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

How Music Got Free: The End of an Industry, the Turn of the Century, and the Patient Zero of Piracy
by Stephen Richard Witt
Published by Viking (2015) 
Rating: ****

Introduction

Music is a very important part of my life.  I’ve recounted my own personal history with audio forms, downloading and piracy here. I don’t download music anymore – not since Spotify and other streaming services came to India. These services have changed the way that I work in more ways than one. Finding a book that methodically recounted, and exposed a similar history was quite lovely.

Communicating Complexity

When I read non-fiction books that hone in on specific subjects, one of the things I look out for is how well they communicate complexity, or technical information that would not ordinarily be accessed by individuals. This book begins with the discovery of the MP3 format, the science that went into understanding the frequencies the human ear could hear and the compression that was used to produce the output necessary. My knowledge of this is relatively reasonable given my usage of audio production software and a few of my friendships, but what I particularly admired in this book was the kind of simplicity with which chains in a logical sequence of sentences were formed. The filler sentences, the ones that establish context and provide examples and analogies: those are the crucial pieces of information we latch onto in order to understand something better, and Witt does a great job of breaking down some barriers for us there.

Picking Narratives

I highlighted this in another review recently, but it was great to see three figures form such an integral part of this story: first, a researcher, second, someone within the industry, and finally, a pirate. Piracy provides access to a lot of information, but it’s also disrupted industries and forced companies and law to innovate mechanism to prevent the stifling of incentives to produce, or create. These three narratives provide a lot of relatable information and contextualize things to time, since there is now a reference point for when things in the book are taking place, or how they’re actually impacting people.

Conclusion

A book worth reading. The only thing I found disappointing within the book was the lack of discussion of the freely accessible, legal art that’s come out of compression. The Creative Commons license, under which Soundcloud, for example, helps artists protect a original content was almost non-existent throughout the book. This would have felt more complete had it discussed the subject, which I personally believe is an extremely integral part of what piracy has done.

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