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How Music Got Free: The End of an Industry, the Turn of the Century, and the Patient Zero of Piracy

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4.23  ·  Rating details ·  5,013 ratings  ·  587 reviews

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
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Hardcover, 296 pages
Published June 16th 2015 by Viking (first published June 4th 2015)
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Stephen Witt Eleanor Roosevelt is not mentioned in this book. Nevertheless, her ghost haunts the white space in certain pages.

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Start your review of How Music Got Free: The End of an Industry, the Turn of the Century, and the Patient Zero of Piracy
Scott
Sep 28, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fic
Remember the bad old days of buying CDs? When an album cost a fortune and buying one was a big deal? How Music got free will take you back to that era, explain why it ended, and make you glad that it's gone. This is an informative, fascinating window into the dark arts of the recording industry and the collapse in record company sales that online piracy precipitated. I raced through it, eating up Witt's story of research, money, theft and technological disruption.

How Music got free centers on th
...more
Susan
Apr 10, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Subtitled, “What happens when an entire generation commits the same crime?” this is an examination of how digital music piracy became widespread from the mid-1990’s. The author looks at three different viewpoints in depth: firstly, there is Karlheinz Brandenburg and his team, who were the driving force behind the technology of the mp3, secondly, there is Doug Morris, who, at the time when this book is set, was a middle aged businessman, head of first Warner Music Group and then MCA Music Enterta ...more
Maciek
I first learned about this book from an article I read back in April, titled The Man Who Broke the Music Business. The article is a selection of material which would eventually appear in the published book, and gives a good image of its style and content - if you read and enjoyed it, there is a good chance that you'll enjoy the full book as well.

Basically, How Music Got Free takes a complex and fascinating subject - the development of digital audio compression, and its subsequent impact on music
...more
Hank Stuever
Aug 27, 2015 rated it it was ok
This is another of those reviews that I would give 2.5 stars if possible, but instead of rounding up to three, I'm lowering it to two.

The story here is indeed captivating -- and tragic, although it's not presented as a tragedy. I think it's smart to come at the erosion of the record industry's business model in the Internet age from three directions (the people who invented mp3 technology; the people who helped themselves to file-sharing without a nanosecond's thought about the fact that they we
...more
Maciej Nowicki
May 04, 2019 rated it really liked it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
thefourthvine
Feb 22, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, business
Lately, I've been having the novel experience of reading about history I remember. I remember the events of this book -- I remember my own perspective, as a very minor I-hate-the-music-industry downloader, of basically everything that happens in this book after the invention of the mp3. This is a fascinating parallax view of history, and I absolutely recommend this for anyone who remembers the heyday of music piracy.

I recommend it for people who don't remember that, too, if they're interested i
...more
Amy
Aug 13, 2015 rated it it was amazing
As a middle school teacher I often find myself obsessing about the era when I was a middle schooler. To live this horror and nostalgia over and over again, I often seek out nonfiction that covers the years 1999-2002/3 ish. I demolished this book in two days, and I would have finished it sooner had I not stopped to coo at my new nephew for a few hours.

The digital music revolution is the story of my middle school years ... my friends and I quickly went from mix tapes to Napster, we were pretty sur
...more
Kara Babcock
Sep 26, 2018 rated it really liked it
How Music Got Free: The End of an Industry, the Turn of the Century, and the Patient Zero of Piracy was published in 2015, and I was a little worried that being three years old would already render it obsolete. Fortunately, I was wrong. Stephen Witt’s explanation of the rise of mp3 and the transition from CDs to digital stores to streaming, along with the corresponding piracy, is clear and detailed and incredibly fascinating. This is the type of non-fiction I like: full of facts and figures, but ...more
J.
Sep 28, 2015 rated it really liked it
Fascinating read for anyone who’s been a music enthusiast for any time at all, or spent more than a few bucks at Tower or Virgin over the years. Stephen Witt’s book attempts to mesh the inside-the-biz story with the developments afforded by an evolving technological curve-- and how the human factor contributes or throws it all off.
First up is how music got ABBREVIATED.

Researchers around the world, emboldened with the understanding that now that a full, luxurious musical waveform could be quanti
...more
Karl Geiger
Aug 25, 2015 rated it really liked it
“Do you realize what you’ve done? You’ve killed the music industry.”

