When internet piracy first emerged in the 1990s, no one could have predicted its impact on the music industry. In his new book How Music Got Free, American journalist Stephen Witt investigates how technological advancements enabled everyday factory workers to digitalise stolen CDs, leading to the death of the physical record.
I sat down with Stephen to discuss how he managed to find the least likely of candidates responsible for changing how a whole generation consumed music and what it’s taught him about the future of the industry.
A self-described “serial pirater”, it was during his first year of college and the heydays of Napster that Witt first became enthralled with the online music-sharing scene.
“I showed up at college with one of those 20lb beige box computers, the thing had a hard drive of 2GB. By the end of my first semester I had filled it with pirated files. Ten years later I had 100,000 files. I remember having this enormous library of stolen music and asking myself where did it all come from?”
Years later, during his Masters at Columbia University’s School of Journalism, Witt decided he would try to locate the supply chain that resulted in a deluge of digital music available for free.
“Once I began to investigate the answer, I found the most fascinating thing. I found that it all went back to three people.”
The first two are the types of people you would generally expect to find at the heart of the story. The first is Karlheinz Brandenburg, who co-invented of the MP3 and created the technology which allowed music to be stored and shared online.
The second, Doug Morris, is a music mogul and current CEO of Sony Entertainment. He signed all the musicians. But the third character, Dell Glover isn’t your usual suspect. It was while sifting through the prosecution files from government databases of known music pirates that Witt first came across Glover’s involvement.
“I probably pulled 100 of these files and as soon as I got to his I thought wow, this guy’s probably done more damage than the other 99 guys combined.”
In 1994 Glover was an employee at PolyGram compact disc manufacturing plant in Kings Mountain, North Carolina. During his time working at the plant, Glover smuggled out hundreds of thousands tracks, leaking then online and feeding a multimillion dollar illegal empire that went on to transform the way we consume music forever.
Witt set out to try and contact Glover, in order to find out how he had managed to be such a prolific seeder of music. But he didn’t fit the typical profile of someone anyway involved in the industry. He wasn’t in a garage band, he didn’t spend all his spare time scouting for the latest unsigned acts. He had no presence at all.
Witt only had a name, demographic profile and geographical location to go on. So he began trawling through Facebook in the hope of finding an account that fitted Glover’s description.
“I finally found this guy, Benny Lidell Glover in North Carolina and I’m like it think it’s the guy, he fits the general description of this case file.”
Witt decided to send him a Facebook message. If it wasn’t the correct guy there was no harm done. Within 24 hours, Glover called Witt to confirm that he was indeed the Dell Glover that he had been looking for.
He began regularly interviewing Glover about his story and turned the result into his thesis. After he completed the course, Witt didn’t know what to do with the story. But Dell was intrigued by what Witt had written and was keen to see the story.
“I couldn’t send it to him electronically because I was afraid he’d leak it to the internet, so I decided I would drive down to North Carolina and read it to him out loud.”
Witt made the journey down to Glover’s sister’s house in North Carolina and read him the 5,000 word story. While Witter recited the article, Glover revealed that he’d kept certain aspects of the story back and began to go into the intricacies of the scheme.
The plant Glover worked at was aware of how valuable their stock of unreleased albums was. Just one leak could destroy an artist’s revenue when they’ve spent years developing their work.
In order to safeguard its stock the plant implemented a stringent system. Exiting employees would swipe their identification card through a reader. Four out of five times they’d get the green light and would be allowed to exit the plant with no further security checks. But one in every four times, the swipe would come back as red, and the employee would be taken aside by security and be searched with a metal detector wand, searching for signs of any concealed thin aluminum ompact discs being smuggled out.
“What Glover realised, watching this happen many thousands of times over the years was that they would always hit on these belt buckles that people in North Carolina would wear. It was like, a fashion accessory from a small town, a big belt buckle,” Witt explains.
“And once the wand would hit your belt buckle it would always go off but they would never make you take the belt buckle off. So Glover and his confederates realised is they could take the small readable part of the compact disc while inside the factory, place it in a small latex glove, put it behind the belt buckle, and walk out. If they hit the red light, cross their fingers and hope the guard didn’t make them take off their buckle.”
Other uses found more elaborate methods of concealing the discs. One member of staff would bring in a cylindrical lunch container, microwave his lunch, eat it, take it to bathroom and meticulously wash it out. He would then place eight or nine compact discs into the container and carefully resealed it with a glue stick. On his way out of the plant, security would merely think he just didn’t eat his lunch that day.
After time, what seemed like a small-scale operation grew into a large endeavour involving people at all levels of the music industry. More workers got involved and their actions were overseen by an anonymous ringleader.
However, as with most large criminal operations spanning hundreds of members, the law eventually caught up with them.
When the Department of Justice eventually came knocking, they weren’t looking for Glover. Their ultimate target was the ringleader. Although they couldn’t identify him, they knew someone was at the heart of the international crime ring. From the journalists who were being sent advanced copies of albums to the music promoters in Japan who took advantage of the offset international release dates for albums, one man was coordinating it all.
During the investigation it soon transpired that the controller was a guy who went by the name of Kali, and Glover was the only member of the chain who had direct contact with him.
Glover struck a deal with the authorities and agreed to give evidence in return for a lenient sentence. Unfortunately, during the trial Kali was acquitted and Glover, who had confessed to his crimes, was sentenced to three months in prison.
I asked Stephen if Glover had ever expressed any remorse or guilt for the damage he’d caused the industry. Despite none of Glover’s family or friends ever truly grasping how big a role he played in online pirating, a lot of his colleagues blamed him for losing their jobs. After all, he was stealing material.
