My interest in How Music Got Free was piqued for two reasons: (i) it’s had really good press (it takes quality – ie a review that jumps right out at me – or quantity – ie lots and lots of people rating a book – to shove nonfiction onto my reading list as a rule) and (ii) I wondered if it would be something similar to Dogfight: How Apple & Google Went to War and Started a Revolution by Fred Vogelstein (another piece of IT-related nonfiction that I got a mighty kick out of). Two further things you should know about those two things: all those people are right; and, How Music Got Free is better than Dogfight.
The premise, in case the title doesn’t give it entirely away, is to explore how a significant portion of the globe’s population stopped buying music (in CD form) and decided to download it via torrent sites instead. Stephen Witt is an unflinching torrenter from the sounds of things. He doesn’t ask for forgiveness and he doesn’t really get into the ethics of piracy all that much either – or at least if he does he does it obliquely, he doesn’t digress to discuss the artists who bemoan how hard it is to make an honest buck these days etc. What he does do – and I say this in a slightly surprised, left eyebrow raised sort of way – is write nonfiction as if it was fiction, as if he was fashioning a thriller.
We follow the fortunes of Karlheinz Brandenurg (he and his team were responsible for the creation of the mp3 – his tale is one graced by hindsight being 20/20, but the success of the mp3 was far from overnight), Doug Morris (the biggest music mogul several times over during the course of the 90s and early noughties) and, most interestingly of all, Dell Glover (an entrepreneurial sort who worked in a cd packing plant and turned out to be one of the biggest uploaders in the world – or at least formed part of an illicit group who turned out to etc etc). In the shortsightedness of the corporates opposing Brandenburg, and the ignorance of the record companies, we subtly see Witt loading the deck (like the banks, these people thought they were untouchable; see how much they paid themselves and check out how their annual reports failed to even see the power of the internet looming on the horizon), but the reader naturally has sympathy for the Glovers of the world because they start with nothing and do their best to make something of and for themselves, and their wives and their children.
It’s a truly terrific read. Thoughtful, compelling, action-packed (surprisingly), utterly robust and guaranteed to be onof those nonfictions you rip through as if it was a novel by your favourite author.
Any Cop?: A total blast.