Witt's investigative journalism reports how technology and society shifted beneath the music industry's feet, a trend continuing today as Big Music's hunt for revenue moves to streaming and live performances.

The 30-year tale interleaves music moguls and companies (Doug Morris, Jimmy Iovine, Universal, others), the most popular and profitable acts of the last 20 years (Dr. Dre, Ice Tea, Lil Wayne, Kanye West, and many, many othe
...more
Steven
May 16, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: own
A fascinating exploration into how the way we consume music was revolutionised by the age of the internet. While skillfully avoiding patronising his readers, Witt guides us through the origins of the mp3, the early internet piracy warez scene, the introduction of peer-to-peer technology, and the ups and downs of both the Record Industry and the lives of those responsible for stealing, ripping, uploading, and sharing its products for free. As a member of "Generation Pirate", it was almost like an ...more
Andrew McMillen
May 07, 2015 rated it it was amazing
'How Music Got Free' is a must-read for any music fan. Stephen Witt’s book is an exhaustive and engaging history of how an innocuous computer audio file type named mp3 irrevocably changed the global recording industry.

The American author opens provocatively: “I am a member of the pirate generation.” On arriving at college in 1997, he hadn’t heard of a single mp3; by graduation, he owned six 20-­gigabyte hard drives full of digital singles, EPs and albums, none of which he had paid for.

“The files
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Lori
Jun 26, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book read like a novel. Extremely well put-together and absolutely fascinating. A lot of the techy stuff went over my head, but that was expected. Reading about how they made the mp3 small enough to actually download was nuts, definitely one of my favorite parts of the book.
Joe M
Aug 07, 2015 rated it it was amazing
A fascinating story and highly recommended for anyone who loves music, technology, or has loaded their iPod up with their favorite songs and albums through iTunes, Napster, or other, more questionable sources the last 15 years. For a first-time author, Stephen Witt is an exceptional storyteller and he thrillingly alternates between multiple narratives, moving chronologically from the early MPEG format wars, the emergence of underground Scene Topsites, to the widespread use of BitTorrent as a mea ...more
AlcoholBooksCinema
Mar 01, 2016 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Unless the book demands a lot of concentration, I prefer reading a book while listening to music. That has always been the scenario because when I was a kid, grandmother kept the radio on, all day along, sometimes even at night(she still does that, thanks to the earplugs). I got used to being attentive to the radio so much I would not study unless the radio crackled in the background. Since this book deals with music, I read it while listening to music.

Make no mistake: Don't judge the book beca
...more
Paras Kapadia
Jan 29, 2017 rated it it was amazing
When I grew up, I was a part of this. I remember the 1st time I installed Winamp and played a .mp3 song on my computer. When Limewire and Kazaa were all we spoke about and then we started seeing bootlegged CDs and DVDs peddled on the streets of CST. The way we consumed music changed throughout our childhood.

To learn about the people who brought about this revolution of sorts was absolutely fascinating. My favorite is how .mp3 went mainstream. In fact, I'm surprised these stories haven't received
...more
Avery
Mar 17, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Now this is how you write a damn book!! Within the first three chapters, I have thrilled in the unexpected drama of a team of unfunny German engineers writing an algorithm, started to put puzzle pieces together about how piracy began, and been convinced to care about the feelings of a wealthy record company executive who signed Snoop Dogg. I am in awe of the author's writing abilities.
Leftbanker
Jul 21, 2015 rated it it was amazing
This was a very entertaining history of the digital revolution and the birth of internet piracy. I lived through all of this and am still waiting for the end of the story. While I wait I have a few questions for everyone.

I think that the first bit of music I paid for was an 8 track cassette (the preferred format among white trash). Then I stepped backward into vinyl for a few years with the occasional cassette tape. Then came Compact Discs, a format that I always thought was stupid even though I
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John
Jul 18, 2015 rated it it was amazing
What a good book for anyone who went through the evolution of music on LP, cassette and CD to the mp3 format, and through the evolution of the Internet. There is no way I could have predicted for myself that at some point I would never be buying music on a CD again and that I would get all my music from the Internet with a music service.

