Who destroyed the music industry?

A new book called How Music Got Free uncovers the story of the man who was the most prolific leaker of recorded music in the wake of the MP3 revolution.

The new edition of the New Yorker carries the story of one of the most important people in the history of the music industry, someone you’ve never heard of. Dell Glover never made music, never occupied a significant position in the record industry, never put on a gig, never ran a magazine, never did any of the things people who are supposed to be important in the music industry do.

The New Yorker piece is written by Stephen Witt, and it’s based on his astonishing forthcoming book How Music Got Free. The book tells the story of three people: Glover, Karlheinz Brandenburg, the German academic who was the key figure in the invention of the MP3, and Doug Morris, the music industry executive who made Universal the most powerful record label in the world.

But it’s Glover’s story that is the most compelling. His sole qualification for changing the face of music forever was that he had a job at Universal’s CD pressing plant in Kings Mountain, North Carolina, and that he became a member of a file-sharing group called Rabid Neurosis (RNS). It was this combination that meant that, in Witt’s words, “from 2001 on, Glover was the world’s leading leaker of pre-release music”.

With his access to music – during this period Universal was cornering the market in hip-hop, which was becoming the most popular music in the world – Glover was able to get albums to RNS weeks ahead of their release. Over its 11-year span, RNS was responsible for leaking more than 20,000 albums.

What’s fascinating about this is that none of the principals were bothered about making money. The code of “the Scene” – the group name given to filesharing groups – was that they were not pirates. They were not interested in financial gain, or even leaking the albums to the wider world. They just wanted to be first: that was the badge of honour. And, of course, if you supplied the Scene with new material you would be granted access to the films and music other Scenesters had uploaded. 

For Glover, as much as anything, it was a way of making sure he never had to pay for entertainment (though he also made serious money selling pirated movies, especially). Needless to say – as everyone with music they didn’t pay for on their hard drives, which is everyone, knows – the music didn’t stay inside that closed circle for long. As Witt writes in the New Yorker: “There was scarcely a person younger than 30 who couldn’t trace music in his or her collection to [Glover].”

It seems as though music industry executives simply couldn’t comprehend the notion of not-for-profit theft. The labels only started taking notice of the MP3 format only when technology companies started making MP3 players – at which point they came down on the first manufacturers like a ton of bricks. If there had been a clear economy built around leaked music, the labels might have felt as if they had a target. Instead, it was as if a fiendish gang had robbed a jewellery store only to put all the diamonds out on a help-yourself stall. It simply didn’t compute.

In the end, the authorities caught up with Glover. In October 2009 he pleaded guilty to one count of felony conspiracy to commit copyright infringement. He served three months in prison. Not that it could save the music industry. In the three years after Glover started leaking Universal’s music in 2001, the company laid off 11% of its workforce. They never knew the name of the man who had caused them to lose their jobs.

• How Music Got Free is published by Bodley Head on 18 June.


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