“Nimble” Account of the Creative Destruction of the Music Industry

(p. C1) Stephen Witt’s nimble new book, “How Music Got Free,” 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.
He pushes past Napster (Sean Fanning, dorm room, lawsuits) and goes deep on the German audio engineers who, drawing on decades of research into how the ear works, spent years developing the MP3 only to almost see it nearly become the Betamax to another group’s VHS.
. . .
(p. C6) Even better, he has found the man — a manager at a CD factory in small-town North Carolina — who over eight years leaked nearly 2,000 albums before their release, including some of the best-known rap albums of all time. He smuggled most of them out behind an oversized belt buckle before ripping them and putting them online.
Mr. Witt refers to this winsome if somewhat hapless manager, Dell Glover, as “the most fearsome digital pirate of them all.”
. . .
Into these two narratives Mr. Witt inserts a third, the story of Doug Morris, who ran the Universal Music Group from 1995 to 2011. At some points you wonder if Mr. Morris has been introduced just so the author can have sick fun with him.
The German inventors and Mr. Glover operate as if they unwittingly have voodoo dolls of this man. Every time they make an advance, and prick the music industry, there’s a jump to Mr. Morris for a reaction shot, screaming in his corner office.
. . .
Mr. Witt covers a lot of terrain in “How Music Got Free” without ever becoming bogged down in one place for long. He is knowledgeable about intellectual property issues. In finding his reporting threads, he doesn’t miss the big picture: He gives us a loge seat to the entire digital music revolution.
He is especially good on the arrival of iTunes and the iPod.

For the full review, see:
DWIGHT GARNER. “Books of The Times; That Download Has a Back Story.” The New York Times (Tues., JUNE 16, 2015): C1 & C6.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date JUNE 15, 2015, and has the title “Books of The Times; Review: In ‘How Music Got Free,’ Stephen Witt Details an Industry Sea Change.”)

The book under review is:
Witt, Stephen. How Music Got Free: The End of an Industry, the Turn of the Century, and the Patient Zero of Piracy. New York: Viking, 2015.

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