'How Music Got Free: The End of an Industry, the Turn of the Century and the Patient Zero of Piracy', by Stephen Witt - Review

By Niven, John | The Spectator, June 13, 2015 | Go to article overview

'How Music Got Free: The End of an Industry, the Turn of the Century and the Patient Zero of Piracy', by Stephen Witt - Review


Niven, John, The Spectator


How Music Got Free: The End of an Industry, the Turn of the Century and the Patient Zero of Piracy Stephen Witt

Viking, pp.304, £20, ISBN: 9781847922823

In 1994 I was working in marketing at London Records, a frothy pop label part-owned by the Polygram Group -- both long gone, swallowed up by Warner Bros. That summer some Americans came into our office to pitch us a project. Rather than unfurling some band or singer, they wanted to talk about technology, specifically the internet and what it would mean to our business in the future. They were looking for an investment of around 50 grand. They talked about how, in the future, kids would buy music on their computers and that they would be able to do it anywhere -- on the train, in the street.

'But where will the wires go? Where will you plug it in?' we asked, back in those dial-up days.

'There won't be any wires,' they said.

'Where will the CD come out of? Your computer?'

'There won't be any CDs.'

'But -- what about the artwork? The record cover? Will your computer print off the artwork and then...'

'No no, there won't be any CDs or artwork or anything. People will just want to hear the music. They don't care about all this other stuff.'

How we laughed. Needless to say we sent these madmen packing with a hellish boot ringing on their backsides.

Later on we found out that the company they were setting up was called Yahoo. Later still, over redundancy drinks, we figured out that if we'd invested the 50 grand they were looking for in Yahoo stock in 1994 (rather than in making, say, the second Menswear album) we'd all have been richer than Croesus by now.

My point is this: back in 1994 -- when girls liked boys who liked girls who liked boys and we all did the white line -- no one in the record industry had any idea what was coming down the pipe to destroy them. Stephen Witt's brilliant book tells you exactly how the perfect storm that forever changed the way we consume music took shape. Like many great works of investigative journalism it makes it clear that this is one of those stories you think you know. Until you realise you don't.

In thrillerish fashion Witt interweaves three stories, three storm fronts that will eventually meet. …

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