“I think in his mind so many of the artists that he was leaking were big name rap artists, who made such an elaborate show of flaunting their wealth that he thought he couldn’t damage them no matter what he did,” says Witt. “When I asked him about this, he was like: ‘Look at someone like 50 Cent. He owns Mike Tyson’s house, he’s got hundreds of millions of dollars, Kanye West has this $300,000 necklace that he wears everywhere. I can’t hurt these guys. Nothing anyone can do will stop them.’
“So I think because music had become, particularly American rap music, about vulgar displays of wealth anyway, he felt no remorse in hurting the musicians. I think he felt bad later.”
But none of it would have been possible if it wasn’t for the technology that allowed the workers to upload the content online and share it across the internet. In 1982, the year of the compact disc there were two major events that was dictated the trajectory of the music industry. One was how the data available on CDs was now extractable and the other was a new way of distributing music by streaming it over a telephone like from a centralised server.
The audio engineer who devised the plan to “stream” songs over phone lines was a man called Dieter Seitzer. He applied for a patent on the concept but it was rejected on the grounds there wasn’t the technology available to compress an audio file to the size needed to send via a telephone line. Seitzer was determined to devise a method to reduce an audio file by 91 per cent and deputised a graduate by the name of Karlheinz Brandenburg to solve the problem. Brandenburg used decades of research into how we decode sound and soon released that much of the information on a CD was inaudible to the human ear. By 1992 they had discovered a method of reducing the data needed on a track by 90 per cent.
But it turned out they weren’t the only ones trying to crack the problem. A rival group was doing something very similar. While Branderberg’s technique called themselves MP3, the other was named MP2. Both teams ended up in front of the standards committee MPEG, the Moving Picture Experts Group, pitching for their technique. It sparked format war, and MP3 lost. But refusing to feel defeated, Branderberg posted his encoder online for free public download. Shortly after, music pirates began using the encoder to share material online. Stephen explained how Branderberg’s invention has changed our perception of music as a product.
“For a long time we were still caught in the model that all of the compact discs in the mall, the digital data in that was inventory that they would sell piecemeal, that’s how it looked to a retailers, that’s how it looked to a music executive, that’s how it looked to a musician. But to a computer engineer a rack of CDs is just an array of inefficiently stored data. And there’s a better way to distribute that. I think Brandenburg and Sietzer had always seen that.”
Witt’s book isn’t about the ethics of piracy, but about how technology changes cultural attitudes. Many have an opinion on the principles behind making other people’s work readily available for anyone to download but despite the controversy, it’s inevitably changed how we view intellectual property.
“There’s no shortage of opinion about this topic, but it’s not an opinion driven book – it’s really about what technology unleashed and how to social order was rearranged. I think on an ongoing basis –that’s what I really write about.”
But the impact on the industry cannot be reverses. As it explores new financial models and way of profiting from an abundance of songs available online, the way we experience music has changed.
Since the death of the recording industry, the live music market has tripled. Economists have theorised that we have a fixed entertainment budget. As we spent less on buying music, we’ve spent the rest on live concerts and experiences as opposed to a physical object.
“Well the product is sort of ethereal now. In streaming there is not product, it’s just bits flying around in the ether that you grab at will. You never own anything really; you’re just licensing it from a large corporation. I guess it’s true with music now – it’s all experience. Which is fun, I like owning albums and it was cool but if it doesn’t happen anymore. I don’t think younger people’s interest in music has diminished at all. The album only really existed for 50 years. The whole phenomenon of recorded, distributed music is only about 100 years old and people certainly enjoyed music before that and I think will continue to without it.”
“It’s really rearranged people’s perception of intellectual property and copyright. So many people who did this didn’t feel like they were doing anything morally wrong. It was just convenience and available. And that tends to be the way technology works. People used to object to cell phones. I remember this quite vividly, people were really angry about cell phones, before everyone got one.”
“If I give you the option behind the perfect acoustic cave with your tube amp, vinyl records and your 10,000 dollar electrostatic speakers and the ability to listen to headphones in the park, 99 per cent of people are going to take the headphones.”
I asked Witt if he thought this was having an impact on how musicians create material.
“I thought we’d go back to the early sixties when you’d just have hit songs and albums don’t matter, and I think in certain modes of that is true. There’s an artist called Fetty Wap in the US, who is very popular right now. He’s got the most streamed song on Spotify from the last six months and it’s just that song, he has no album. So one hit can propel you to stardom.You don’t need an album and no one is going to buy it anyway, especially if they’re already subscribed to a streaming service.It all depends what the musicians wants to do. The benefit of an album is that artists don’t actually know what their hit songs are going to be. So if they throw ten or eleven at the wall, it may be that some of them get picked up.”
But despite the enormous leaps and bounds in how we listen to music, the set-up is still prescriptive. Bands still release a body of work in an album, usually around the length of an LP. The only real development has been the rise of sampling and mixes.
“You have stuff like Soundcloud and Mixcloud which are really good for radio and DJ sets. So you could start seeing music become like a more mutated thing with no finalised version of a song, so it goes through several different production cycles, several different remixes, the remix becomes more popular than the original but that’s been happening for a long time. I expect something like that might be you’ll have more popular remixes or it’ll be more collaborative – someone will produce the file, another will put a magic touch on it and it’ll become very popular.”
The issue with sampling is how do you attribute copyright in order to recognize fair usage of another person’s song in the age of automation? Witt explained how Soundcloud uses an automated bot to scour songs against a database of infringing material and any breach results in the bot removing the upload. This new mechanised system means an algorithm decides what constitutes as fair usage, not a person. Strings of code have replaced a judicial process.
The subjective process of defining artistic freedoms and intellectual process is being eroded. Technology is playing a larger role than just how we listen to music, it’s selecting what we should listen.
How Music Got Free is available now.