How Music Got Free | Stephen Richard Witt

Summary of: How Music Got Free: The End of an Industry, the Turn of the Century, and the Patient Zero of Piracy
By: Stephen Richard Witt


Delve into the captivating world of music piracy and the transformation of the music industry in this summary of ‘How Music Got Free: The End of an Industry, the Turn of the Century, and the Patient Zero of Piracy’ by Stephen Richard Witt. Learn about the origins of the MP3 format, its rise in popularity, and the ensuing format war. Discover the fascinating story of Dell Glover, a notorious music pirate, and the rise and fall of internet piracy. Witness the evolution of music distribution and streaming, and how new technologies continue to impact the music industry.

The Science Behind Digital Music Compression

In the early days of CD technology, psychoacoustics experts knew that it was an inefficient delivery system. In 1987, a team led by Karlheinz Brandenburg at the Fraunhofer Institute began experimenting with digital music compression, with the goal of reducing digital audio file sizes by extracting scientifically imperceptible bits of information and sound. The team faced many challenges, particularly with the human voice, which they famously tested using Suzanne Vega’s “Tom’s Diner” acapella intro. But after years of collaborating and testing, they achieved their goal of reducing CD track size to about 128,000 bits. The team continued perfecting their work until they collaborated with James Johnston in 1989, whose own psychoacoustic algorithm made compressed files indistinguishable from CDs in quality. This research laid the groundwork for the highly efficient digital audio technologies we have today.

The Epic Battle of MP3 Revolution

In the early 90s, the Fraunhofer team developed a breakthrough audio compression format. They submitted it to the technical standard committee, MPEG. The team soon found themselves in a format war against Musicam, backed by Philips, a manufacturing license holder for CDs and powerful lobbyists. MPEG accepted both formats, but assigned Musicam’s format to digital FM radio, CD-ROMs, and digital audio tapes while the mp3 format remained neglected. And while Philips continued to invest in the mp2 format, the mp3 outshined it in head-to-head comparison tests. However, MPEG still opted for the mp2 format for use on DVDs. In 1995, the Fraunhofer team made a significant breakthrough when they reached a one-twelfth compression ratio that also sounded good. Despite a near defeat, a small deal with the National Hockey League secured licensed mp3 conversion boxes in every stadium in North America, giving the Fraunhofer team enough financial support to keep the mp3 format going.

The Rise of the MP3

The Fraunhofer team knew they had a superior format in the MP3 but needed people to listen to it. In 1995, they made a bold move and gave away their MP3 conversion software and PC MP3 player application for free on their website under the threat of being driven out of business by the Philips-backed MP2 format. Within a year, people started using the conversion software to share songs ripped from CDs over the internet, leading to the music-pirating revolution. By 1997, the MP3 became the chosen format of the internet, emerging victorious in the format war. Investors signed licensing deals, enabling Fraunhofer to collect a princely sum of $100 million a year.

The Rise of the Biggest Mp3 Pirate

The story traces the origins of the biggest mp3 pirate in the world, Dell Glover, who began his career as a computer hobbyist and PolyGram CD-pressing plant employee in North Carolina. Glover ventured into the Warez scene, downloaded Fraunhofer’s software, and understood the impact it would have on the CD industry. By 1998, Glover owned seven CD burners, selling off cracked copies of video games, movies and PC applications to finance his hobby. He joined the largest organized group of leakers, Rabid Neurosis (RNS), and began smuggling CDs from the plant. RNS had contacts in the entertainment industry – such as radio DJs – who could provide advance copies of CDs to leak on the internet, but no one was in a better position to help them than Glover. The partnership offered him access to the group’s ultra-fast servers filled with pirated movies, music, TV shows, and software, which he used to distribute mp3s across the world.

The Rise and Fall of RNS

In 1998, Glover coordinated with coworkers to smuggle CDs out of the plant despite the increased security measures after a merger. The industry’s effort to justify escalating prices led to more errors on the packaging line, resulting in overstocked CDs meant to be destroyed. The smuggled CDs were hidden in belt buckles and eventually leaked, leading to RNS’s downfall.

From Plant Worker to Leaking RNS CDs: The Rise and Fall of a Pirate

The book tells the captivating story of Glover, a former plant worker, and Kali, the founder of the Release Scene (RNS), who collaborated to leak thousands of CDs. The book details how they took precautions to avoid getting caught, including delaying leaks until just days before public release dates. Despite becoming the most successful group in The Scene, they eventually threw in the towel due to Kali’s growing paranoia of getting caught by the FBI. However, this changed when Kanye West and 50 Cent released their albums on the same day, and Glover leaked Kanye’s Graduation one week ahead of 50 Cent’s Curtis. Glover was later busted by the FBI, ending a remarkable era of music piracy and RNS.

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