How Music Got Free: What Happens When an Entire Generation Commits the Same Crime?
Bodley Head, 296pp, £20
Cowboys and Indies: the Epic History of the Record Industry
Serpent’s Tail, 400pp, £14.99
If you had attended the Audio Engineering Society’s Paris trade fair in February 1995, you would have encountered debates on architectural acoustics, audio signal processing and psychoacoustics. You would also have found a booth, unhailed and unloved in a corner, belonging to a German state-funded research team run by Karlheinz Brandenburg. His team of six scientists was seated at a small desk that presented a three-way vision for the future of music distribution: an encoder on a floppy disk for creating sound files, a home computer for playback and a hand-held player for portable listening.
Brandenburg’s team had come up with the idea for the MP3 nine years earlier and was now ready to market it to the music industry. Synthetic German funk came out of its home computer speakers. Delegates walked on by. One executive from Philips, the company that had created the then industry-standard compact disc, told it straight: “There will never be a commercial MP3 player.”
In 1995, the home computer industry was booming. The digital era was already under way. The hand-held MP3 player could have been bought by any record company for a minimal licensing fee. Unfortunately for Brandenburg (in the short term) and the recording industry (in the not-too-distant long term), CD sales were peaking in the mid-to-late 1990s, cresting the wave in 2000, a date that had seemed mythical for so long and that would signal the death of the century-long record business.
Stephen Witt’s How Music Got Free details decades of foolishness in the industry and its decline in the 21st century by focusing on three simultaneous developments: the construction and massive growth of the Universal label, Brandenburg’s efforts to get the MP3 taken seriously and the contemporaneous development of the internet, on which a tiny group of hip-hop fans and computer geeks slowly dismantled a multimillion-pound industry.
Often the book reads like an underworld crime story, with Universal’s then boss, Doug Morris, as a cross between the chief of police and the main supplier of illicit thrills. Morris “thought throwing bootleggers in jail was an outstanding idea. He had, however, learned an entirely different lesson from the tape-trading era [of the 1980s]. You didn’t solve the problem of piracy by calling the cops. You solved it by putting out ‘Thriller’.”
Witt is engaging even on the tech side of the story, in which he could easily have become bogged down in lab speak. This never happens, because Witt is concise and very funny with it: he writes that Apple’s “calm, white interface and slick, expensive iconography promised to cleanse the world of sin” and that Bram Cohen, the inventor of BitTorrent, had a “hard-geek habit of nervously chuckling at things that weren’t really funny”. “Hard-geek” wasn’t a term I was familiar with but I’ll be using it from now on.
Record company ignorance squandered billions in the early years of this century because the music people lost out to the tech people. The music people’s job had been to make hit records; technology was a tool to help this happen but nothing more. In the 1980s, as Gareth Murphy’s Cowboys and Indies explains, the music people lost out to the corporations. Independents such as Island, Chrysalis, Motown and A&M – run by enthusiasts and music fans – were swallowed by the multinationals Warner and PolyGram. Things started to get even more unwieldy in 1986 when a 150-year-old German book publisher, Bertelsmann, bought RCA (originally the Radio Corporation of America; home to Elvis, then David Bowie) for $300m, while Columbia, America’s oldest record label, was bought by the Japanese electronics giant Sony for $2bn a year later.
By the 1990s, accountants ruled. Even Morris seemed magnanimous by comparison to someone such as PolyGram’s Alain Levy: the music people were now dealing with “shareholders . . . with a building in New York City that looked like something out of Ghostbusters”.
Cowboys and Indies is a misleading name for a book that concentrates on the usually anonymous people at the top of the industry, such as Levy, as much as it does on well-documented sonic explorers such as Columbia’s John Hammond and Rough Trade’s Geoff Travis. It is at its most absorbing when it chronicles the takeovers, the back-stabbing and the frequent booms and busts that shaped the industry in the 20th century: in 1907, for instance, a financial crisis caused the Victor label’s sales to drop by 50 per cent and forced Columbia’s tenacious founder, Edward Easton, to lay off hundreds of staff (he later attempted suicide on a train track).
