How is the music business?' I sometimes get asked by a friend. If I was a funeral director I could reply, 'Well you know, pretty steady, thanks, people always need us.'
Not so for my line of work, since I co-run an independent music label. My stock reply is, 'Well the music we have is great, but no one seems to be buying much these days.' The last 15 years have been very tough and the struggle to survive has only really been possible with the good graces of our label partner Martin Mills at Beggars Banquet.
'Why did it get so tough?' I got my answer in part by reading Stephen Witt's account of how people found a way to get music from the internet without paying for it. When Witt arrived at college in 1997, he had never heard of an mp3. By 2005, he had collected 1,500 gigabytes of music, nearly 15,000 albums' worth. These files were procured in chat channels and through Napster and BitTorrent. Witt admits he has not purchased an album with his own money since the turn of the millennium. Multiply this tale by hundreds of thousands of times and you start to understand how CD sales fell by a half between 2000 and 2007. It was impossible for Witt to actually listen to it all. The rush came from the illicit feeling of belonging to a subculture that was beating the system without really harming anyone and scoring a victory over the major labels. Internet piracy was this generation's experimental drug culture.
The question Witt addresses is where did all this music come from? First of all we hear about Karlheinz Brandenburg, a German software engineer at the state-run Fraunhofer Institute, who attempts to solve the problem of how to compress audio while preserving fidelity. The development of the mp3 and its player is described with great clarity. The Insititute's goal was to patent a new technology and to profit from granting licences to the music industry. It believed in intellectual property rights and had no clue as to the chaos it would unleash.
I learnt a huge amount from this section. The problem was that major labels just weren't interested. They could not see how the mp3 was a threat to their very existence. That in the words of one entrepreneur Ricky Adar talking to Brandenburg after their first meeting: 'Do you realise what you have done? You've killed the music industry.'
Next we hear the story of Dell Glover. This is the most entertaining part of the saga. It reads like an episode of Breaking Bad or a Walter Mosley crime thriller on speed. Glover, 21, a practising Baptist with a chinstrap beard, worked at the PolyGram CD manufacturing plant in North Carolina. His first job at the plant was to feed jewel cases into a shrink wrapper, or to apply Parental Advisory stickers. Eventually he worked his way up to a trusted position in management. He was also something of a computer nerd and immersed himself in chat rooms, specifically, Internet Relay Chat, which compared to the web's normal hangouts 'was like walking out of an air-conditioned mall into an open-air drug market'. There he discovered you could share files.
It was early in 1997 that Glover heard about a site, #mp3, where he found CD music files that had been shrunk to a twelfth of their original size. He downloaded a cracked copy of Fraunhofer's mp3 player and put in a request for the bots of #mp3 to serve him some of the files. A few minutes later he had a library of songs on his hard drive. Thus follows the story of how Glover became the world's leading leaker of pre-release CDs. As we hear how the Feds and the record industry closed in on their pirate prey, the suspense racks up to thriller levels.
The last story concerns the CEO of Universal Music, Doug Morris. This is the weakest part. Witt positions Morris as an almost superhuman being. We are told Morris knows a hit when he hears it, but what about his acts that were failures? The self-confessed technologically ignorant mogul does not cover himself in glory in the fight with the internet pirates. But his legacy is assured as he established the video channel Vevo, so labels get a revenue stream they might not otherwise have got.
One of our artists, Mark Kozelek, performing under the name Sun Kil Moon in Rome a few months ago, asked the audience, 'Where do you people come from since no one is buying my record any more?'
They chorused back at the figure on stage, 'Spotify'.
So the book ends with an excellent account of iTunes and the rise of the streaming services. The CD continues to linger on slightly longer than the death notices have advertised. Will the streaming services save the music industry? I for one, really really hope so. I need cheering up.
How Music Got Free: What Happens When an Entire Generation Commits the Same Crime? by Stephen Witt is published by Bodley Head at £20
Geoff Travis is the founder of Rough Trade Records, which discovered The Smiths, The Strokes and The Libertines. Follow him on Twitter: @aesychlus