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‘How Music Got Free’ Explores the Human Side of Music Piracy’s Beginnings

Paramount+’s new music docuseries How Music Got Free is inspired by Stephen Witt’s book of the same name, which almost wasn’t the groundbreaking tell-all it turned out to be. The series explores how the music industry transitioned from selling high-priced CDs to almost collapsing due to piracy.

“I wanted to write a book about the history of the MP3. That’s what I thought I was writing,” Witt shared in a recent conversation. He explained his journey to Germany where he interviewed the engineers behind the MP3 technology. “They spent 10 years developing this sophisticated technology, and then it conquered the world, but they weren’t talking about how specifically it conquered the world,” Witt said.

The creators of the MP3 were reluctant to discuss how it became the global standard for sharing and consuming music, partially because it almost led to the collapse of the industry. It wasn’t major label executives pushing the technology, nor the artists. Instead, teenagers seized it and used it to pirate files, according to Witt. And that’s the crux of How Music Got Free.

The docuseries examines how the internet irreversibly altered the music industry, making it possible for anyone to download music for free instantly. This instigated a race among pirates to be the first to distribute new albums or singles. This required insider help from someone within the industry, which the series reveals in shocking ways.

How Music Got Free isn’t a dull business documentary. It captures the human element of piracy and demonstrates how a single person can disrupt an entire industry given the right circumstances.

In a discussion with producer Witt and director Alexandria Stapleton, they shared their views on the impact of piracy and why this story hasn’t been told until now, despite its significant influence on global business for decades.

Hugh McIntyre: I went into this series thinking I knew the story, but there was so much more. How did this become a series?

Alexandria Stapleton: It began with Stephen’s book. I was working with Spring Hill, where we discussed turning it into a series. The executives were excited because they saw it as an explosive, crazy story that needed to be told. When I read the book, I could immediately envision how it could be adapted into a series.

McIntyre: Stephen, what led you to decide that this was more than an article, but an entire book?

Stephen Witt: Initially, I aimed to write a book about the history of the MP3. I interviewed the German engineers who developed it and realized there was a gap in their narrative. They didn’t address how the technology became widespread because they had no industry buy-in. As I researched more, I discovered that teenagers were using the technology to pirate files, which convinced me to rework the book entirely around that story.

When I connected with Spring Hill and Alexandria, we faced challenges conceptualizing how to turn the book into a documentary, but the interviews with the pirates really made it work.

McIntyre: Alexandria, what was your main motivation to turn this book into a series?

Stapleton: The story resonated with my own teenage years and early adulthood. The real heartbeat of the series is about underdog stories like Del’s and the factory workers. I’m a Black Southerner, and highlighting underexplored Southern and Black stories is crucial for me.

McIntyre: How was it to see this transitional phase from being a book to multimedia with involvement from MTV Studios and Paramount+?

Stapleton: Finding the right home was essential because of the vast MTV archival library we had access to, which enriched the series’ narrative.

Witt: It was a learning process as we navigated making it into a film. I wasn’t nervous; it was more surprising to find myself talking to Hollywood producers.

McIntyre: Alexandria, how did you feel about the people you featured, like Del and Shelby’s factory workers?

Stapleton: I’m definitely on their side. They were underpaid and exploited, making CDs that cost almost nothing to produce but were sold for $20. They needed to tell their side of the story, beyond the legality of their actions. They were stuck in a system that didn’t provide for them while the industry was printing money.

The pirates were often young and disconnected from the impact of their actions. They were motivated by a love for music, not by profit or malice. The issues were amplified by a decadent early 2000s culture showcased in music videos and pop culture.

McIntyre: It’s a stark contrast to now, where people recognize the disparity between CEOs and average workers.

Witt: Exactly. The pirates essentially filled a technological vacuum left by the music industry, which wasn’t ready to let go of the profitable CD model. They weren’t trying to hurt anyone; they were just fascinated by the technology and the celebrity culture.

McIntyre: How was it to get these people to talk about their experiences openly?

Witt: Many were eager to share their side, especially after their traumatic experiences with the FBI. Some preferred not to talk, but enough were open about their stories. Del was particularly forthcoming, knowing his role was significant and wanting to share that.

McIntyre: It was surprising to see Eminem discuss his experiences alongside those who contributed to the piracy that affected him.

Stapleton: Artists like Eminem and Timbaland survived the piracy storm and could reflect on it. They realized it was less about malice and more about a failure within the industry to adapt. Artists were hurt by this, too, but it was more a systemic failure than the result of individual actions.

This nuanced understanding helps humanize all sides involved. The original narrative around Metallica versus Napster was too simplistic. It’s more complex, involving different perspectives within the industry and beyond.

How Music Got Free captures these complexities and brings a granular, human perspective to a pivotal era in music history.

Source: Forbes