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How Music Got Free

What happens when an entire generation commits the same crime?

By Stephen Witt
18-minute read
Audio available
How Music Got Free: What happens when an entire generation commits the same crime? by Stephen Witt

How Music Got Free (2015) tells the remarkable story of the mp3 file, from its inception in a German audio lab to its discovery by a man working in a North Carolina CD-pressing plant, who would eventually team up with a piracy group to bring the entire music industry to its knees.

  • Musicians and music consumers
  • Anyone interested in copyright law
  • Anyone interested in internet freedom

A member of the pirate generation, Stephen Witt holds degrees in mathematics and journalism and has worked in economic development and the stock market.

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How Music Got Free

What happens when an entire generation commits the same crime?

By Stephen Witt
  • Read in 18 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 11 key ideas
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How Music Got Free: What happens when an entire generation commits the same crime? by Stephen Witt
Synopsis

How Music Got Free (2015) tells the remarkable story of the mp3 file, from its inception in a German audio lab to its discovery by a man working in a North Carolina CD-pressing plant, who would eventually team up with a piracy group to bring the entire music industry to its knees.

Key idea 1 of 11

Since the early days of the CD, some people realized there was a more efficient way to deliver music.

When the very first CDs started appearing on the shelves of music stores, people who were familiar with data storage already knew these discs were an inefficient delivery system. This was especially true for those who studied psychoacoustics, the science of sound perception.

As early as the 1980s, one German team working with empirical psychoacoustic data started experimenting with digital music compression.

In 1987, a team lead by doctoral student Karlheinz Brandenburg came together at the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany. Their goal was to reduce the size of digital audio files by way of extracting bits of information and sound that were scientifically proven to be imperceptible to the human ear.

Originally, the goal was to reduce the size of a CD track, which averaged about 1.4 million bits, to one-twelfth of its size, i.e., about 128,000 bits.

After years of testing and collaborating, the team finally reached their goal. They took music from every genre and used the recordings of a single human voice, bird sounds and even jet engines in order to perfect their compression methods. Interestingly, the human voice on its own proved to be the most challenging sound to deal with. Fun fact: the team tested it by using the acapella intro to Suzanne Vega’s Tom’s Diner.

The group continued perfecting their work and it wasn’t until 1989, when Brandenburg collaborated with James Johnston, who was working independently on his own psychoacoustic algorithm at AT&T-Bell Labs, that the quality of their compressed files started to sound indistinguishable from that of a CD.

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