How Music Got Free: The End of an Industry, the Turn of the Century, and the Patient Zero of Piracy by Stephen Witt
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I am a member of the pirate generation. When I arrived at college in 1997, I had never heard of an mp3. By the end of my first term I had filled my 2-gigabyte hard drive with hundreds of bootlegged songs. By graduation, I had six 20-gigabyte drives, all full. By 2005, when I moved to New York, I had collected 1,500 gigabytes of music, nearly 15,000 albums worth. It took an hour just to queue up my library, and if you ordered the songs alphabetically by artist, you’d have to listen for a year and a half to get from ABBA to ZZ Top. I pirated on an industrial scale, but told no one. It was an easy secret to keep. You never saw me at the record store and I didn’t DJ parties. The files were procured in chat channels, and through Napster and BitTorrent; I haven’t purchased an album with my own money since the turn of the millennium. The vinyl collectors of old had filled whole basements with dusty album jackets, but my digital collection could fit in a shoebox. Most of this music I never listened to. I actually hated ABBA, and although I owned four ZZ Top albums, I couldn’t tell you the name of one. What was really driving me, I wonder? Curiosity played a role, but now, years later, I can see that what I really wanted was to belong to an elite and rarefied group. This was not a conscious impulse, and, had you suggested it to me, I would have denied it. But that was the perverse lure of the piracy underground, the point that almost everyone missed. It wasn’t just a way to get the music; it was its own subculture.
And still, the music industry goes forward.
This is a book with mainly, as I see it, two different forks. One is about how the MP3 technology came about, and another is of how digital music piracy came about.
A lot of this book was like walking down memory lane for myself, a computer-savvy teenager as MP3s hit the stage in a world-wide way, along with file-sharing software.
In May 1998, Saehan’s MPMan arrived. The first consumer-grade mp3 player was a box-sized contraption with a tiny monochrome screen that cost $600 and held five songs. It was roundly criticized by reviewers, and sales were limited to enthusiasts.
As the music industry pondered how CDs actually leaked out to piracy groups on the net, one single guy was often responsible for all the releases from a single CD production plant, as he worked there and simultaneously provided for RNS, one of the biggest release groups of them all:
Glover left the technical part to Kali. Unlike many Scene participants, he wasn’t interested in mind-numbing discussions about the relative merits of constant and variable bit rates. He just provided the discs, and after he’d ripped them and transmitted the data, he would usually listen to a smuggled disc only once or twice before growing bored. When he was done with a disc, he stashed it in a black duffel bag he had hidden away in his bedroom closet. By 2002, the duffel bag contained more than 500 discs, representing nearly every major release to have come through the Kings Mountain plant. Glover leaked Lil Wayne’s 500 Degreez, Dr. Dre’s Chronic 2001, and Jay-Z’s The Blueprint. He leaked Queens of the Stone Age’s Rated R and 3 Doors Down’s Away from the Sun. He leaked Björk. He leaked Ashanti. He leaked Ja Rule. He leaked Nelly. He leaked Take Off Your Pants and Jacket. […] The high point of Kali’s year came in May 2002, when Glover leaked The Eminem Show 25 days early. Even though it would go on to become the year’s bestselling album, the rapper was forced to reschedule his tour. […] Anything that Doug Morris signed, Dell Glover leaked, and, in what was becoming RNS’ signature move, all of the leaks hit the Internet precisely 14 days before they were due in stores.
Also, how the industry affected the law – especially in the US of A, here – is interesting, as they really lashed out without knowing what they were doing; the ramifications of placing children and their families in major, live-spanning debt for sharing a few Britney Spears songs were just extreme, hellacious and the result of utter capitalism:
The RIAA’s antipiracy division targeted defendants by the number of files they had uploaded, setting a threshold minimum of 1,000 songs shared. The idea was to go after only the worst offenders, but, due to technical factors, it didn’t quite work out that way. Napster and its clones tended to make one’s library uploadable by default. Savvy users often disabled this function, meaning many of the so-called “worst offenders” turned out to be clueless noobs. So to the outside world, Project Hubcap looked arbitrary and vicious. The RIAA seemed to be choosing the defendants at random, picking up IP addresses from peer-to-peer servers like Kazaa and LimeWire and subpoenaing the responsible Internet service providers for customer details. But even with these subpoenas the RIAA never quite seemed to know who it was suing. It targeted single mothers and families without computers. It targeted senior citizens and children. It targeted the unemployed and people who’d been dead for months. In one high-profile case, the RIAA targeted Brianna LaHara, a 12-year-old girl who lived in a New York City housing project and who had downloaded, among other things, the theme song from the TV sitcom Family Matters. Rather than doing the sensible thing—dropping their civil lawsuit against a child—the RIAA instead offered to settle with little Brianna, provided her parents wrote them a check for 2,000 dollars.
As the music business utterly failed to create anything near a community – and they still cannot fathom this, unlike some retailers like Bleep and Bandcamp – sites popped up to meet the demand, sites like Oink’s Pink Palace, where one could not only download a specific album, but different versions of said album, in a slew of different formats and qualities:
Hosting bills began to mount. By December, the tracker cost several hundred dollars a month to maintain. In early 2005, Ellis posted the address of a PayPal account for the site and made a polite request for donations. Cash began to trickle in, denominated in currencies from all over the globe. More than money, Oink’s army donated labor. They built out the archive, and their enthusiasm for this venture put even the Scene to shame. Oinkers uploaded their own CD collections, and the CD collections of their friends. Some of the site’s elite “torrent masters” uploaded a thousand albums or more. As Scene participants had done before them, Oinkers started to search eBay for rarities and import pressings. As record stores started closing, Oinkers showed up to buy their fire sale inventory in bulk, and these compulsive uploaders were the music retailers’ last, best customers. First, there were 1,000 albums. Then 10,000. Then 100,000. Ellis the elitist presided over it all. It was a beautiful thing: no low-quality encodes, no fakes, no dupes, no movies, no TV shows. Just music. All of it, in perfect digital clarity. All the music ever recorded.
