How Music Got Free: The Inventor, the Music Man, and the Thief by Stephen Witt

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How Music Got Free: The Inventor, the Music Man, and the Thief by Stephen Witt

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Buy How Music Got Free: The Inventor, the Music Man, and the Thief by Stephen Witt at Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com

Category: Business and Finance
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: If you are passionate about reading books on the contemporary music scene, this book may not be for you. If you're a geek who can't get enough about software developments and computer applications, or fascinated by business marketing and commerce, it will prove ideal.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: April 2016
Publisher: Vintage
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978 0099590071

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'How Music Got Free', as the title ironically suggests, tells us how the industry fell victim to the digital age and, it seems, became fatally devalued in the process. It starts more or less in the mid-1990s with German technological wizard Karlheinz Brandenburg and the development of the mp3, in brief a coding format for digital audio. The convoluted story is one of various formats and technologies, of loading music on to the internet and making it a free-for-all, in more senses than one.

For the consumer it was paradise, granting him or her access to almost everything online, apart from the fact that it took the thrill out of physical ownership (and also the achievement of having searched high and low for that much-coveted late 1960s single in pristine condition, or that very rare early 1970s LP in a stunningly designed gatefold sleeve). For the music industry, who might have to fight hard for a pitiful royalty rate to be shared between artist, record label and publishing company, it was bad news. The one who suffered most, almost certainly, was the creator who saw his or her work 'sold' with a derisory return for all the artistic work involved. Ironically, there is a reference as to how one of the beneficiaries of this topsy-turvy new world was 'Pink Moon' by singer-songwriter Nick Drake, which took off when used in a Volkswagen commercial in 1999. The number had been written and recorded in 1972 on an album which sold pitifully few copies at the time, and its creator died two years later after a long struggle with depression, long before he became a cult name.

But how legal was it all? In this case, the road to audio perfection was strewn with lawsuits and clever people exploiting loopholes in copyright legislation which often had a job keeping up with the explosion of piracy, now known as file sharing as it sounded so much more harmless. For many, it was in a sense a rerun of the old 'Home taping is killing music – and it's illegal' warning printed on many a record sleeve twenty years earlier.

The other leading lights of the drama, for it is a drama of sorts, are Dell Glover, who worked at a record company manufacturing plant in North Carolina where he went to enormous lengths to smuggle out copies of new albums so he could upload them to an underground group on the internet, and Doug Morris, who became head of UMG (Universal Music Group Recordings, Inc) at a time when CD sales had slumped by a half in seven years, yet was still earning an annual salary of almost $15,000,000, mostly by cutting artists from the roster and concentrating on hits. UMG, by the way, is one of the big three global companies which between them own 80% of the world's recorded music, and which has swallowed up the once-mighty EMI Records among others.

In a way, this book has just reminded me how old I am. I grew up in another century, when collecting recorded music meant saving up my pocket money for my favourite seven-inch single of the time. A little later, it became fashionable to look down on the humble single and invest in a more cool-looking long player instead. Then I discovered the holy grail of bootleg albums, specifically the avalanche of pirated and never previously officially-released early songs by Bob Dylan. It's all a long way from the mp3 and streaming, isn't it?

This is a tale of derring-do, of a battle of wits between the geeks and the big businesses they are exploiting, about the race to develop new technologies and make everything free, or almost free. It's about commerce and cut-throat competition. But how much is it really about music? Not much, I'd say. When the story does touch on music, it nearly always seems to be rap. (I'll spare you the obvious joke on that one). This was not the age of the Beatles or Led Zeppelin, it was the era of Eminem and 50 Cent. And the general feeling is that the prime movers in the saga, be it the company owners or the ones operating in murky legal waters, were hardly doing it for the love of the music itself. If you are passionate about reading books on the contemporary music scene, this book may not be for you. If you're a geek who can't get enough about software developments and computer applications, or fascinated by business marketing and commerce, it will prove ideal.

For a more conventional account of the business from its earliest days to the digital age, may we also recommend Cowboys and Indies: The Epic History of the Record Industry by Gareth Murphy, or alternatively the tale of one man's adventures in the live, as opposed to recorded, music scene, Live At the Brixton Academy: A riotous life in the music business by Simon Parkes and J S Rafaeli.

Buy How Music Got Free: The Inventor, the Music Man, and the Thief by Stephen Witt at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy How Music Got Free: The Inventor, the Music Man, and the Thief by Stephen Witt at Amazon.co.uk


Buy How Music Got Free: The Inventor, the Music Man, and the Thief by Stephen Witt at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy How Music Got Free: The Inventor, the Music Man, and the Thief by Stephen Witt at Amazon.com.

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