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.

Classical Music, Declassified | Language of the Spirit: An Introduction to Classical Music by Jan Swafford

Language of the Spirit: An Introduction to Classical Music,
by Jan Swafford
Published by Basic Books (2017)
Rating: **** 

Introduction

By December, 2019, I had decided that one of the things I wanted to do in 2020 was to get back to classical music more seriously. For several years, between Grade 6 and Grade 10, classical music had consumed large chunks of my time: amidst theory lessons and piano lessons, all I was learning was classical pieces for examinations, or music in method books, all composed by famous composers. It was only in one of my later theory lessons that my music teacher at the time introduced me to the different periods of music composition. That revelation coincided with the time I was learning about literary periods, and the overlap was quite a phenomenon for my young mind.

Of course as time passed, my interest weaned off, and I stopped my piano lessons and everything that went along with it. For a while, therefore, I played the same 3 pieces I learned for exams in 2011 every time someone asked me to perform. Anyway, long story short, I figured that if I was going to get back to classical music, I ought to educate myself about it’s history and relevance, to some degree. Enter Jan Swafford.

Short Chapters 

One of the classiest things to do. With non-fiction books that present brief histories of, or introductions to individual subjects or niche areas, there’s often this desire to cover everything in the field, which stems out of the author’s own passion for the subject. I know that if I wrote a non-fiction book, for example, I’d want to cover everything imaginable about the subject. However, very often, that slips into making the book inaccessible to the general public – an outcome that isn’t the most desirable when you are trying to influence or improve general visibility for a craft.

Swafford keeps his chapters short and crisp, with a lucid writing style and dry wit that sparks off the page and keeps the pages turning. One of the more helpful things is the fact that he doesn’t seek to delve into a historical overview of every significant piece in an era or by a particular composer. He writes about the pieces that appeal to him – displaying a bias toward choral pieces, but that nevertheless allows him to explain the characteristic features of the piece by the composer.

Additionally, along with short chapters, the thing I admired was the selection of recommended pieces neatly highlighted in Bold, allowing for optional (yet highly recommended) listening alongside the reading. This book consumed me. Quite honestly, it left me wondering why books didn’t come with recommended soundtracks or playlists, and whether I could embark on another quest: to create playlists for the books I read – to capture the mood and emotion of the book most appropriately. That is, however, for another day.

Simplicity

Swafford is a composer himself. Another peril of having an expert write a book meant for beginners is the prospect of highly technical language. I’m not a complete beginner to music theory, however, there is jargon that is consistently beyond me. I am not an expert, and would not have liked for this book to have assumed any knowledge. To my surprise, the book assumed nothing. From start to finish, it felt as though someone had clasped my hand and walked me across all the 88-keys of a piano, teaching me what each sounded like and meant, but also helping me build the vocabulary into my own lexicon.

Swafford does a magnificent job structurally, building through and weaving more famous composers with less publicly known faces, allowing you to appreciate the breadth and depth of technique employed by these composers.

What I wish the book contained though was a little more contextual information at the beginning of each ‘era’ so to speak – to place and locate it precisely in history. The issue with exploring composers is that at times (quite often), their histories overlap, leading to repetition. This is not a fatal flaw, nonetheless, I did feel that it compromised my own reading of the subject.

Conclusion

I’m looking forward to reading his more “heavy” work, The Vintage Guide to Classical Music, very soon. This is definitely a good starting point for anybody interested in understanding classical music better, or for anybody seeking some good classical music recommendations.