This was a fascinating book all the way through. For those of us who didn’t know the details of how the mp3 format and many others came about, it was great. The
...more
Mark
Jan 09, 2017 rated it it was ok
Reads like a Wired article blown out to book length. There's one really interesting story in here, about an employee at a Carolina CD pressing plant who smuggles out thousands of hit albums to advance his side hustle selling bootleg DVD's. The rest of the story told here is rather incomplete, and inconclusive. Witt doesn't have much insight into either the German inventors who created the mp3 format or the Universal executive who continued making lots of money steering a sinking ship. But the bi ...more
Byron
Nov 07, 2015 rated it it was amazing
A better book than John Seabrook's the Song Machine, or whatever it's called, which i also recently read, this tells the story of how Internets piracy fucked the music industry in much greater detail than anything else I've ever read. It starts with the invention of the mp3, beginning way back in the mid '80s (surprisingly, they already had the idea for Spotify back then), and continues up through the explosion of piracy on college campuses in the late '90s (as KRS-One would say, I was there), a ...more
Lee G
Nov 29, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This book really blew my mind. The fact that regular people with dedication and passion (the technology innovators and online pirate community) totally changed the world and crippled an entire industry. It also raised really interesting questions about the future of intellectual property and copyright law in the wake of an entire generation that decided those laws were not worth keeping when it came to downloading music illegally. This is about a seismic shift in our society and it reads like a ...more
Owen
Aug 16, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Fantastic book about the history of the MP3 – I was enthralled by this story and enjoyed it very much, a lot of things I had no idea about, particularly the amount of engineering that goes into an audio storage format. Amazing.
Kara Miller
Apr 08, 2019 rated it did not like it
If you like music you’d probably like it. If you’re required to read it for a class you hate; you’ll hate it.
Pat
May 17, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
How Music Got Free by Stephen Witt chronicles the fall of the traditional model of the music industry in the digital age. The book's title is deliberately ambiguous as it suggests that music lost its value over the last few decades, but also broke free of the shackles of the record companies as music fans could now access any music they wanted at the touch of a button & for no monetary outlay. The book's subtitle ("What happens when an entire generation commits the same crime?") is also ambiguou ...more
Anshul Soni
I am going to keep the review quite simple without much spoilers for the reader but would still talk about the general outline.
I did like the book very much and it was on a subject which has impacted everyone in a big way.
There are parallel stories involving the struggles of inventor of MP3 format, the music industry executive who has a good business acumen but seems overpaid and a common man leaking music out of a compact disc plant. Now I agree that these three factors play their roles in sep
...more
Yaseen Jabbar
May 28, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Part historical novel, part epic, and part textbook, How Music Got Free is a look back at how the very concept of bootleg mp3s came about. In my teen years, I must have torrented over 200 gigs of music, all the way up until a few years ago when I switched to Spotify Premium. The book is a fascinating read, dispelling the premise that illegal mp3s are the work of many players: in fact, if it wasn't for the work of one man, almost all of modern music wouldn't be 'free'. The book starts in the 1980 ...more
Luis
Sep 08, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is one of the best businessy books I've ever read. Mostly because I lived through this piece of history!

As a 12 year old living in Northern Mexico with a Pentium 4 and a 56kbps dial-up connection, having access to the internet was a window to the outside world and one of the most important factors on making me who I am.

I was familiar with the Metallica vs Napster lawsuit, Shawn Fanning / Sean Parker and the whole history of torrentz and The Pirate Bay. But I didn't know about the individual
...more
Rahul Jain
Sep 02, 2018 rated it really liked it
I could, in a sense, boil it down to a scientist's (as well as the artist's) inability to understand the businessmen (the music industry) and vice-versa, leading to upheaval of the entire music industry, and pretty much how we currently interact with the internet.

Maybe it all was inevitable, and maybe Brandenberg and Morris are just mediums to materialise the progress of the universe - if not them, but somebody else; but the story works as a fable - a clash of egos (even if rightly placed) and a
...more
Peter
Feb 07, 2020 rated it really liked it
It's a pretty amazing conceit: if you bought or stole music (i.e., stole mp3s) anywhere between 1996 and 2005-- which I definitely did both-- some if not all of that music passed under the eyes of a rural North Carolina factory worker named Dell Glover. And it's a testament to Witt's storytelling ability to weave Glover's tale within the seismic changes of the digital economy, technological limits and ultimate demise of the record industry. So while I was way into this, having had a seat in this ...more
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