Breaking Down The Biz Part 2/3: How Music Got Free by Stephen Witt

This is part two of a three-part series of reviews, or at least summaries of books that document the history of the music industry from the 1950s up to the present day; intended, as the books are to be educational, informative and laced with my personal take. Take it for what it’s worth and hopefully you get something out of this. Part one can be read here.

The 1990s and 2000s will eternally be remembered by listeners, artists and suits alike as the decades when everything changed in the world of music, for better or worse. ProTools came out just before the ’90s, the World Wide Web in 1991. Grunge banished hair metal from the mainstream and opened up the gates for Generation X to express itself, hip hop steadily became more popular beyond its urban black core, and MTV began rolling back the rock videos that had made it a household name. These trends extended well into the aughts, with hip hop eclipsing rock as the most popular music genre, the pitch-perfect studio magic of digital editing making punchlines out of pop and post-grunge alike, and the 2005 advent of YouTube making music videos on TV a thing of the past.

Of course, another thing happened in music beyond just a routine shift in culture. With the introduction and rapid sophistication of the World Wide Web, the sharing of everything transferable through the digital universe, including music, proliferated, setting the groundwork for an utterly unprecedented chain of events never before seen in the history of the music business. The average person has a general grasp of the tale: piracy crews and P2P (peer-to-peer) file-sharing sites blew gargantuan holes in the pockets of artists and record companies, shifting the base of music distribution from CD retail to the online world parallel to iTunes and the iPod while making people far less apt to buy music overall. The industry, in its efforts to contain a situation rapidly growing beyond their control through legal action made themselves doubly unappealing and obsolete in the eyes of the public by doing so, and further poured fuel on a fire threatening to reduce them to ashes.

That’s been, and still is the standard, bite-sized narrative for what really is a wave of happenings that are not only complex and innumerable but more importantly interconnected. That’s where Stephen Witt’s How Music Got Free: A Story Of Obsession And Invention comes in, encompassing the countless aspects of the industry’s great makeover/update/death blow and narrowing it down to three worlds, more specifically three people utterly alien yet inextricably linked to each other through the product they traffic in. Those are, first, an audio egghead and his crack team of researchers that invented the MP3, then the man who made a living out of illegally leaking albums full of said MP3s with an international gang of bandits, and lastly a veteran record executive behind a major share of those albums who attempted to protect his business at his own expense. Just like any good movie, novel or TV show, nothing in this very real story can be chalked up to coincidence.

The story of music’s digital revolution began in Germany in the 1980s, with the scientific collaborations of Karlheinz Brandenburg, Dieter Seitzer and Eberhard Zwicker. Zwicker had academically guided Seitzer into advanced audio research, who did the same for Brandenburg, as Zwicker himself was the father of “psychoacoustics” which found that the human ear was far more adaptive than amplifying. Off of that premise, he began to explore the ear’s auditory limits by experimenting with different tones and the distance between them. His findings were only limited to analog though, and from there Seitzer took the reins with his digital expertise. 

Seitzer, acting in foresight of the future of audio, began to devise methods to record the highest-fidelity audio with the lowest amount of data. Not enthused by the newly available compact disc, he set out to create a “digital jukebox” with a database that Germans could call into to play songs. The patent was rejected on account of the sheer amount of data involved, leading Seitzer to double down in his compression quest. He roped in Brandenburg to assist him, who found Seitzer’s pursuits to be utterly outlandish but nevertheless jumped on board. Brandenburg experimented with chopping up audio and applying Zwicker’s knowledge to it, relying as well on a method called “Huffman coding” which entailed that audio “bits” could be saved by paying attention to patterns. 

Seeing the level Brandenburg was ascending to in his auditory research, Seitzer directed him out of academia and towards the Fraunhofer Institute For Integrated Circuits, a new, cutting-edge technology lab that was part of the greater Fraunhofer Society run by the German government. Here, what came to be known as the “original six” formed; Brandenburg, Bernhard Grill, Heinz Gerhauser, Jurgen Herre, Harald Popp and Ernst Eberlein, with Brandenburg and Grill being the most critical connection. The group embarked on the quest of finding methods to either store or stream music, building off of Seitzer’s “digital jukebox” vision and expanding it into the fledgling realm of personal computing. A good few years of unrelenting experimentation followed, playing once again with numerous tones and using Grill’s vast and varied song collection as a test subject for compression. 

