Stephen Witt: The man who broke the music industry

Witt’s book ‘How Music Got Free’ tells of a passion for pirating music to the next level

 

Meet Dell Glover. For many years, Glover worked in the Polygram CD manufacturing plant in Kings Mountain outside Shelby in North Carolina.

When he wasn’t working, Glover mooched around on his Suzuki 750 motorbike, rode his quad bike with the Quad Squad, reared pit-bulls, looked after his car and messed around with his computer.

He started working in the plant in 1995 as a temporary employee on the production and packaging line, but quickly became a permanent employee .

From 2001 on, though, Glover had a much different set of responsibilities: he was the world’s leading leaker of new albums and probably changed the music business as much as Steve Jobs with iTunes or Shawn Fanning with Napster.

The reason why we know about Glover now is because writer Stephen Witt decided to find out just where pirated music came from in the first place. His new book How Music Got Free is a fascinating story of what happened when music, technology, money and a big belt buckle collided.

Witt joins the dots between the invention of the MP3 in a German lab, the machinations of the record industry, and a man with access to new albums who leaked nearly 2,000 of them over the course of a decade.

Three characters

Concentrating largely on three characters - record industry supremo Doug Morris, German audio engineer Karlheinz Brandenburg and Glover – How Music Got Free might be the best investigative thriller you’ll read about the music business.

Glover is the star of Witt’s show. “He was a lovable rogue, the Robin Hood of music,” says the writer. While record label boss Morris and German engineer Brandenburg were already known entities, Glover has remained in the shadows until now.

When Glover worked in the CD plant in the late 1990s/early 2000s, the CD boom was in its pomp. Albums by artists such as Eminem, 50 Cent, Nelly, Kanye West and more could sell millions and these needed to be pressed up in advance, which meant Glover had access to blockbuster albums before they were released.

He and his crew smuggled CDs out of the plant (often behind oversized belt buckles), ripped them as MP3s, and uploaded the files to a gang of pirates who distributed the music.

“The way I got to Dell was somewhat circuitous and took about eight months,” says Witt. “I knew the downloadable MP3 encoder was posted to the internet in 1995 or 1996 and I’d wondered who were the first people to find it and start ripping files in an organised way. I found an underground ezine called Infinity where guys are talking about pirating files and this was my first introduction to this underworld called the Scene.

“The FBI had gone after the scene many times and I realised that could be a good source of information. The Department of Justice keeps case files on everyone they prosecute. I downloaded hundreds of those cases against different pirates and read each one. When I got to Dell, I went ‘holy crap’. This one guy had done more damage than anyone else.

“I started to look for people who fitted his demographic and geographic profile on Facebook. I found a guy who fitted that description and sent him a message with my cellphone number. The next day, he called me.”

Economic motivations

Glover’s immersion in piracy was driven by economic motivations. He had a DVD bootlegging sideline and pirating music gave him access to pirated movies and games.

“Many pirates were ideologically motivated but Dell wasn’t; he was very practically minded. Like many people in the group, he understood the risks. They knew the FBI and police were looking for them, but they continued. It became a compulsive behavior, an addictive activity. Even as they got older and the risks grew, they found that they weren’t able to stop.”

But piracy wasn’t just driven by Glover smuggling CDs out of the plant. “When pirates were first getting hold of Karlheinz Brandenburg’s encoder, I do think everyone didn’t look that closely at who was downloading it and looked the other way,” says Witt.

“It’s undeniable that Brandenburg and the Fraunhofer research institute benefited massively from piracy. He made millions of dollars from his patent but ironically, it was only possible for him to do so on the back of the greatest wave of copyright infringement the world had ever seen.”

The record industry too were not on top of things. “You can understand their resistance because they were earning such extraordinary profits from CDs. Up to 20 dollars for a piece of plastic which cost you a buck or two to manufacture? It’s very hard to give that up.

“They weren’t investing in the future of distribution and that caught up with them much quicker than they expected. The internet was a new kind of risk and not many people in any industry could foresee what would happen. The problem for the music industry was that it was especially vulnerable.”

The people who really drove piracy were music fans who filled their hard drives with free music. “It was all about convenience,” says Witt about the boom in piracy. “The pirates filled a vacuum the industry created and built a distribution network for music releases because the music industry refused to do it. There was also a cultural impulse. Being a part of this culture was cool. It was a secret world they got to inhabit.

“It was all teenagers too. Napster? Teenagers. The people getting the CDs out in the first place? Teenagers. They were big music fans and they could see how easy it was to transfer files amongst their computers. It wasn’t a deliberate act of malice against the creative industries, but more that it was so easy to do. The music industry wasn’t providing anything like that.”

What’s changed?

It’s a different story today. The music industry, says Witt, has moved on and those errors would not occur today.

“The stuff they did in the 1990s, when they stuck their heads in the sand and tried to quash the MP3, they wouldn’t do that now. There were some visionary technology people in the industry who tried to tell executives like Morris that there was no stopping that model from taking over, but the executives didn’t listen.

“It took executives like Morris 10 years to make that paradigm shift. He finally came around and made that realisation about what was happening from watching how his grandson listened to music and came up with Vevo as a way to monetising music videos.

“Anyone who is working in any kind of senior level at a record company now is thinking about production and distribution 10 or 20 years down the road. Remember music wasn’t the only industry to screw up like this when it came to technology and distribution - I mean, just look at the media.”

nHow Music Got Free by

Stephen Witt is published by Bodley Head

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