Books & Reading Technology

“How Music Got Free” by Stephen Witt

Written by Kevin Koperski

I’m not gonna lie. Stephen Witt’s new history of the MP3,  How Music Got Free: The End of an Industry, the Turn of the Century, and the Patient Zero of Piracy, was something of an impulse purchase and not just because the title kicks ass. I read an interview the author gave in which he touched on the early days of mp3 downloads, Napster, and a cabal of leakers few people knew existed. The nostalgic side of me couldn’t resist.

Let us remember…  It was the late 90s. I was already firmly entrenched in techie land by then, having built a fairly popular website and found a job working for AT&T Wireless in a role known, amusingly, as “Web Master.” My trusty 56k modem could download a four minute song in about an hour or a seven second video clip in about the same time. It was wonderful. We would spend all day downloading half-minute long blooper reels simply because we could.  Soon I replaced the telephone line with my first cable broadband connection and the world began to change.

I discovered IRC. Napster. Limewire. Kazaa. DirectConnect. I tried them in the same way I experiment with mobile apps now, to see what they did and how easily they did it. I’ve always found new technology thrilling.

I downloaded plenty of music. Mostly live or rare tracks unavailable elsewhere.  I downloaded popular singles I never would have paid for at the time (who didn’t want to get Jiggy with Will Smith?). More than anything, I downloaded nostalgic tunes from years past, the stuff I had once recorded off the radio onto cassette tapes. They were tunes I’d never buy, and now they were mine without the radio’s analog hum, edits, and DJs talking at the beginning and end of each song.

I tried my hand at downloading movies, but they were a pain in the ass. I tried again when I bought my first DVD burner, but they were still a pain in the ass. Crazy encryption, multiple tools for ripping and encoding, inconsistent bitrates, pixelation, extremely large file sizes. Too much work.

I experimented with downloading and cracking software. I certainly had one or two worthwhile scores, the biggest being Adobe Photoshop (Sorry, Adobe. I couldn’t have afforded it back then, but it helped me get plenty of work, and I’m now a happy Creative Cloud subscriber, so thanks!).

I struggled at the time to understand how what I was doing could really harm the music (or any other) industry. I was married and young with a new career. My wife was in school and I wasn’t exactly pulling in the big bucks. We bought plenty of books and CDs, and we saw a new movie in theaters almost every week. I contend to this day that 95% of everything I downloaded was stuff I never would have bought anyway, be it for lack of money or desire, so I wasn’t exactly taking money out of anyone’s pocket. In most cases, I did it as much for the technical challenge and pleasure as anything. After all, mp3s were mostly useless beyond the computer. My car couldn’t play an MP3 CD, and I was too lazy to frequently change out the 6-disc changer in my trunk with newly burned discs of random music.

At the time, despite several years exploring the internet world and its steadily increasing population, I imagined most web users were similar to myself. It would take years to disabuse me of that idea, and it might be argued I still tend to do it, like so many of us do. I’ve never tried to cover up the naiveté of my younger self, nor to shy away too frequently from the naiveté of my current self. But it rarely dawned on me that people were changing their purchase habits. If I thought about it at all, I thought people were downloading stuff they couldn’t otherwise afford. Doing so isn’t necessarily the right thing to do, but it’s also not the type of thing to threaten an entire industry. Silly me.

The remnants of my former downloading exist as live recordings of my favorite bands that were not available then or now to anyone other than tape traders.  I’ve got SHN and FLAC files hiding in the dusty corners of my hard drives, and I keep them for sentimental reasons as much as anything else.

In any case, with the above personal history in mind,  when I saw a book offering new insights into that wild Internet era, investigated and written by someone who experienced it in some of the same ways I did, I couldn’t resist.

Now, to offer a disclaimer. Generally, I write these posts before I read a book to explain why I’ve decided to liberate it from my to-be-read shelf. (See why here). But I’ve already finished this book. I took it with me on a weekend trip and polished it off during two lengthy but relaxing train rides.

I enjoyed every minute. It’s an informative story about events in which I participated, with characters both new and familiar, told in a rewarding way. If you used Napster or its successors like bitTorrent or Pirate Bay, or if you ever downloaded an mp3 before iTunes arrived, you may enjoy this book. I promise it will teach you things you never knew while sparking a fair bit of nostalgia. A totally worthwhile read.

About the author

Kevin Koperski

Kevin Koperski is the author of the mystery novel Amontillado. He's a tech entrepreneur currently developing several new products.

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