After earning his PhD, Brandenburg took what he and the original six had accumulated at Fraunhofer and took it to AT&T Bell Labs in the United States. His testing collaborations with one James Johnston lead to further sophistication of what the German team had already created, and upon Brandenburg’s return a trove of opportunities and sponsorships arose for Fraunhofer’s breakthrough invention. Before long, the Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG) caught wind of it, and decided to pit it against the findings of MUSICAM and other research groups to see which technology would be the (sound)wave of the future. As promising as it sounded, MUSICAM was tied in heavily to the Philips corporation, so politics were to be fully expected. 

The initial testing competition resulted in a tie between MUSICAM and Fraunhofer, with no other group being able to compare. Fraunhofer lived up to its promise of better quality with less data, while MUSICAM used less power overall, a point Brandenburg continually reiterated to argue the superiority of his audio form. MPEG decided to endorse three separate formats; these came to be known as the MP1, which instantly went obsolete, MUSICAM’s MP2, and the MP3, the Fraunhofer format. The condition, however, decreed by MUSICAM was that Fraunhofer had to adopt a “polyphase quadrature filter bank”, a piece of bunk technology created by Philips that led to the MP3 being rendered “too complicated” in a subsequent testing round. 

Seeing how they’d been tricked as the MP2 became more and more popular with various companies, Fraunhofer persisted nevertheless and made one more shot at besting MUSICAM in 1995. Once again Brandenburg made the case for the MP3 with an extensive paper: Better sound, less data. MUSICAM made their case in just two pages: The MP2 is slick and simple, enough said. After a few hours of deliberation, the MPEG council decided two audio formats would be too much of a hassle and voted to kibosh the MP3. Such a blow would push most to give up, and Brandenburg was quite understandably devastated. Still, there had to be a way, and Brandenburg told his team as such- they would lick their wounds and carry on down the road to victory.

While Fraunhofer regrouped, the second player in the digital saga was just getting started. Dell Glover, a native of Shelby, North Carolina, had been born into a family of “tinkerers” that could fix pretty much anything, leading him to develop a lifelong interest in computers. His friend, James Dockery shared this interest too, as well as a mutual love of hip hop, leading both men to work in the Kings’ Mountain CD plant in the 1990s. Up to that point, Glover had lived an existence of both instability and intrigue. He sacrificed his grades working as a dishwasher to pay off a computer that his mother had purchased for him and moved furniture for another two years after that. When he arrived at the plant in 1994, which was owned by PolyGram, itself an extension of the same Philips corporation that MUSICAM was connected to, Glover set his goals on acquiring material possessions such as quad bikes, a new car and customizations for said car. Globalization was opening new opportunities for Glover, but what would really allow him access to the rest of the world was yet to come.

Then there’s the third piece of the puzzle. If there was anyone profiting handsomely off the making and use of the CD as the leading music medium at the time of Glover and Dockery’s employment, it was the music industry who supplied the masters that made their way onto discs at plants like King’s Mountain and made their way to stores. Chief among the leading companies was the newly christened Warner Music Group, which included among their ranks a seasoned record man who had steadily been climbing the Warner ladder for years and a name many artists today are likely to know: Doug Morris. Having started himself as an artist, then a songwriter in the 1960s without much success, Morris crossed over to the business side by starting his own indie label Big Tree Records. Gaining traction this time with artists such as Brownsville Station, he came into contact with Ahmet Ertegun who at first agreed to distribute Big Tree through Atlantic Records in 1974 then bought the label four years later.

