How Music Got Free: What happens when an entire generation commits the same crime? by Stephen Witt

One of the best books that I have read in the recent past is a book that documents the shifting power politics of music industry over the last few decades. At the core, the book navigates how the mp3 technology which struggled for years to find legitimacy inadvertently became ‘the face that launched a thousand ships’ on the shore of privacy. It’s almost impossible for me to capture this thrilling story through just this post but I have shared some parts which I found remarkable. If you are interested in knowing the history of music privacy, I strongly recommending reading this one.

Piracy as a subculture

Music in every age has had its own subcultures – from rock to pop, punk to Goth. The author shares how we ‘acquired’ music also has had its set of subcultures –

“Record collecting had been a subculture too, and, for that vanishing breed, finding albums proved to be an exhilarating challenge, one that involved scouring garage sales, sifting through bargain bins, joining mailing lists for bands, and Tuesday visits to the record store.”

The reason why piracy thrived, the reason behind its ‘perverse lure’ was also that “it wasn’t just a way to get the music; it was its own subculture.” The thrill of leaking a much anticipated Jay Z album was something else. It wasn’t just random internet users who were leaking the music, they were working as organized outfits often competing to outdo each other, to create a legacy for themselves –

“My assumption had been that music piracy was a crowdsourced phenomenon. That is, I believed the mp3s I’d downloaded had been sourced from scattered uploaders around the globe and that this diffuse network of rippers was not organized in any meaningful way. This assumption was wrong. While some of the files were indeed untraceable artifacts from random denizens of the Internet, the vast majority of pirated mp3s came from just a few organized releasing groups. Piracy was a social phenomenon.”

Part 1 – How MP3 came into being

The mp3 technology was created by a team of engineers at the Fraunhofer institute, Germany. The institute was funded by a state-run research organization who “brokered commercial relationships with large consumer industrial firms” once the research matured into viable technologies. Karlheinz Brandenburg, considered the father of mp3 led this team and solved one of the longest held problems of digital audio. Brandenburg’s thesis adviser Seitzer believed that it was possible to record high-fidelity music with very small amounts of data. This belief was based on some brilliant research by his own adviser Zwicker, a doyen of psychoacoustics, who had unraveled inherent flaws of the human ear. Zwicker found out that the ear did not act like a microphone and the human ear could be tricked for example into hearing two different tones as a single one by bringing them closer together in pitch. This meant that data compression that could enable digital music could be a reality –

“Information in the digital age was stored in binary units of zero or one, termed “bits,” and the goal of compression was to use as few of these bits as possible. CD audio used more than 1.4 million bits to store a single second of stereo sound. Seitzer wanted to do it with 128,000.”

 In 1982, when the compact disc debuted, Seizer interestingly had applied for a patent for a digital jukebox which we routinely use today as a music streaming service –

“Under this more elegant model of distribution, consumers could dial into a centralized computer server, then use the keypad to request music over the new digital telephone lines that Germany was just beginning to install. Rather than pressing millions of discs into jewel cases and distributing them through stores, everything would be saved in a single electronic database and accessed as needed. A subscription-based service of this kind could skip the manifold inefficiencies of physical distribution by hooking the stereo directly to the phone. The patent was rejected. The earliest digital phone lines were primitive affairs, and the enormous amount of audio data on the compact disc could never fit down such a narrow pipe. For Seitzer’s scheme to work, the files on the disc would have to be shrunk to one-twelfth their original size, and no known approach to data compression would get you anywhere near this level.” 

 (note: visionaries do not always benefit from their ability to change future, they may draw the satisfaction but not always the cheques for the same)

Brandenburg set out to solve this very problem. He applied decades of research in acoustics physics and human anatomy and combined it with basic principles of information theory and complex higher math. At the age of 31, he wrote a rudimentary program that gave a working demonstration of his approach to capture audio data using fewest bits without compromising the quality of sound. “In late 1988, the team made its first sale, and shipped a hand-built decoder to the first ever end user of mp3 technology: a tiny radio station run by missionaries on the remote Micronesian island of Saipan.” (I find this deeply ironic, the legitimate sale of mp3 being to an obscure entity on the fringes and how it’s illegitimate distribution devastated the mainstream music industry)

Part 2 – The politics of acceptance – how MP3 became an outcast

Impressed by the technology, AT&T and Thomson, a French electronics company put their weight behind the technology but there were other technologies which were also vying for consumer market:

“Seeking to mediate, the Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG)—the standards committee that even today decides which technology makes it to the consumer marketplace—convened a contest in Stockholm in June 1990 to conduct formalized listening tests for the competing methods.

There was a tie and the two winners who emerged in the contest were Fraunhofer and MUSICAM:

MUSICAM was more representative of the typical MPEG contest winner—a well-funded consortium of inventors from four different European universities, with deep ties to the Dutch corporation Philips, which held the patents on the compact disc…Fraunhofer’s approach provided better audio quality with less data, but MUSICAM’s required less processing power. Brandenburg felt this disparity worked in his favor, as computer processing speed improved with each new chip cycle, and doubled every 24 months or so. Improving bandwidth was more difficult, as it required digging up city streets and replacing thousands of miles of cable. Thus, Brandenburg felt, MPEG should look to conserve bandwidth rather than processing cycles, and he repeatedly made this argument to the audio committee.

MPEG rechristened the two methods: MUSICAM’s method as Moving Picture Experts Group, Audio Layer II—better known today as the mp2—and Brandenburg’s method, as the Moving Picture Experts Group, Audio Layer III—better known today as the mp3.