Oink grew explosively. By the beginning of 2006 the site had 100,000 users and hosted torrents for nearly a million distinct albums, making it four times bigger than the iTunes Store. The site’s user base was uploading 1,500 new torrents each day. Every album was available in multiple formats, and soon Oink had complete, thoroughly documented discographies for any musician you could care to name. Think of the most obscure release from the most obscure artist you knew; it was there, on Oink, in every issue and reissue, including redacted promo copies and split seven-inch records and bonus tracks from Japanese pressings you’d never even heard of. Take the artist Nick Drake. Obscure in his lifetime, Drake sold only 5,000 copies of his final album Pink Moon before overdosing on pills in 1974 at the age of 26. Over the next 25 years his reputation grew slowly. He became a “musician’s musician,” beloved by connoisseurs but unknown to the public. Then, in 1999, the title track for Pink Moon was featured in a commercial for the Volkswagen Cabrio: young trendsetters on a nighttime joyride, scored with the chronically depressed singer’s lyrics about the meaninglessness of life. It ended with a pan to the sky, where the Volkswagen logo stood in for the moon. The campaign was a bust from Volkswagen’s perspective. The Cabrio never sold well in the United States and was discontinued within three years. But the effect on Drake’s back catalog was dramatic—the advertisers had done a better job selling the music than the car. Within a few months of the commercial’s first airing, Pink Moon had sold more copies than it had in the previous quarter century. And since Drake had released his music on the UK’s Island label, his back catalog was now part of the behemoth they called Universal Music Group. The music executives there moved quickly to take advantage of this serendipitous gift. You could learn all this on Oink, which acted almost as a museum exhibit of Drake’s critical afterlife, charting the repeated attempts to cash in on his growing critical and commercial stature. The website’s incomparable archives had Pink Moon ripped from eight different sources: the exceptionally rare, extremely valuable first-edition 1972 vinyl from Island Records; the 1986 box set CD reissue from Hannibal Records; the 1990 CD release from Island; the 1992 CD re-reissue from Hannibal; the post-Cabrio 2000 CD re-re-reissue from Island; the accompanying Simply Vinyl 180-gram audiophile re-re-reissue, also from 2000; the 2003 Island Records digitally remastered re-re-re-reissue on compact disc; and the Universal Music Japanese vinyl re-re-re-reissue from 2007. Each of the reissues was then encoded into an alphabet soup of file types—FLAC, AAC, and mp3—so that ultimately there were more than thirty options for downloading this one album alone. You couldn’t find stuff like this on iTunes. The size and scope of Oink’s catalog outdid any online music purveyor, and given its distributed nature, the archive was essentially indestructible. But its growth made it difficult to maintain. Alan Ellis now spent almost all his free time keeping the site running, and as his grades suffered, he was forced to repeat a year at university. By the summer of 2006, Oink was getting 10,000 page views a day, and the hosting bills had grown to thousands of dollars a month. Several times, Ellis ran pledge drives on the site’s front page. The response from his community was overwhelming. In the span of a year Ellis’ army donated over 200,000 pounds—nearly half a million dollars. People liked Oink. They were even willing to pay for it.
By the time Ellis finally graduated from university in 2007, Oink’s army was 180,000 members strong. Among the foot soldiers were several famous musicians, including Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor, who admitted in an interview to being an avid user of the site and described it as “the world’s greatest record store.” Ellis himself could attest to this. While administering the site, he’d gone from being a casual music listener to a total fanatic. He used the music-tracking site Last .fm to publicize his listening habits, and during the three years he’d been running Oink, he had listened to over 91,000 songs—6,000 hours’ worth of music.
iTunes was just a store, basically a mall—Oink was a community.
Then, the law caught up with Oink:
The evidence trail amounted to the easiest bust in the history of online piracy. On Tuesday, October 23, 2007, Ellis woke before dawn to prepare for another day in the IT pit at the chemical company in downtown Middlesbrough. He took a shower in his apartment’s shared bathroom, then returned to his bedroom, where his girlfriend, having spent the night, was still asleep. As he did every morning, he logged into Oink as administrator, checked the server logs, and read the overnight messages from his deputized lieutenants. Then the door slammed open and a dozen police officers swarmed into his room. All ten of Ellis’ bank accounts were frozen simultaneously. Across the country in Manchester, his father was inexplicably arrested as well, and charged with money laundering. Alan Ellis’ home computer was seized as evidence. So were the Holland servers, which contained the IP and email addresses of all 180,000 Oink members. Unlike the Pirate Bay administrators, Ellis had not planned for this contingency, and the torrents Oink served went dark.
They also detail how artists and labels started thinking differently, in order to get in touch with their fans and buyers:
Artists began to experiment. Lady Gaga moved a million units in a single week by selling her album Born This Way for 99 cents. Beyoncé released a surprise self-titled “visual” album with 17 attached videos, exclusively sold through Apple. Radiohead’s Thom Yorke pulled his work from Spotify and dumped his album Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes onto BitTorrent. Taylor Swift pulled her work too, then sold nearly two million copies of her album 1989 in a month, the bulk of those as compact discs at big-box stores.
All in all, this book is fairly well-written, despite containing some apparent flaws – such as concentrating on just a few of the release sites, in my opinion, as well as writing abhorrently of some people, e.g. Lindsay Lohan – but as a whole, it so far serves as the best document that I have seen in a long time, of how digital music piracy came to be and stays.
View all my reviews