After absorbing Big Tree into Atlantic, Ertegun put Morris to work running ATCO Records, a sub-label of the company (newly relaunched as of this writing) that distributed Led Zeppelin’s label Swan Song and Rolling Stones Records. Making an obvious impression on Ertegun in his starting position, Morris found himself promoted to President of Atlantic by 1980. Throughout the subsequent decade, Atlantic declined, as did its beloved co-founder trying to keep up with a changing corporate environment. By the 90s, with Warner having turned into Time Warner and Ertegun a shell of his former self, an agreement was reached that Ertegun would remain head of Atlantic in name only while Morris ran the show. It was with this new opportunity that Morris truly got to prove himself, turning Atlantic around and taking numerous bold chances to do so. The result was a promotion in the wake of a period of corporate chaos from ’94 to ’95 that led to then-chairman Robert Morgado firing WMG’s U.S Vice President Mel Lewinter and leading Warner Bros. Records cornerstones Mo Ostin and Lenny Waronker to leave with Morgado moving Morris up to head of the conglomerate’s U.S division.

Soon, Morgado himself was replaced by Michael Fuchs, and it was presumed that Morris would be the next to run WMG. As it turned out, his finest hour at Warner would be his undoing. Years prior to the shakeup at Warner, he and long-time friend Jimmy Iovine had worked out a deal to distribute Iovine’s Interscope Records through Atlantic with Atlantic/Warner holding a 50% stake. With that soon came the acquiring of Death Row Records, the notorious record label run by Suge Knight that blazed an immense trail for west coast hip hop and gangsta rap in the 1990s. While highly lucrative and commercially successful, Death Row’s output, like many other controversial forms of music before and after it ran afoul of the government, particularly with Democrat C. DeLores Tucker and Republicans Bob Dole and Bill Bennett. Morris was adamant about backing his artists and not bowing to political pressure; Time Warner at large was not so sure and sold its stake back to Interscope later in 1995. Before they did, Fuchs called Morris into his office and sacked him, a decision made in response to the politics both in and outside the Time Warner building.

As Morris took a fall, the original six were about to hit the big rebound. Doing the trade show circuit to finally get the MP3 the recognition it deserved, they met with an audio entrepreneur by the name of Steve Church who gave it a new test against the MP2 and was convinced of its superiority. His start-up Telos immediately took sponsorship of the MP3 and paired it with the Zephyr, a conversion device that was among the earliest streaming devices for the audio form. They found a customer just as quickly in the NHL, who installed them in every arena in the league; a deal that would have been lucrative for Fraunhofer if the licensing fees weren’t on a per-unit basis. Seeing the home as the logical step to riches, they revived an invention of Grill’s called L3Enc that could encode MP3s on a home computer and play them back. Not only that, they gave it away for free on a floppy disk to anyone with a computer who wanted it. While Fraunhofer were still unsure of what would become of the MP3, one other entrepreneur they encountered named Ricky Adar informed them with clear foresight of the future that they had brought about the end of the music industry.

Seeing as though record labels couldn’t be convinced under threat of death or torture to risk slaughtering their CD cash cow with an online alternative, the idea of the music industry having been killed in a lab in Germany held more weight than it seemed on the surface. Enter Henri Linde, a negotiator with France’s Thomson SA who had sponsored the MP3 early on and pushed the Fraunhofer team to conjure up a prototypical portable device for the format. Despite their additional work, they still found themselves drastically short on demand for the MP3 and decided, for one, to replace it with their new format AAC (Advanced Audio Coding) while creating a new encoder to go with the MP3 called WinPlay3. Still nothing, largely due to the limited amount of songs that the encoder could play. Brandenburg knocked the encoder price down gradually from $125 to free, and the first site for L3Enc went live towards the end of 1995. While L3Enc was a complete non-earner and WinPlay3 was grossly unappealing, the former would before long find its use in a way that none of the original six or their backers could have ever anticipated.