This is one of the most interesting sections of the book as it shows the murky politics of the corporate world. While mp3 is believed to have had the technical edge, mp2 was backed by Philips who was the undisputed leader at the time. For months the Fraunhofer team waited for a ruling from MPEG who finally agreed to endorse mp3 provided they followed certain rules set by MP2. They manipulated the MP3 team to use the filter bank used by MP2 which only complicated their product without improving the audio quality. Worse, Philips had a patent on the code which meant that they stood to benefit by 1) introducing inefficiency in mp3 product 2) gain financially every time mp3 got adopted. The Fraunhofer team actually accepted this condition as a desperate measure to gain an endorsement from MPEG.As the author states -

“It was a commendable piece of corporate sabotage. They’d tricked Fraunhofer into wearing an ugly dress to the pageant, then made fun of them behind their backs.”

Over the next few years, in five straight head-to-head competitions, they got swept. Standardization committees chose the mp2 for digital FM radio, for interactive CD-ROMs, for Video Compact Disc (the predecessor to the DVD), for Digital Audio Tape, and for the soundtrack to over-the-air HDTV broadcasting. They chose the mp3 for nothing.

While MPEG denied any allegations of bias, the Franoufer had much to lose from these corporate machinations –

“…Still, history showed that, from the AC/DC “Current Wars” of the late nineteenth century to the VHS-Betamax battle of the 1980s, victory didn’t necessarily go to the best, but to the most vicious. From Edison to Sony, the spoils were won by those who not only promoted their own standard, but who cleverly undermined the competition. There was a reason they called it a format “war.”

In early 1995, the mp2 again beat the mp3 in a standards competition, this time for a massive market: the audio track for the home DVD player.

 To draw the final nail in mp3’s coffin, the mp2 team appealed saying that two radio standards would cause confusion and in the best interest of standardization, only adopt one. The steering committee then went to vote against mp3 and abandon it forever.

Brandenburg was not the one to give up on 13 years of work and saw flicker of hope in licensing agreements that they had cut with a few hundred hockey stadiums. However, the per unit fee wasn’t likely to earn them significant profits and he knew that the home consumer was his target. He got his team to write a PC application that could encode and playback mp3 files. This was something revolutionary because for the first time, consumers could create their own mp3 files and play them at their home PCs. It was called Level 3 encoder or “L3Enc” and “was a miraculous piece of software, capable of taking 12 compact discs and shrinking them to the size of one, unencumbered by any digital rights management”. To promote the mp3, they incredibly decided to give the L3Enc away for free. They distributed thousands of floppy disks at trade shows. The team also created a prototype of the world’s first handheld mp3 player. They had created a whole new environment for music to be heard and distributed – a free encoder, a rapidly growing PC market enabling hearing the music at home and the handheld player “that could be built by any consumer electronics firm for a minimal per-unit licensing fee. But they elicited little interest from the music industry. The record companies got high profit margins from CDs, enjoyed high control over artists and didn’t see a reason to be interested in the potential of internet and digital music. Brandenburg also got his team to make an mp3 player for Windows95 which was dubbed as WinPlay3. It had the capacity to play 20 songs after which it would self-destruct and to play it again you had to send a registration fee to Fraunhofer. Sadly though they were stuck in a vicious circle – no one would buy an mp3 player if there were no mp3 files and there would be no mp3 files without an encoder. So, they launched their first website in 1995 where they offered versions of their L3Enc encoder for DOS, Windows and Linux for free. In case the users liked the product, they requested them to send 85 deutsche marks to Fraunhofer. The shareware encoder turned out to be a flop and very few people ever sent them the money

Part 3 – Resurrection – The Pirates of mp3

In the early days of the internet, one of the most sought after spaces were the chat rooms. Internet Relay Chat or the IRC was a “constellation of privately owned and operated servers” where you could participate by creating an anonymous username and joining any channel that was indicated by a hash mark #cricket #computers #politics (you know where Twitter has its origins). One of the most popular activities on these groups was exchanging pirated files or “warez”. “Music, games, magazines, pictures, pornography, fonts – they pirated anything that could be compressed.” They were organized as “The Warez Scene” or “The Scene”. The Scene members organized themselves as “loosely affiliated digital crews” who often competed to leak the latest material. They were often able to leak it the same day as the day it had been legally released (“zero day”) through hacking or with insider help from employees. While software privacy had been fairly rampant, music piracy had been hard because of data compression. And guess what came to the rescue – yes, mp3:

“Using Fraunhofer’s L3Enc encoder, NetFraCk had started a new crew, the world’s first ever digital music piracy group: Compress ‘Da Audio or CDA for short. On August 10, 1996, CDA had released to IRC the world’s first “officially” pirated mp3: “Until it Sleeps”, by Metallica, off their album Load. Within weeks, there were numerous rival crews and thousands of pirated songs.”

The author deftly uses the characters in his book to take forward its thrilling narrative. From “Kali” the mastermind behind one of the most infamous internet piracy groups in history (yeah, turned out to be an American Indian who led the group to leak 20,000 albums over 11 years and cost the music industry tens of millions of dollars) to 18 year old Shawn Fanning who created Napster, from Bram Cohen who invented BitTorrent to Glover, a reticent worker at the Polygram plant who made several bold leaks – each tells a story of human intentions and outcomes often entangled in inverse relationships.

I would probably end up reproducing the book so I would end the post here. Do check out the book if you are interested in all things music, digital, piracy, commerce and human motivation.,

About amita

Professional trajectory - Literature. Public Relations. Social Media. Personal - learning to cook, hopefully drive, figure whether to renew HBR and discipline myself into focusing on important and not urgent.
This entry was posted in Blog and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>