Paupers, Pirates and Pop Stars

A Story of Obsession and Invention
Stephen Witt
[Penguin - 2015]

Witt chronicles the invention of the mp3, the widespread music piracy it made possible, and the response from both the music industry and law enforcement to these developments. Interestingly, Witt’s portrait of the music pirates, for the most part, falls into either trying-to-be-cool (as in the infamous Rabid Neurosis group that disseminated thousands of albums over its decade run) or the altruistic but legally naïve (ex: Oink’s Pink Palace, which counted NiN’s Trent Reznor among its members) yet fails to achieve sympathy for any of them. (In case you're wondering, Napster is barely mentioned, which makes complete sense within the context of Witt's narrative.)

The music business is ostensibly represented by Doug Morris, one of the most colorful and successful executives the industry has ever known. Morris’ rise depicts how the alternately greedy, embarrassed and ultimately successful in its own way music business still manages to exert an imposing influence despite a decimated marketplace (100+ million CDs were sold in 2016, down from 500+ million a decade prior).

How Music Got Free is an informative and, at times, a compelling read; one whose best attributes, arguably, are depicting how across-the-board greed and stupidity does not affect everyone equally, regardless of intent or milieu; and how the battles for copyrights and preservation of intellectual properties in this seismic market and paradigm shift (streaming services are the number one method of consuming music these days) left artists to suffer the financial consequences. As one of the top former pirates himself responds, when asked about his listening habits these days, "I have a Spotify account like everybody else."