By this time, Glover and Dockery were earning a steady income on the King’s Mountain factory floor, and Glover had set to work accruing ATVs, firearms, and new woofers for his Jeep Cherokee. He also bought a CD burner and mulled over the risks of leaking from the plant after one employee was fired for doing so. At first it didn’t seem worth it given his limited resources and the state of the market, but soon after he and Dockery had discovered Internet Relay Chat in 1996 Glover had tapped into the demand he was looking for. An internet subculture known as the “Warez Scene” or just the “Scene” for short had popped up that trafficked in the sharing of various file types, the most recent being music using Fraunhofer’s L3Enc encoder. Glover downloaded a cracked version of L3Enc and got to work, creating an illegitimate side hustle to go with his legitimate ones of breeding dogs and working the CD belt.

While the fault lines were slowly shifting in music in the mid-’90s, for Doug Morris it was business as usual as he quickly got back on his feet. One would not expect a music mogul’s return to grace to come from the heir to an alcohol dynasty, but that’s exactly what happened when Edgar Bronfman Jr. reached out to Morris to come work with him. Sure, the Bronfman family had accumulated massive wealth with Seagram as a beverage line, but what did that matter? Edgar liked risk and wanted to turn Seagram into an entertainment venture, selling the company’s stake in DuPont to invest in Universal Studios and its parent company MCA. Morris’ role was to transform the cobwebbed MCA Records into an industry superpower once more. After much hesitation, Morris agreed, and set into action repeating his ascent at Warner until he was promoted to head of the entire MCA Music Entertainment Group in November.

While Morris built MCA back up from its post-Azoff decline, Bronfman dived further into entertainment and was roundly pilloried for doing so following a string of predictable commercial and financial bombs. In retrospect, it would have been wiser for Morris or one of MCA’s top brass to oversee the entertainment aspect of Seagram and for Bronfman to stick to alcohol, but the idea was never entertained. Having split with Warner, Jimmy Iovine reunited with Morris by bringing Interscope permanently into the fold at MCA, which of course included Death Row- just in time for it to collapse. In the span of 1996 and 1997, 2Pac was killed in Las Vegas, Suge Knight was sent to prison, Death Row’s artists defected en masse and the label’s shadowy staff became ensnared in the Rampart scandal. While the profitable future of gangsta rap looked grim on the surface, sales projections and Iovine’s branching out into a wider series of genres indicated otherwise. 

As a testament to starting fresh, Morris rechristened MCA’s music division to the name it’s known by today, Universal Music Group. With the combination of Interscope, Geffen, DGC and MCA/Universal firing on all cylinders, Morris went on the hunt for more and found his next platinum item with New Orleans label Cash Money Records, cutting a minority stake with founders “Birdman” and “Slim” Williams but nevertheless seeing his investment pay off handsomely with the likes of Juvenile, Big Tymers and the Hot Boyz. Morris and Bronfman’s next move was to swallow up PolyGram, making everything from A&M, Mercury and Polydor to Island and Def Jam (the latter two of which were then joined as their own label group) part of UMG and making Universal the largest record company on Earth. Approaching the turn of the millennium, UMG under Morris seemed poised to dominate with the ever-lucrative CD leading the way.

Having absorbed PolyGram, Universal inherited a whole host of new assets that would work to their advantage, including the King’s Mountain Plant that Glover and Dockery were working at. By this point, Glover had been gaining momentum in the Warez scene, but nowhere near to the extent of Dockery. Wondering how Dockery had got so far ahead, Glover went to Dockery’s house where he was given a crash course on the scene, particularly a group called Rabid Neurosis (RNS) that Dockery had gotten involved in. Since the merger, the plant got overhauled to handle the hugely increased volume in albums coming through, and Dockery had managed to leak out numerous titles to the group before security measures were ramped up by King Mountain’s new manager. Thus, he offered to patch Glover in with the group’s head man, Kali, and get him into RNS doing Dockery’s job. Already bootlegging on the street level, he agreed to take the position and set the course for his foreseeable future.