The stakes have always been high, with fantastic sums won and lost, and the characters inside the industry are built to fit. Murphy concedes that while Thomas Edison was a genius, he had a tin ear and seemed disappointed that his “talking machine” was being used for entertainment rather than as a stenographer’s aid; he thought of music lovers as “opera perverts”. Murphy details a tense conversation between Columbia’s boss of the 1980s, Maurice Oberstein, and Derek Green, the man who had signed the Sex Pistols to A&M in 1977 before letting them go with a £75,000 severance cheque within a few days. “Think of us as being in the jungle,” said Oberstein. “I’m an elephant and you’re an ant. I tread on you. And kill you. And I don’t even know I’ve done it.”
The most remarkable thing about Witt’s book is that virtually none of the names is familiar. While Murphy, starting in the late 19th century, has to dig out new anecdotes from the lives of Ahmet Ertegün and Richard Branson, Witt finds unlikely heroes in unlikely places. Take Alan Ellis, a former computer science student at the University of Teesside. In 2004, he set up a site called Oink’s Pink Palace, where contributors left albums, B-sides and Japanese bonus tracks, all to the highest possible audio specifications set by Ellis. You had to be invited to join his club and sourcing the best recordings became a competitive buzz, as it had been for the vinyl crate diggers of old.
Oink’s was a community – people chatted on message boards about music and about audio fidelity. By comparison, iTunes, its legal alternative, was a store in a mall, soulless and featureless and, most importantly, it had far less choice of music. Ellis believed that he was doing nothing illegal, as Oink’s wasn’t run for profit. But he was busted in October 2007 when a dozen police officers burst into his Middlesbrough bedroom. He had been a success because he had stumbled on something that the industry had almost squeezed out of music – a sense of belonging.
Witt writes about Project Hubcap, an American initiative in 2003 against file sharing, as “a million-dollar fine for shoplifting”. Lawsuits hit pensioners and children who were unaware that they were doing anything wrong, such as the 12-year-old Brianna LaHara, who had downloaded, among other songs, the theme from the sitcom Family Matters. Meanwhile, the two-faced industry carried on pushing the limits of legality. Witt explains “astroturfing”, a promotional strategy that involved organised radio and TV requests for songs, usually from a third party paid by the record company. One apparent beneficiary of this dubious business was Lindsay Lohan, whose now-forgotten Speak album eventually went platinum after the MTV show Total Request Live played a track from it called “First” for a solid month. It was the sort of sharp practice that had been around since the days of sheet music. A subpoenaed email from a Universal source revealed the source of the requests for Lohan’s song: Universal. It had barely bothered to cover its tracks.
Why didn’t music get the support that other creative industries received from the US government when file sharing threatened to destroy it in 2000? Witt points out that FBI warnings appeared on every American VHS tape or DVD after the film industry grudgingly bowed to political pressure over the ratings system; book publishers, he sagely notes, often gave some of their biggest advances to retiring politicians. The music industry, on the other hand, had snubbed Tipper Gore and her attempts to set up a ratings system and spent the 1990s promoting records with titles such as “Cop Killer”. The major labels’ one concession – a “parental advisory” sticker – was as counterproductive as a BBC Radio 1 airplay ban. Doug Morris, the head of the largest record company in the world, had made millions from the bad behaviour of hip-hop acts and rock stars and now he was paying the price. Why on earth would the US government want to help the music business?
Cowboys and Indies describes a growing industry where any chink in a company’s armour was punished by the opposition and boldness was rewarded. When the Original Dixieland Jazz Band came to Britain in 1919, they “took London by storm and were commissioned by Columbia’s British company to record no less than 30 sides”, a brave move for something that could have been a week-long novelty. But it paid off. Eight decades on, How Music Got Free portrays a business too bloated and greedy to understand that suing your customers is not the best way to sell your product.
Karlheinz Brandenburg was no business genius: he failed even to copyright the hand-held MP3 player that he invented. Yet the industry let this seismic opportunity slip through its grasp into the hands of Apple, the bootleggers and eventually a Swedish start-up called Spotify. Now music sits on a cloud. It is as free as air and the rump of the record industry has only itself to blame.
Bob Stanley is the author of “Yeah Yeah Yeah: the Story of Modern Pop” (Faber & Faber)