How Music Got Free | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Tuesday, June 25th, 2024  

How Music Got Free

Paramount+, June 11, 2024

Jun 11, 2024 Web Exclusive Photography by Paramount+ Bookmark and Share

Do non-music people care why they don’t have to pay to listen to music? The grammatically incorrectly titled How Music Got Free tells the story of this came to be, which, arguably, most music people already know the story behind.

Based on the 2015 book of the same name by Stephen Witt, How Music Got Free is in two 42-minute parts (why is this not just an 85-minute film?). Method Man is the voiceover for the film whose narrative is delivered mainly through Black hip hop artists and producers such as Timbaland, 50 Cent, and Eminem (who is the film’s co-producer with LeBron James). There are a couple of women including the one-time head of the Recording Industry Association of America, Hilary Rosen, and Rocsi Diaz, the host of 106 & Park, whose input adds nothing whatsoever. There are a few White recording industry men such as Jimmy Iovine, Steve Berman, Dennis Dennehy and Paul Rosenberg. Then there are the ones who started the whole thing: a slew of primarily White tech nerds, plus former CD manufacturing plant workers—all Black.

It’s these plant workers, based in Shelby, North Carolina that start off How Music Got Free. The visual plays like a science fiction film about an apocalyptic future, that is, the advent of the internet. A quick overview of the trajectory of music formats with a focus on CDs brings us to the CD manufacturing plant and the people who worked there. They talk about the environment, which was “a nice place to work.” They talk about how the manufacturing would happen. It’s the contrast between seeing platinum plaques on the plant’s walls and the $8.50 and hour they were getting paid that made the workers think: I want some of plaque money. Next step was to start stealing the product outright. They are gleeful as they remember the different places they would steal the discs from and how they would smuggle them out of the plant to sell them. They’re robbing the place that was giving the whole town a steady paycheck and a good place to work. “I didn’t feel bad, not even a little bit,” says one of them. Does he realize they’re mainly robbing Black artists?

On the other side of the story are the “rippers” who loaded up CDs into their hard drives and shared them on what was originally called the “Warez Scene.” Nerds stay nerds and these tech-savvy sneaks are just grown-up versions of their thieving selves. Recounting their past illegal behaviors in the software and music space, the rippers sound, and look like they’re in a police interrogation room, making full confessions of their egregious crimes, their reasoning thoroughly unreasonable. They see themselves as Robin Hood characters, completely not understanding that they’re not robbing the rich to give to the poor. They’re not helping promote the artist, which is another justification one of them offers. Not unlike serial killers, they are smug and continue to defend their position and their actions, over 20 years later, still not understanding what they did was wrong. If anything, they are proud of their crimes.

The music industry, as always, is dragging behind the technology trend, taking all the wrong steps to deal with the issue, and missing the mark by miles. They sued the music fans, which continues to be a head-scratching decision, to no avail. Then Iovine makes the genius move of getting Steve Jobs to pay $150,000 to have the Apple iPod in a 50 Cent video, marking the average consumers’ transition to the new music format and player. This is great, for Apple. As far as music, it’s not stopping theft. Now they’ve made it even easier to access and listen to your stolen goods.

The heartbreaking part of How Music Got Free is the artists who are shocked, angry and frantic. “Post Traumatic Leak Disorder” is how Eminem describes his paranoia at the height of pirating. Even more than the recording companies, the artists have a huge lack of understanding of what is happening, and why. Where the industry went the litigation route, the artists went the beg and pleading route, both without the desired result.

Going back to the original question, it’s doubtful a non-music person would be interested in looking under the hood of one of the best things that’s happened to them: access to all the music there is for the price of one CD per month—at most. As a music person, it’s enraging to watch How Music Got Free. The anger takes turns being directed at the CD thieves at the plant, the pirates and eventually the record labels.

How Music Got Free’s final statement is “Most call them pirates, but they should call them pioneers.” Strongly disagree with this. Compressing music to the portable MP3 format—the most degraded sonically—is the revolutionary technological progress. Using that format to illegally distribute music without the artist earning anything from their work is simply robbery. (

Author rating: 7/10

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