Back in Germany, the emerging wave of internet piracy brought attention back to the research team who had made it possible through creating the MP3 and the encoding software to compliment it. Brandenburg made it clear that he and Fraunhofer as a whole were unequivocally opposed to piracy and went out of his way to prove this point, at one point pitching the MP3 to the RIAA so that people would be inclined to use the technology legally. The RIAA, the extension of a major industry hitting its peak profits with the compact disc and still unshakeable on abandoning it turned Brandenburg away, leading him to cater to consumer electronics companies of the likes of Diamond Multimedia and Saehan International in Korea willing to take their chances with the MP3. As far as the press was concerned, Brandenburg repeatedly denied the role he had played in the MP3’s creation as he continued to profit the most from its licensing. Away from the media, a satisfaction for Fraunhofer did come: after debuting the AAC for industrial use as a counterpart to the home-oriented MP3 and greatly expanding both, Bernhard Grill overheard two teenagers talking about MP3s while in Los Angeles for a licensing meeting. Right there, he realized he had had the last laugh over MPEG after all.

Back across the Atlantic, Morris was in the ultimate power position. With Def Jam, Cash Money and Interscope all tied in with Universal, Morris, a middle-aged Jew in New York was the king of hip hop for the new millennium. CD’s had reached their pinnacle in popularity and price, the latter circumstance being the result of the majors cartelizing to fix the retail amount for discs with a tradeoff of advertising money for the record stores. The rigged cost for consumers fuelled the growing threat of piracy without a doubt, a factor that could no longer be ignored after Napster launched and exploded in 1999. A meeting between the RIAA and major record executives happened immediately after the 2000 Grammys to address the Napster frenzy, with RIAA head Hilary Rosen insisting that the labels cut deals with the family-and-friend-run music sharing service to stem the bleeding. While Bronfman was on board, Morris, who was absent from the meeting, was not, seeing Napster as a plainly illegal operation damaging his business and the MP3 as being no sort of help to his continued success.

For a lot of Millennial and Gen Z readers, it seems unfathomable that suits like Morris could have been so blind to the potential of the MP3 and digital distribution (legal or otherwise); in hindsight it was the next logical step in the progression of how music was brought to the masses; first the vinyl record, then the CD, then the MP3. To be fair, Morris himself was 60 years old when Napster arrived on the scene, so some understanding must be granted to a man whose life had far preceded such groundbreaking advances in technology in his struggle to grasp it. Regardless, the reaction of Morris to the then-nascent Internet and MP3 serves as a formidable counterpoint to the argument artists such as Frank Zappa made that having the music business run by aging executives willing to put anything out was a good thing. He did try to counter Napster by embarking on a series of digital ventures including PressPlay and the short-lived website and TV show Jimmy And Doug’s Farm Club with Jimmy Iovine, but all of them burned out and couldn’t compare. 

Failing that, Morris and much of the industry resorted to the atomic option: litigation, first suing Diamond Multimedia for its production of the Rio player to kill the market for portable MP3 devices, then, through A&M Records and various other labels, Napster itself, just as Metallica infamously did on an artist level. At the same time Diamond and Napster came under attack, the besieging industry got stronger by merging with larger corporate entities amidst the dot-com frenzy– at least for the time being, that is, as Time Warner’s merging with AOL in the thick of it turned out to be tragically short-sighted but nevertheless motivating enough for Bronfman to sell Universal to the French company Vivendi and blow Seagram apart. Then the results came in- Napster, despite coincidentally giving the industry the most profitable years in its history lost to the industry in court and went under, but Diamond, the manufacturer of portable MP3 players, emerged victorious. Sure, Shawn Fanning’s peer-to-peer empire was no more, but there were still countless people with illegal MP3s on their computers who could transfer them to a portable player and go. Short-term gain, long-term pain. A reckoning was about to be brought upon the industry.

Karlheinz Brandenburg had managed to lay low and deflect credit for the MP3 away from himself all the while, while Henri Linde went on a licensing spree with every company that the format could be of use to. One of those was Microsoft for the Windows Media Player, which despite the large sum that would come Fraunhofer’s way made Brandenburg nervous given Microsoft’s tendency to drive competitors out of the game. Reassured by Grill and others that Microsoft posed no threat, Brandenburg moved forward, taking down competitor/plagiarizer Ogg Vorbis in hopes to leap over Apple. Steve Jobs was just as dead-set against piracy as Brandenburg was, but was far more adamant about AAC than the MP3. Brandenburg and Linde resisted, arguing that it would make no sense to abandon the MP3 at this point; Jobs conceded as Apple still didn’t have the edge over companies like Microsoft that it does now. When the iPod emerged in 2001, Brandenburg could recline and finally take ease with all he had accomplished, even though the ill-gotten-by-proxy fortune he had acquired had thrown him for a moral loop.

