Book Review: How Music Got Free by Stephen Witt

How Music Got Free by Stephen Witt
Rating: ★★★☆☆
Links: AmazonTBD • Goodreads
Publication Date: June 16, 2015
Source: Borrowed

What happens when an entire generation commits the same crime?

How Music Got Free is a riveting story of obsession, music, crime, and money, featuring visionaries and criminals, moguls and tech-savvy teenagers. It’s about the greatest pirate in history, the most powerful executive in the music business, a revolutionary invention and an illegal website four times the size of the iTunes Music Store. 

Journalist Stephen Witt traces the secret history of digital music piracy, from the German audio engineers who invented the mp3, to a North Carolina compact-disc manufacturing plant where factory worker Dell Glover leaked nearly two thousand albums over the course of a decade, to the high-rises of midtown Manhattan where music executive Doug Morris cornered the global market on rap, and, finally, into the darkest recesses of the Internet.

Through these interwoven narratives, Witt has written a thrilling book that depicts the moment in history when ordinary life became forever entwined with the world online — when, suddenly, all the music ever recorded was available for free. In the page-turning tradition of writers like Michael Lewis and Lawrence Wright, Witt’s deeply-reported first book introduces the unforgettable characters—inventors, executives, factory workers, and smugglers—who revolutionized an entire artform, and reveals for the first time the secret underworld of media pirates that transformed our digital lives.

An irresistible never-before-told story of greed, cunning, genius, and deceit, How Music Got Free isn’t just a story of the music industry—it’s a must-read history of the Internet itself.

Once upon a time, if you wanted to listen to an album, you could just… download it. Any song you could possibly be looking for, no matter how obscure, was available for download in the shady corners of the internet, and if you couldn’t find it, one of your friends definitely knew someone who could. It was great. I still remember very clearly when those sites started disappearing, so I was really excited to read a book about the rise and fall of music piracy.

The story here is interesting. Witt covers all the major players in the torrenting scene — the people who invented the mp3, the people who leaked the music, the record company executives who had to deal with declining sales — and brings up points I hadn’t even thought to wonder about. Back in the day, these songs just appeared. You didn’t have to think about who put them there, how they did it, and what they risked, so in that way, I really enjoyed reading this book.

But for being a book about music piracy, it only seemed to skim the surface of the issue. I was hoping to read about music blogs, LUElinks, and file-sharing sites like MegaUpload, which were kind of the trifecta of piracy in my circles, but they were nowhere to be found in this book. I realize that these sites aren’t quite as sensational as the employees of CD factories sneaking music past security guards, but they were used much more commonly than torrents by the people I knew. I would’ve also liked a bit more discussion on modern answers to piracy, like Spotify, or even YouTube, which used to immediately remove copyrighted songs and now provides free access to just about any song you could want.

In short, this book was interesting, but I wanted more. I’ll definitely be browsing the library’s nonfiction section for more books on the music industry.

#mm20: seeing red


Have you read How Music Got Free? Have you read any good books on the music industry?
Let’s talk in the comments!

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4 thoughts on “Book Review: How Music Got Free by Stephen Witt

  1. Diana says:

    This seems like a very interesting book, thanks for this review! It is a pity that it only skims the surface regarding music piracy because I also find it fascinating. I will still try to locate this book and read it though.

    Liked by 1 person

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