How Music Got Free: What Happens When an Entire Generation Commits the Same Crime? by Stephen Witt - review by Scott Timberg

Scott Timberg

Dire Straits

How Music Got Free: What Happens When an Entire Generation Commits the Same Crime?


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Virtually every music lover in the Anglo-American world has a memory of them: secular temples where lovers of jazz, rock, soul or symphonic music could gather to praise, damn, compare household saints and pay their respects. We called them record stores and they were a big part of growing up – of adulthood, even – for those of us born any time between 1940 and 1980. Like a lot of things in our cultural life, it seemed as if they’d be here forever – and wherever we rambled. When I left my Maryland home town for a university a few hundred miles to the north, there was another one there. When I left to spend a junior year abroad, I found a small galaxy of them in Brighton – selling new and used vinyl and CDs, with posters of Dylan or Chet Baker or The Smiths on the wall. The Soviet Union crumbled and fell, Europe’s map redrew itself, the Tories gave way to Labour and the Republicans to the Democrats, but the record stores remained. When I moved to Los Angeles in the late 1990s, I found an even larger array, some with legends behind them. But in 2000, sales of recorded music peaked, and thereafter began falling. Musicians watched their royalties shrink, record labels began to slash their staffs and offer new bands lower advances, record stores started closing en masse, their savants shunted off to unemployment.

How did it all happen? Certainly, no change as complex as the music industry’s collapse occurs because of a single factor, and narrative histories necessarily simplify reality. But the invention of the easy-to-share digital file – the MP3, most famously – and the advent of mass piracy made much of

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