Dell Glover, now firmly established in his position as RNS’ top leaker had none of the concern for ethical practices that Brandenburg did. As it stood in 2000, he was still wondering how to smuggle CDs out of the plant as others had seemed to be doing; and through discovering an elaborate process that involved stashing the discs in a machine, smuggling them out in a tied-off surgical glove and tucking it behind his belt buckle, he figured it out. Acting on this knowledge made him not only RNS’ greatest asset but the top album leaker in the world, a role so key to his co-pirates that he was sequestered away from everyone up to Simon “RST” Tai, the number 2 man in the group. On the outside, Glover expanded to being the go-to guy for movies around town; downloading films off of scene “topsites” and selling them for five bucks a pop. Thus far, he had managed to dodge the federal ensnarements of Operation Buccaneer, though his luck almost ran out when plant security caught wind of rapper Scarface’s album The Fix being leaked out and had one of Glover’s cronies arrested for it. Glover escaped suspicion, but the experience led him to reprimand Kali for leaking the album too soon and walking away from RNS, tossing his whole stash of pirated material into the town dump.

By now well aware of the piracy problem that had begun corroding Universal’s revenues, Doug Morris set out once more find a way to plug the ever-growing hole. One solution came from Steve Jobs who offered to buy Universal from Vivendi, one of the many entities left bruised and sore in the dot-com aftermath. Jobs buying out UMG was not to be, but he had another idea for Morris: iTunes, with Universal distributing their catalogue through the service for $0.99 a song. A less-than-digitally-inclined Morris had immediate worries that Jobs’ service, combined with the partnering iPod would only enable piracy as the Rio had before; nevertheless he agreed and the iTunes Store launched in 2003. Somewhat in keeping with Morris’ predictions, UMG’s revenue from iTunes amounted to crumbs while file-sharing and leaking continued. 

For this, he had a simple, familiar solution, foregoing the atomic for the nuclear. He, along with most of the Big Five record conglomerates (down from Six after the PolyGram merger) would go from suing peer-to-peer and tech companies to the downloaders themselves. Roger Ames of Warner Music Group objected, as did Hilary Rosen who warned sharply about the public consequences of such an action. Rosen was overruled and left her post, and the RIAA went on a rampage bringing up expensive lawsuits against men, women and children for even the slightest copyright violations. As anyone could anticipate, the industry’s suing spree lead to major record companies being held in infinitely higher levels of contempt than they already had been and gave the public all the more incentive to steal from them. 

The worst part was that the real offenders like RNS and Glover weren’t even hit by what the suits called “Project Hubcap”, they had been savvy enough to take security measures that would cover their trail; the everyday people ensnared by the RIAA did nothing of the sort. However, the feds were well aware of the Warez scene when it seemed like no one else was and were quietly stockpiling enough evidence to back a legitimate investigation and strike. Glover in the meantime had gotten back into the game with RNS, and torrenting sites and software like Bram Cohen’s BitTorrent and The Pirate Bay had popped up, with TPB in particular setting about spitting proudly in the face of authority whenever they could. Another, Oink’s Pink Palace run by British comp-sci student Alan Ellis garnered a reputation for its elite membership, strict file-sharing rules and audio snobbery which Ellis whole-heartedly enabled. Looking to side-step the wrath of law enforcement as much as they could due to their use of “tracker” servers and previous legal actions by the industry, the likes of Cohen reiterated to the end of the earth: Don’t shoot me, I’m only the inventor. I didn’t intend for it to be this way.

