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How Music Got Free

Stephen Witts is a journalist and author of 'How Music Got Free.'


  It was not so long ago when people purchased CD’s at stores or even ordered them through the mail. It was a time before iTunes, Pandora and Spotify streamed songs directly into our pockets.

Author and journalist Stephen Wittchronicled the riveting story of crime, obsession and the desire for instant access to music in his book How Music Got Free: The End of an Industry, the Turn of the Century, and the Patient Zero of Piracy (Viking, 2015). 

Image of Stephen Witts, a journalist and author of 'How Music Got Free.'
Stephen Witts, a journalist and author of 'How Music Got Free.'

  Host Frank Stasio talks with Witt about the three central figures in the story including Dell Glover, a North Carolinian who became part of the largest file sharing group in the world. Glover was the point man who helped leak some of the most popular albums of the 2000’s. 

The story of music piracy starts in the 1980’s with the invention of the JPEG photograph digital file. The Joint Photographic Experts Group (JPEG) created it and wanted to make a similar file for video. The new group became the Moving Pictures Expert Group, also known as MPEG.

Karlheinz Brandenburg, who Witt describes as intensely geeky and eccentric, was part of the MPEG and added an audio layer to create the MP3 file. However, he couldn’t get meaningful corporate backing or traction in the marketplace, despite his breakthrough.

In 1995, out of desperation, Brandenburg posted the encoder online and it got the ball rolling.

“This underground scene of software hackers and pirates got a hold of it,” Witt says. “This was supposed to be a demonstration encoder, but soon they cracked it to enable full functionality.”

With a digital audio file now on the Internet, that nudged the door open for piracy. Dell Glover, who worked on the packaging line at a CD manufacturing plant, became the main figure in underground sharing.

Glover leaked more than 2,000 albums, especially rap artists like Eminem, 50 Cent and Rick Ross.

“He held the disc in his hand and ripped it to an MP3,” Witt says. “He’s the patient zero of music piracy.”

His company had security measures to prevent employees stealing and leaking CD's, but Glover found a loophole.

“Dell realized people were wearing large belt buckles that would set off the wand, but they’d never make you take it off,” Witt says.

Thus, Glover started hiding CD's in his pants behind a large belt buckle.

Unlike most leakers who pirated music with no expectation of reward, like Wikipedia editors, Glover turned a profit, making $80,000-90,000 a year on the side. The online libraries consisted of not only music, but also TV shows, movies and games.

“He’d take them, rip them to DVD and sell out of his trunk,” Witt says.

Glover was part of a larger group called Rabid Neurosis, an online group that had a network of leakers across the globe. Authorities spent five to six years trying to track them down to no avail until 2007 when they caught the leader.

The music industry has changed greatly since then with the popularity of streaming services like Spotify, though Witt doesn’t know if that’s a sustainable model.

Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.
Hady Mawajdeh is a native Texan, born and raised in San Antonio. He listened to Fresh Air growing up and fell in love with public radio. He earned his B.A. in Mass Communication at Texas State University and specialized in electronic media. He worked at NPR affiliate stations KUT and KUTX in Austin, Texas as an intern, producer, social media coordinator, and a late-night deejay.
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