In 1997, Stephen Witt was a freshman at the University of Chicago with a major in mathematics and a twenty-pound, two-gigabyte hard drive in a soothing shade of beige. As he recounts in the opening pages of his new book, How Music Got Free: The End of an Industry, the Turn of the Century, and the Patient Zero of Piracy, by the time he graduated, he had six such hard drives, each completely stuffed with music.
After graduating in 2001, Witt worked at different hedge funds, moving to New York in 2005. By that time, he had amassed nearly 15,000 albums’ worth of pirated songs. In 2008, he moved to Africa to work as an economic development specialist. But he felt himself growing disillusioned with his work, and he started writing a blog about his mounting dissatisfaction with the life of an American expat in Africa. People liked it, and it got him thinking about writing something longer, something book-length. His father is a journalist, and his sister, Emily Witt, has a book about sex and technology forthcoming from FSG. (“We’re like the Brontës,” he says. “I’m Charlotte.”) Witt had always harbored thoughts about writing himself.
That’s how he ended up enrolling in Columbia’s journalism school in 2010, at the age of 31. It’s also how he ended up writing and selling a book — and an excerpt in the New Yorker — without having published so much as a single news article.
How Music Got Free is the result of five years of tunnel-vision focus on the history of digital music. Witt weaves together several strands of this story: the German audio engineers who invented the MP3, and their arduous process to get the format approved by standards committees; Doug Morris, the CEO of Universal Music Group from 1995 to 2011; the rise and fall of the popular torrent tracker Oink’s Pink Palace; and the tale of Bennie “Dell” Glover, a young man who worked at Universal’s CD pressing plant in Kings Mountain, North Carolina — and who was responsible for leaking almost 2,000 albums over the course of ten years.
Witt used his time at Columbia strategically. For a profile-writing class, he took a self-funded trip to Germany over the Thanksgiving holiday to speak to Karlheinz Brandenburg, the leader of the team responsible for creating the MP3. For an investigative reporting class, he wrote about Dell Glover. For a book proposal class, he wrote a proposal for the book that became How Music Got Free.
For Witt, the most surprising part of the story of digital music’s rise is Glover himself. “That someone like Glover could even exist blew my mind,” he says. “I just figured I’d be writing about a crowd-sourced phenomenon, with people all over the world sort of uploading MP3s piecemeal.” Instead, he ended up writing about a man from a small town in the South who began working at a CD factory at the age of twenty — a man with an interest in music and computer science, a tinkerer who happened to work at a place where he had access to the hottest new releases before they hit store shelves. Dell Glover was perfectly positioned to destroy the music industry.
No journalist had ever contacted Glover before. Witt had to dig through pages and pages of legal documents to find Glover’s name; with nothing else to go off of, he contacted him on Facebook. The two spoke over the phone several times, and the resulting article served as Witt’s master’s thesis. “Once I was done, he wanted to see what I had written, but I didn’t want to send it to him electronically, because I was afraid he would leak it,” Witt says. “So I printed it out and I drove it down to North Carolina and I read it aloud to him. That was the first time we met.”
Witt doesn’t have his old twenty-pound hard drives anymore (you’ll have to reach the end of the book to find out what happened to them). Today, he says, there’s no need to own digital property at all. With streaming sites like Spotify and Netflix, we’re just renting our entertainment, which means we’re moving away from the era of illegal file-sharing.
“Decisions made in the early days of personal computing gave the user a tremendous amount of freedom to copy and reproduce as many files as they wanted to,” Witt says. “That turned out to be corrosive to the profit margins of large media concerns, and through a combination of corporate lobbying and decisions made by the government, we’re now exiting that era and entering an era where the user is much less free to do whatever they want.”
For now, though, you can still readily download a song or movie or TV episode freely and illegally — and pretty easily, too. Just don’t let that sense of ease lull you into complacency. Witt says it’s still possible for a production company to hire a team of lawyers to go after individual downloaders. “If you’re [downloading torrents] from your home computer, you are advertising your IP address,” he says. “The producers of The Hurt Locker hired a law firm to go after tons of users — they filed thousands of lawsuits against average people. You can get sued for this. Be careful.”
After speaking with Witt, I went home and Googled “how to block your IP address.”