How a file format brought an industry to its knees

June 29, 2015 by Mobile Beat

stephen-witt-music-free-960MP3. It’s the format that revolutionized the way music’s been consumed since the late ’90s. When Karlheinz Brandenburg, a German acoustics engineer, discovered that an audio file could be compressed down to one-twelfth of its original size without distortion, he created the file-shrinking technology. Stephen Witt’s debut book, How Music Got Free, traces all digital music piracy back to the invention of that format, which inadvertently made it possible for people to download and share music illegally. The book details the science and struggle behind the widely used audio technology. And his investigation uncovers the politics and the manipulative men who kept MP3 files from seeing the light of computer screens for years.

When the MP3 format became accessible, after a long corporate battle, it eventually led to the rise of music piracy and simultaneous demise of CDs. But Witt reveals more than just the technology that systematically tore the music industry to pieces. He narrows the story down to two men at opposite ends of the same spectrum: Doug Morris, one of the most powerful record label CEOs in the industry, who made rap music top the charts and eventually led the fight against piracy; and Dell Glover, a factory worker at a Universal MusicCD-manufacturing unit in North Carolina, who leaked about 2,000 albums, made Eminem change his album release date and became one of the biggest pirates in the largest underground scene, Rabid Neurosis (RNS).

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