While I was wining and dining bands, the future of the music industry was stealing CDs in North Carolina

We 1990 record executives didn’t know what was about to hit us. Stephen Witt’s How Music Got Free explains it all

13 June 2015

9:00 AM

13 June 2015

9:00 AM

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

Viking, pp.304, £20, ISBN: 9781847922823

In 1994 I was working in marketing at London Records, a frothy pop label part-owned by the Polygram Group — both long gone, swallowed up by Warner Bros. That summer some Americans came into our office to pitch us a project. Rather than unfurling some band or singer, they wanted to talk about technology, specifically the internet and what it would mean to our business in the future. They were looking for an investment of around 50 grand. They talked about how, in the future, kids would buy music on their computers and that they would be able to do it anywhere — on the train, in the street.

‘But where will the wires go? Where will you plug it in?’ we asked, back in those dial-up days.

‘There won’t be any wires,’ they said.

‘Where will the CD come out of? Your computer?’

‘There won’t be any CDs.’

‘But — what about the artwork? The record cover? Will your computer print off the artwork and then…’

‘No no, there won’t be any CDs or artwork or anything. People will just want to hear the music. They don’t care about all this other stuff.’

How we laughed. Needless to say we sent these madmen packing with a hellish boot ringing on their backsides.

Later on we found out that the company they were setting up was called Yahoo. Later still, over redundancy drinks, we figured out that if we’d invested the 50 grand they were looking for in Yahoo stock in 1994 (rather than in making, say, the second Menswear album) we’d all have been richer than Croesus by now.

My point is this: back in 1994 — when girls liked boys who liked girls who liked boys and we all did the white line — no one in the record industry had any idea what was coming down the pipe to destroy them. Stephen Witt’s brilliant book tells you exactly how the perfect storm that forever changed the way we consume music took shape. Like many great works of investigative journalism it makes it clear that this is one of those stories you think you know. Until you realise you don’t.

In thrillerish fashion Witt interweaves three stories, three storm fronts that will eventually meet. In Germany, back in the 1980s, there is the audio research team led by Karlheinz Brandenberg, the man who will eventually father the MP3 soundfile. In New York City we meet Doug Morris, legendary record executive and head of Universal Music. Morris was head of the world’s biggest music group in 1999 — the year CD sales hit an all-time peak. He was, briefly, in Witt’s words, ‘not just the most powerful record executive on earth — he was actually the most powerful record executive in history’. And then, in the drab hamlet of Shelby USA, we meet Dell (a well-chosen pseudonym), the man who found himself uniquely placed due to two factors: he had a passionate interest in the emerging internet of the 1990s; and he worked on the packing line in Polygram’s CD manufacturing plant in North Carolina.

Dell meets a fellow traveller online called Kali. Kali is head of RNS, a shadowy group of online pirates. Kali offers Dell access to ‘topsite servers’ (a gateway to ‘the darknet’, a place awash with stolen music and movies) in return for advance copies of forthcoming releases from the Polygram plant. Kali then puts them up online for anyone to download for free.

The net result, two decades later, is that most people under the age of 25 look at you as though you’re insane if you suggest paying for music. Yes, Dell and I both worked for Polygram in 1995. While I was wining and dining bands in London, he was stealing copies of pre-release CDs in North Carolina. In the end, in a roundabout way, he was responsible for many people I know finding themselves unemployed or back at college, retraining as teachers and lawyers at the age of 35.

But it’s difficult to feel too much sympathy for a record industry that grew insanely rich on CDs. We were too greedy for too long: charging nearly $20 for something that cost 50 cents to manufacture, something that we often already owned, something for which, in the early days, the artists were getting paid the same royalty rate as they got for vinyl.

‘Why didn’t you tell anyone all this before?’ Witt asks Dell towards the end of one of their lengthy interviews. ‘Man,’ Dell says. ‘No one ever asked.’

They’re asking now.

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    My latest flac rips sound straight out of WWII.

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