While Torrenting was becoming all the rage, RNS with Glover back in the fold was hitting its peak in the mid-2000s. Kali had taken to snatching the best leakers from rival groups to add to RNS’ strength, among them Patrick Saunders aka Da_Live_One whose infiltration game extended to the upper echelons of the corporate world. With the addition of leakers like Saunders who increased RNS’ reach of genres outside of their hip hop niche, the international piracy syndicate began to look like an outlaw version of the record companies they stole from. Of course, as their notoriety grew to new heights, the press and the law took notice. The raids of Operation Fastlink had resulted in a rival Warez group, Apocalypse Production Crew being swept up by the FBI, leading Kali to institute new protective measures from thinning down the membership of RNS to putting a no-bootlegging policy in place. Glover, having never met Kali and not having an easy relationship with him either defied these rules; ripping as much from the scene itself as he did from the plant and making a killing off of illicit music, movies and video games in the process. Among other things, it finally bought him a new car and the subsequent trick-outs applied to it that he had yearned for for years.

Doug Morris was sitting pretty himself at that time, though with the continual divestment and downsizing going on at UMG you definitely wouldn’t know it. Given that the CD was clearly on its way out, one of the assets cut from the universe of Universal was the King’s Mountain plant, spun off into a separate stub called the Entertainment Distribution Company. To make matters worse, Elliot “Sheriff Of Wall Street” Spitzer, then the attorney-general of New York had brought numerous allegations upon the industry, among them payola (nothing new, read here), price fixing on CDs (as mentioned earlier) and hiring a marketing company to make fraudulent phone requests to rotate songs released by Universal artists on radio and MTV. Edgar Bronfman Jr., by now the head of WMG had settled with Spitzer without any sort of action or admission of guilt, Morris reluctantly did the same

Unethical practices aside, the truth had emerged that much like the early days of Morris’ corporate career, singles had once more become the top commodity over albums, which were leaked more and more and less and less people were now willing to buy. Artists like Lil Wayne began to try unorthodox release methods like free online mixtapes to adapt, leading their corporate superiors to futilely attempt to catch up to the ongoing shift. The suits were about to catch a break though: while the initial FBI interrogation of some of APC’s members had turned up little, especially in regards to information on RNS, the grilling of another crony led to him cracking and tipping the feds off to an in he had with one of the RNS members. The special agent in the case, Peter Vu, tapped the member’s connection, and set about what would be the beginning of the end for the world’s most prolific piracy group.

2006 and 2007 were when the tides began to turn on the Warez crews and torrenters. The Pirate Bay was shut down and its founders were popped. Alan Ellis, who kept multiple bank accounts in case one was seized by authorities and complied with anyone who asked their material to be removed from the site was scooped after audiobook versions of the Harry Potter series had made their way onto Oink. As far as RNS went, the King’s Mountain plant became far more lax under EDC management but Glover and the rest of the group members were becoming both weary and worried with their operation. After a number of conversations between Glover and Kali, the decision was made in early ’07 to shut Rabid Neurosis down, their final leak being Fall Out Boy’s Infinity On High. Glover’s walking away from RNS was part of a larger change of heart he’d been experiencing in his life, nevertheless he went right back into business with Kali and a few of the RNS vets mere months later. 

Among the leaks Glover did with the post-RNS crew were 50 Cent’s Curtis and Kanye West’s Graduation, both set to release on the same day in 2007 and the subject of a media-concocted “feud” over record sales. Glover obtained copies of both from the plant, but with his relationship with Kali strained beyond likely repair at this point chose to leak Graduation first to a rival group. Despite Glover’s leak, Kanye ended up outselling 50 anyway, a cause for observation if there ever was one. Glover then went back to King’s Mountain, thinking it to be business as usual. This time though, when he exited the plant to go home, FBI agents were waiting for him, informing him that longtime friend James Dockery had been found out and cracked under pressure. Now, it was in his best interest to start telling all that he knew.

