' perspectives, which you can get pretty much anywhere.
Do you think there might be a parallel version of Dell Glover in movie pirating or other media?
Probably, but I don't know. Recently, I found something very interesting, and I haven't figured out who's doing it. Mad Men started leaking—Mad Men has always leaked, but typically the way TV piracy works is that pirates tape the show via DVR and then rip it. The last few episodes of Mad Men to air were leaked in this ultra high-definition format that exceeds even BluRay and has to be compressed once distributed by cable companies. So the only way these pirates were able to get that is they must've had someone further up the chain at the cable companies or television stations getting production-quality stuff and leaking that.
You could write a book about the top leakers of every media format.
Well, that actually was my original idea for this book. I thought I'd do video games, TV, movies, pornography, books, fonts, etc.—but that ended up being like a broad, general history text. But because it would have been a survey, there's no narrative thrust and you get bored and it's really repetitive. Actually, a lot of this shit works the same way. So all you really need to do is describe one guy's experience and that generalizes to everyone else. Once you know there's a guy like Dell Glover, the story of some other guy doing the exact same thing in the DVD plant isn't super different, right? And Glover was a more compelling character than a lot of these other guys, too.
What do you want readers to get out of this book?
First of all, I wanted to show that this story and culture existed. I just wanted to tell a good story, actually. I wanted it to be the case that when you started reading the book you found it compelling and you finished it. That was my real goal.
In terms of a broader, intellectual takeaway I just wanted to provoke people to think critically about what property rights mean in the digital era. There is actually no real digital property, in a physical sense. The limits we decide to put on digital property rights are entirely arbitrary.
Decisions made in the early days of computing gave the users an enormous amount of freedom to share files without limitations, to communicate without very many barriers, and to exchange information with almost no oversight. Now, in some ways, that's a beautiful thing. But it also enables a lot of very criminal behavior, right? Think about the Silk Road and child-abuse networks—it can enable very bad behavior. Since 2007, 2008, there's been a real shift. Before, the goal of the internet was to empower users. I don't think that's the mentality anymore. Now the user is treated like a customer from whom value is supposed to be extracted. Today, technologists and the rights holders work in concert to make that happen. For example, it's easy to download a torrent application to your desktop and start torrenting, but it's impossible to run a torrent off your smartphone.
We've given up a lot of rights to a sort of centralized authority that tells us what we can and can't have on our phones. Maybe it had to happen that way, but it is a significant limitation on our freedom. I wanted people to think critically about that. I don't have the answers. I just knew that a lot of this information had never appeared anywhere.
Something I was super curious about in your book was that the perspective of the artists was excluded. Was this intentional?
I didn't get any artists to weigh in. I did that on purpose. Artists always get their say. There's no shortage of coverage of musicians. The goal of the book was to present things from new and different perspectives that were very unusual and unexpected. So my portrayal of [Sony Music chairman and CEO] Doug Morris ends up being, essentially, sympathetic. That was the most unusual decision, because no one fucking likes recorded music-label executives, especially not the corporate guys like Morris. They're the butt of every joke; everyone hates them. But they have their own goals and motivations for the things that they do, and I became more interested in that perspective than the musicians' perspectives, which you can get pretty much anywhere.
There's no shortage of how the musicians feel or think about things. Musicians are also always creative types first. They will always be beholden to songwriting, their talent as producers, or their ability to play. So, in my opinion, that meant they didn't necessarily fit with the book.
You wrote that "unlocking stuff" can create value, like how music pirates filled a vacuum that the industry would not. Do you think entertainment and tech companies should be copying, mimicking, or even hiring tech-users like pirates?
You have to understand, the mistakes the recording industry made in the 90s they would never make them now. Anyone who runs a music company is thinking 20 years ahead.
It's the thing I said in the book: The record industry thought of the compact discs as inventory, whereas computer engineers saw it as an array of inefficiently stored data. Now, if you're working at a label you're constantly thinking about distribution, like technological methods of distribution ten or even 20 years down the road. Since 2007 or 2008, the technologists and the labels are really cooperating with one another. They've learned their lesson. They're not going to make those same mistakes again.
Technology is oftentimes unpredictable, though. Couldn't history repeat itself if these companies aren't malleable to any sea changes?
History can repeat itself here, definitely. But the industry will never make that mistakes they made in the 90s where they just completely ignored, and even tried and quash, some new pieces of technology.
