terça-feira, 16 de junho de 2015
Review: In ‘How Music Got Free,’ Stephen Witt Details an Industry Sea Change
The New York Times - June 15, 2015
In Terry Zwigoff’s 2001 film, “Ghost World,” a teenager, Enid, walks into the room where Seymour keeps his vast collection of old 78 r.p.m. records and says: “You are, like, the luckiest guy in the world. I would kill to have stuff like this.”
Seymour, who is much older, much nerdier and hasn’t had a date in years, responds, “Please, go ahead and kill me.”
It used to take geek fortitude and money to build a solid music collection, as well as a temperate room to store it in. But a big world has grown small, and a shaggy world has grown cool and metallic to the touch. Enid could already, in 2001, have toted all those records home on a thumb drive.
Stephen Witt’s nimble new book, “How Music Got Free,” is the richest explanation to date about how the arrival of the MP3 upended almost everything about how music is distributed, consumed and stored. It’s a story you may think you know, but Mr. Witt brings fresh reporting to bear, and complicates things in terrific ways.
He pushes past Napster (Sean Fanning, dorm room, lawsuits) and goes deep on the German audio engineers who, drawing on decades of research into how the ear works, spent years developing the MP3 only to almost see it nearly become the Betamax to another group’s VHS. Along the way, Mr. Witt delivers a tidy primer in the field of psychoacoustics.
Even better, he has found the man — a manager at a CD factory in small-town North Carolina — who over eight years leaked nearly 2,000 albums before their release, including some of the best-known rap albums of all time. He smuggled most of them out behind an oversized belt buckle before ripping them and putting them online.
Mr. Witt refers to this winsome if somewhat hapless manager, Dell Glover, as “the most fearsome digital pirate of them all.” All Mr. Glover really wanted, the author suggests, was some extra money to put rims on his car.
(He would later be arrested for his thefts and, after cooperating with the F.B.I., serve three months in prison.)
Mr. Glover, who never graduated from college, is a good movie waiting to happen. It took the author three years, he says, to gain his trust. Mr. Witt asks, “Dell, why haven’t you told anybody any of this before.” Mr. Glover replies: “Man, no one ever asked.”
Into these two narratives Mr. Witt inserts a third, the story of Doug Morris, who ran the Universal Music Group from 1995 to 2011. At some points you wonder if Mr. Morris has been introduced just so the author can have sick fun with him.
The German inventors and Mr. Glover operate as if they unwittingly have voodoo dolls of this man. Every time they make an advance, and prick the music industry, there’s a jump to Mr. Morris for a reaction shot, screaming in his corner office. Fairly or not, he comes to personify nearly every bad decision the major music labels made, notably clinging to the CD format for far too long.
But Mr. Witt humanizes him, and comes to admire his business instincts and survival skills. Few people have much sympathy for record label guys. But when Mr. Morris finally makes a shrewd move near the end of this book, securing for labels a plump share of the advertising income from online videos, you can’t help feeling almost happy for him.
“How Music Got Free” is Mr. Witt’s first book, and it has what a music executive might call crossover appeal. That is, it has the clear writing and brisk reportorial acumen of a Michael Lewis book. You can safely give a copy to your father who reads Barron’s.
But Mr. Witt also operates at ground level. He himself “pirated on an industrial scale,” he admits. When he arrived at college in 1997, he had never heard of an MP3. “By 2005, when I moved to New York,” he says, “I had collected 1,500 gigabytes of music, nearly 15,000 albums worth.”
He has a talent for summing up an era, noting how in dorm rooms “music piracy became to the late ’90s what drug experimentation was to the late ’60s: a generation-wide flouting of both social norms and the existing body of law, with little thought of consequences.”
He was drawn to piracy, partly because it was part of such a vibrant subculture. There’s a lot of Seymour from “Ghost World” in him. Writing about a pirate music club known as Oink, he remarks, “The ‘High Fidelity’ types were still concerned with high fidelity, of course; only now, instead of exchanging angry letters about phonograph needles in the back pages of Playboy, they flamed one another over the relative merits of various MP3 bit rates in hundred-page threads on Oink forums.”
Mr. Witt covers a lot of terrain in “How Music Got Free” without ever becoming bogged down in one place for long. He is knowledgeable about intellectual property issues. In finding his reporting threads, he doesn’t miss the big picture: He gives us a loge seat to the entire digital music revolution.
He is especially good on the arrival of iTunes and the iPod. iTunes may have “promised to cleanse the world of sin,” he writes, by getting consumers to pay for downloads.
Yet “Apple’s rise to market dominance in the 2000s relied, at least initially, on acting almost like a money launderer for the spoils of Napster,” he says. “If music piracy was the ’90s equivalent of experimentation with illegal drugs, then Apple had invented the vaporizer.”
It’s a bonus that Mr. Witt’s book is casually witty. I could provide countless examples, but I will end with one. He explains the commercial rise of country music in the 2000s by suggesting the technological shortcomings of its audience.
“For the major labels,” he says, suddenly “the most important sales demographics in music were those who didn’t know how to share.”
HOW MUSIC GOT FREE
The End of an Industry, the Turn of the Century, and the Patient Zero of Piracy
By Stephen Witt
296 pages. Viking. $27.95.
Posted by Francisco Augusto Vaz Brasil at 20:58