While being on the opposite, legal side of the copyright wars, Morris could see that his time too was running thin. Universal had resorted to catering to demographics less apt to sharing music, and the profits he had accumulated amidst the music industry’s decline began to be looked upon derisively. Two incidents in ‘07 almost put the nail in the coffin for him. The first was an infamous interview with Wired magazine where he flatly confessed his incompetence in regards to the Internet and suggested that Universal as a whole was not technologically savvy. Reeling from the backlash that ensued, the second came while watching music videos on YouTube with his grandson, trying to gain a better comprehension of the Web to prove he hadn’t been left in the dust. After noticing that ads were running on numerous videos put out on his dime without any sort of revenue cut going to UMG, he, like other record executives had them all yanked from YouTube and sent online viewers into a furor. 

However, the second incident provided him with a lucrative turn-around, when after negotiating with the offending agencies and coming to see the potential in advertising streaming revenue he created Vevo, the official music video service for major artists that carried ads before each video started. With the service’s success, Morris had managed to save face just in time to gradually phase himself out: Vivendi’s policy stated that all executives must retire by the age of 70, which by late 2008 Morris had now reached. The industry was continuing to change, with leakers and torrenters still an issue and the rise of 360 deals showing ways for the business to stay afloat (not always to the artist’s benefit). Steve Jobs, who had served as Morris’ gateway to the digital world offered to take him in 2010, expressing plans to have him run a new record company under Apple with an economic preface that ran utterly counter to the way the industry had traditionally operated. Morris passed it up, and come 2011 left UMG to run Sony Music Entertainment (SME) for the next six years.

Finally, judgement day came for the lawbreakers. By the end of the 2000’s, the prevailing attitudes towards copyright and music sharing had shifted drastically; even a political party, the Pirate Party, had sprung up in favour of piracy. Nevertheless, they had objectively violated the law- or so it seemed. Alan Ellis, due to a convincing testimony and an incompetent prosecution walked away not guilty and set about starting his life anew. The Pirate Bay’s founders caught jail time, but thanks to careful precautions taken in the event that the law caught them is still around to this day. Much of the now-busted RNS crew, as many music pirates did, turned on each other and cooperated with law enforcement. Among them, surprisingly was Dell Glover, who while at the time of his arrest warned Adil “Kali” Cassim to burn the evidence once more now found himself agreeing to testify against him out of dire personal circumstance. He proved to be a lousy witness, as did RNS turncoat Patrick Saunders with his testimony. That combined with Kali turning off his password protection to dispel culpability for RNS’ activities (something he told Glover to do) lead to an unexpected acquittal, and instant regret for Glover. He only got three months in jail, but his fall from a high he would never reach again was complete.

So what happened from there? With streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music becoming the new normal, Karlheinz Brandenburg’s dream of a digital jukebox had been fully realized. Dell Glover, when Witt caught up with him had landed a job putting grills on Freightliner trucks. Doug Morris now runs 12 Tone Music (once again under Warner Music Group) and the current boss of Universal, Lucian Grainge, brought EMI into UMG in 2013 as Doug had with PolyGram and has since necessarily set about digitizing the company for the future. The album is widely acknowledged to be dead, though the piracy wave of the 2000s has declined overall. The story may be over, but many thoughts are left in the wake.

The main point of contention, now knowing the story of how music got free is was the music industry wrong in how it handled the situation– and of course, were the people that bled it dry? It depends who you are and what your perspective is; to many the industry’s actions were clear proof of its irrelevance, greed and inability to adapt, much of it a consequence of the seniority of many of its head executives. On the other hand, how else is a multi-billion dollar industry, or any industry for that matter supposed to react upon discovering that a certain segment of society is gravely harming their business, illegally no less? One could say that finding a legal means to adapt would work, though that was tried with iTunes to little financial avail. In retrospect, sadly the only option may have been for the industry to concede to the death of sales and look to different avenues, as they do now to derive their income.

Ultimately, How Music Got Free is an excellent resource for those curious about how the music industry has changed to where it is today. It covers all the facets and key players inside and outside the biz to really capture the full picture of how such a monumental shift occurred. How the music itself changed in this time frame is another question, one that will be answered in the third and final article.