Notes on a new book about digital music and piracy

The usual story about digital music goes something like this, depending on what you’ve read: once people figured out how to use computers to rip music from CDs and share it online, piracy became rampant, and the recording industry suffered setbacks from which it has never recovered. That’s true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go very far. According to a New York Times review from mid-June that I discovered late, a new book, called How Music Got Free: The End of an Industry, the Turn of the Century, and the Patient Zero of Digital Piracy, delves more deeply into the story. Garner says, “Stephen Witt’s nimble new book…is the richest explanation to date about how the arrival of the MP3 upended almost everything about how music is distributed, consumed and stored. It’s a story you may think you know, but Mr. Witt brings fresh reporting to bear, and complicates things in terrific ways.” To judge from the review, Witt intertwines three main stories in his book: a group of German audio engineers who developed the MP3 format, a manager at an American CD factory who stole nearly 2,000 albums before their release and put them online, and the head of Universal Music Group from 1995 to 2011, who, as Garner puts it, “comes to personify nearly every bad decision the major music labels made.”

The advantage of pinning one’s account to particular persons is that this is how we tend to view the world—in terms of individuals and small groups doing things. The obvious disadvantage is that this can miss broader and more abstract developments. Edison invented the light bulb: that’s easy to say and easy to grasp, but it leaves out everything from Greek experiments with the buildup of static charge on amber through Maxwell’s equations of electromagnetism and beyond. The story of digital music is complicated not only by scientific and technical issues but also by business decisions, the tastes and habits of consumers, and social transformations. CDs are themselves a digital form of music and were developed at roughly the same time as the personal computer and the Internet, yet it wasn’t obvious in 1982 (when CDs came out) that, 20 years later, I’d be able to carry songs around on an object the size of a pocket calendar, or for that matter that I’d want to. The Sony Walkman portable cassette player, which at a glance might seem unrelated, played a role in this; for that matter, so did portable transistor radios. But opportunity doesn’t necessarily bring adoption in its wake; videophones were demonstrated in the early 60s, and video calls are now easy, yet the practice has never become standard. Where portable music is concerned—and this applies as well to the spread of smartphones—one could argue that a sociological shift was also involved, the decline of the public space as a region of interest and engagement and the increasing primacy of private, personal experience. (Richard Sennett traces this shift in The Fall of Public Man, which may be the most profound underrecognized book I’ve ever read.) The claims of the world around us probably had to be lessened before we could adopt portable radios, music players, and smartphones.

Greed and shortsightedness on the part of the music industry made a large contribution to the rise of piracy. When CDs were introduced, claims were made that the price would go down once the costs were recouped, but that never happened. As Adobe found with its Photoshop software, when something people want costs more than they’re willing to pay, piracy is a likely result; in 2012, Photoshop appeared to be the second-most-pirated piece of software in the world. The big record companies seemed afraid to sell music online at all, until Apple persuaded them to go along with it in 2003, but the iTunes Music Store simply institutionalized, made big and easy, something that was already going on among indie artists and smaller labels. Though I’m hardly a music hound, I first bought a song online in 1999.

It’s hard to judge from Dwight Garner’s review how much of this gets into Witt’s new book, but it’s clear that Witt goes beyond his three main threads. “He doesn’t miss the big picture: He gives us a loge seat to the entire digital music revolution.”

Garner’s review can be found here. A section of Witt’s book dealing with Dell Glover, the CD-factory manager, was published in The New Yorker in late April; it’s online here.

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