They'll absolutely consider any new technology and they'll try and get ahead of it. And that's actually what happened with streaming. They were ahead of the pirates on streaming and they remain so. There aren't any great ways to stream pirated stuff. Like, Spotify is a superior service to [torrent archive] What.CD, in my opinion. Also, torrent traffic is decreasing, particularly as a portion of overall internet traffic. Younger people tend to be more willing to subscribe to legal services.
Your recent Financial Times article made it very clear that if one label pulled out of Spotify, it could be disastrous. I could imagine all the labels switching to Apple Music.
Apple could end up having conglomerate, monopoly power—Spotify could too. I mean, Apple has already tried to make moves into this market, and so has Google, and they failed. They're trying harder now, though. They put their best people on it, I can tell.
Could it be ruled an illegal monopoly?
The anti-trust guys would have to make that decision. YouTube, arguably, is in violation of anti-trust, right? It controls something like 95 or 96 percent of the video-hosting market. Similarly, Google's search engine is also in violation of anti-trust. It deserves to be—it's the best search engine. And YouTube deserves it; it's the best video-hosting site. But in cooperation, that gives them an enormous amount of power. Apple is actually not in danger of violating any anti-trust laws. They only control like 18 or 19 percent of the Smartphone OS market. Android is huge in the rest of the world, and even in the US it's like 50 percent of the market. So I don't see that happening.
For more on piracy, read Motherboard's article on the invisible-labor economy behind pirated Japanese comics
How do you imagine your book aging? Do you think of it as a snapshot of a specific time period, or will it be applicable and relevant even as technology and culture evolves?
I have an unusual mindset about this. Rogert Ebert once wrote about a movie called A Separation, which won the foreign language Oscar a few years back. It's an Iranian movie. His point was that it was a really detailed examination of Iranian social and political life. It's not a broad allegory of anything, but because of that, the more specific in detail it becomes, the more universal it can eventually be.
If my book is just a snapshot of a particular moment in time, which I hope it is, then people actually will refer back to it precisely for that reason. They will want to understand what the time was about and what it was like. If [the book] became too broad, it would portray biases that were inherent in my culture at the time. It wouldn't actually mean anything. I tried to make it pretty narrowly focused on this one period in time while thinking, This, or something like this, will only happen once. So if you want to know what this interesting time of experimentation with media distribution and technology looked like, make it as specific as you can to that time because then it has potential to be a more definitive document of that time.
I should say I don't think I've done that. I don't think I've completely succeeded. But the idea was to make it very specific and detailed about a particular period of time, because that's much more interesting to me than these hifalutin concepts of "what does it all mean in the end?" There's not very much of that in the book, actually. When it comes to the moral aspect of pirating, I want readers to ask if it actually is wrong. I don't want to tell them.
Streaming is absolutely the future, and I think if the big players do it right, if they get people to pay and subscribe, then it will be cash money.
I wouldn't describe the book as a polemic.
Yeah, it's not a polemic. Polemics date very badly. It's true, if you read political writing from some other era, you aren't interested in it the politics. You're mostly interested in how people led their lives at that time, and what their motivations were. That's what I really wanted to capture. Weirdly, if it's done very specifically, that can have a universal appeal later on. You need the characters too. I learned this all from Ebert.
Have there been any responses to this book that you've genuinely shocked or surprised by?
The most interesting response—which I should have predicted, but was still surprised by—has been that musicians really love it. Every musician I've talked to has been really into the topic and subject. They always have something really interesting to say.
Some musicians get really mad and really angry—and people regularly ask me, "How would you feel if someone pirated your book?" when, in fact, that did happen immediately. It was on What.CD about 16 or 17 hours before it was officially launched. There were a hundred seeds for the torrent. I loved it. For me, vicariously, it was thrilling. I don't think my publisher shared that opinion [laughs].
Other people have joked that they're going to make a photocopy of every page in my book and make a zine. That's maybe the most extreme response.
Are you optimistic about the future of the music industry?
[Zero hesitation] Yes, actually I am. Now the technologists and the rights holders are working together to recapture the profits they have lost. I'm paying $120 a year to subscribe to Spotify and that's a lot. The majority of people who subscribe are under the age of 27. This was a generation that was never supposed to pay for anything, but they love Spotify, they love Netflix, they love HBO Go, and it's real cash that they pay. I think that will continue to grow. Streaming is absolutely the future, and I think if the big players do it right, if they get people to pay and subscribe, then it will be cash money. People have proven that you can sell data. For a while it didn't look like it was possible, but the contemporary trend in computing, especially as we move towards centralized servers and cloud computing (and out of corporate libraries), is that we're going to pay real money for this technology.
For more on Stephen Witt, visit his website here.
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