How Music Got Free

“How Music Got Free” by Steven Witt

Most of us who lived through the end of the compact disc era and the rise of the MP3 era think we already know the story behind how music went from an incredibly profitable medium to one whose economic future seems to be in continual peril. It goes something like this: CDs were ridiculously lucrative but completely unprotected; MP3s came along; then Napster and its heirs exploited that shortcoming to completely remake the way we think about how music should be sold and distributed, etc.

Stephen Witt’s book “How Music Got Free: The End of an Industry, the Turn of the Century, and the Patient Zero of Piracy” seeks to disabuse us of the simplicity of that narrative. It fills in the many gaps that we never knew about, digging into the character and motivation of the key players in the industry’s hellacious evolution—not just the Shawn Fannings of yore, but also the engineers who created the MP3 format, the record industry executives who grappled with it, and the early pirates who seeded the landscape with so much free music. Several months ago I read a riveting excerpt that Witt published in The New Yorker which tells the tale of a single worker at a CD manufacturing plant who was responsible for the initial leaking of over two thousand albums onto the Internet over the course of a decade.

From 2001 on, Glover was the world’s leading leaker of pre-release music. He claims that he never smuggled the CDs himself. Instead, he tapped a network of low-paid temporary employees, offering cash or movies for leaked disks. The handoffs took place at gas stations and convenience stores far from the plant. Before long, Glover earned a promotion, which enabled him to schedule the shifts on the packaging line. If a prized release came through the plant, he had the power to ensure that his man was there.

The pattern of label consolidation had led to a stream of hits at Universal’s factory. Weeks before anyone else, Glover had the hottest albums of the year. He ripped the albums on his PC with software that Kali had sent, and then uploaded the files to him. The two made weekly phone calls to schedule the timing of the leaks.

Glover left the distribution to Kali. Unlike many Scene members, he didn’t participate in technical discussions about the relative merits of constant and variable bit rates. He listened to the CDs, but he often grew bored after only one or two plays. When he was done with a disk, he stashed it in a black duffelbag in his bedroom closet.

By 2002, the duffelbag held more than five hundred disks, including nearly every major release to have come through the Kings Mountain plant. Glover leaked Lil Wayne’s ‘500 Degreez’ and Jay Z’s ‘The Blueprint.’ He leaked Queens of the Stone Age’s ‘Rated R’ and 3 Doors Down’s ‘Away from the Sun.’ He leaked Björk. He leaked Ashanti. He leaked Ja Rule. He leaked Nelly. He leaked Blink-182’s ‘Take Off Your Pants and Jacket.’

How Music Got Free” is just out this week. Read the excerpt at For those interested, read a review at