“HOW MUSIC GOT FREE” written by U.S. author Stephen Witt documents in brilliantly researched detail the roughly decade-long-period from the mid 1990’s through to the mid 2000’s that witnessed the explosive growth of the on-line ecosystem dubbed the ‘World Wide Web’ and the resulting never-to-be-fully-recovered-from crippling of the global commercial music industry.
In terms of revenue earned, the music industry that exists today in 2017 more resembles the ‘after’ picture of an obese person who’s undergone drastic weight loss surgery.
HOW MUSIC GOT FREE begins with an account of a group of German inventors who specialised in running experiments into the way humans perceive sound and, after years of being cloistered away in secret listening labs, emerged with a technology they named MP3 that would not only conquer the world but in doing so also unleash pure chaos on a worldwide industry.
The true-life cast of characters in Stephen Witt’s book are in the main a hobbit-sized collection of super crafty, ‘Beautiful Mind’ type nerd-geniuses attired in sandals, socks and Hawaiian shirts who, after undertaking literally tens of thousands of hours of trial and error investigation, discover a method to drastically compress sound using a super-computed-devised splicing device.
It helps the reader to know that information in the digital age is stored in binary units of zero and one termed ‘bits’ and that the goal of any music compression technology is to use as few bits as possible. In its day, compact disc audio used to use 1.4 million bits to store a single second of sound. Using microscopic snippets of sound sorted into narrow bands of pitch – the audio version of pixels – MP3 technology could do the same using just 128 000 bits.
Coupled with encoded algorithms, flawless, elegant computer code and a veritable thicket of filed patents, what soon followed was the ability to ‘stream’ and ‘digitally store’ music, sending it directly to the user from a central computer server.
A generation of adult adolescents now had the limitless capacity to reproduce and share music files, and neither the income nor the inclination to pay.
From humble beginnings – the first consumer grade MP3 player was a box-sized contraption with a tiny monochrome screen that cost $600 and held five songs – this lab-conceived revolution heralding the new digital age of music very quickly launched nothing less than a tsunami of copyright infringement.
Together with the rise and rise during these years of the dot.com deluge, the idea of compensating artists for the music they created rapidly came to be seen as some kind of quaint, antiquated belief held by an enslaved music-buying public of a previous era which no longer applied to generation Eminem.
Anyone who had ever paid full price for a forcibly bundled collection of songs called an ‘album’ only to find one good track on the entire record, cassette or CD could suddenly feel rightly justified in ‘ripping’ free music from the once powerful and all-conquering record companies.
With the birth of ‘shareware’ and ‘burning’ of files, stealing music had been taken to a whole ‘nother level and the file-sharing revolution was in full swing. Then when Apple launched its first iPod in October of 2001 (which saw its share-price septuple before the year was out) they succeeded in not only creating the most popular gadget in the history of stuff but also elevating musical piracy from an underground subculture to the mainstream.
As HOW MUSIC GOT FREE ably shows, these elements as well as the paradigmal shift in slimmer ‘n trimmer economics that was taking place in western societies of the day spelled disaster for record companies and an entire industry sent into profit freefall was the result. In a world of largely unregulated digital abundance, it suddenly became much harder to make money.
By 2010, the global commercial music industry was less than half its 2000 size. From the smoking wreckage emerged ridiculous discounting from artists like Lady Gaga who sold her album BORN THIS WAY for 99 cents via legal download. Going one better were artists such as Prince and U2 who famously each gave away newly released albums for nothing.
Legal download sites like iTunes came into existence and sought to restore revenues to the music industry via alternate pay models but have so far managed only to generate drop in the bucket revenue streams for the major labels compared to the golden years that belonged to the previous four decades.
This Friday I conclude my three-part look at the file-sharing revolution of the late nineties and early 2000’s and its devastating impact on the once mighty record companies of the day as revealed in Stephen Witt’s book HOW MUSIC GOT FREE.
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