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August 11, 2015

Book Notes - Stephen Witt "How Music Got Free"

How Music Got Free

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Stephen Witt's How Music Got Free: The End of an Industry, the Turn of the Century, and the Patient Zero of Piracy examines technology's effects on the music industry in a book as informative as it is entertaining and readable.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"A propulsive and fascinating portrait of the people who helped upend an industry and challenge how music and media are consumed."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In his own words, here is Stephen Witt's Book Notes music playlist for his book How Music Got Free: The End of an Industry, the Turn of the Century, and the Patient Zero of Piracy:

For five years I researched a book on mp3s that I thought would never be published. I couldn't listen to music while I wrote—it was distracting—but after work each night I'd search the private torrent economy for psychedelic inspiration. In my book, I focused on popular music, since that's what the pirates, the music executives, and, I assumed, the reading public cared about. Privately, though, my tastes turned recherché. Here's a selection of "hits" from my three favorite genres: screwed-up Houston rap, experimental Japanese metal, and avant-garde contemporary classical.

Three Six Mafia featuring Lil Flip — Rainbow Colors
Purple drink oozed out of Houston like a gas leak, contaminating the already Dirty South with its narcotic after-effects. Although it was mixed with Sprite and spiked with Jolly Ranchers, the true appeal of the stuff was always the codeine, and opiate addiction had the same effect on rappers in the naughts as it had once had on rockers in the seventies: the music got slow, the lyrics got dark, and the production turned bizarre. DJ Paul, who was to Three Six what the RZA was to Wu-Tang, here layers a meandering Tangerine Dream sample over an Orff-inspired choral loop, while delivering one of my all-time favorite rhymes: "I'm zoned up and seeing double/ plus everything that I'm seeing is already double/ so that's like four of you motherfuckers."

Jóhann Jóhannson — IBM 1403, Printer
The Icelandic composer is having a moment now, after his score for the Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything was nominated for an Oscar. But I've been following his work for years, and my favorite piece is "IBM 1401: A User's Manual," the orchestral suite he dedicated to his father, who worked at IBM for many years as a technician. On this highlight track, Jóhannson mixes gentle chimes and swelling strings with a taped reading from the actual User's Manual of a Big Blue-era mainframe computer. The instructions for maintaining the drive housing are insanely complex—they sound like one of those fake Tim and Eric infomercials—but this is, without question, the best song ever written about fixing your printer.

OM — At Giza
OM frontman Al Cisneros probably loses more weed in a week than most people smoke in a lifetime. Still, if you appreciate the experience of being cornered by a stoned weirdo at a house party, you can understand the appeal of this 15-minute fuzz-pedal bass jam. The chanted (yes, really) lyrics are a mix of pseudo-spiritual gibberish and solecism; the monotonous drum work of Chris Hakius attempts, through stoner logic, to place the listener in a blissful state of trance. I know, it sounds ridiculous, but the song works.

Gucci Mane — Round One (remix by SALEM)
Thuggishness in rap music is usually a put-on, but Gucci Mane is an authentic goon—his war with the BMF drug cartel ended with at least one verified homicide to his credit, like if Omar from the Wire had become a musical superstar. The supposed debauchery of the EDM underground is similarly overhyped—but not for Salem, the pioneering Witch House trio that brought a single mom from Michigan together with two gay truck stop hustlers. There is nothing more potent on this Earth than a Salem remix of the Trap God from 2010 or 2011, the peak period of creativity for both acts. Unfortunately, the magic is unlikely to be replicated: the members of Salem are all addicted to meth, and Gucci is stuck in a Federal penitentiary until at least 2016 for a variety of colorful crimes.

Corrupted — El Mundo Frio
The Japanese doom metal legends Corrupted don't sit for interviews, don't pose for photographs, and don't appear on magazine covers. You can't stream their music (at least, not legally) and their releases tend toward limited edition runs that get passed around the torrent sites by a dedicated fan club of feverish metal nerds. This is their masterpiece, a 72-minute farrago of classical harp, poorly vocalized grunting and drop-C electric guitar, that crawls along at 60 beats per minute and is sung entirely in Spanish.

Terry Riley — In C
What seems like (and, indeed, probably was) the ill-considered output of a four-tab acid journey turned out to be one of the most important compositions of the latter half of the 20th century. Riley's sheet music for this work consisted of a single page of short musical phrases, all separate, all in the key of C, to be played repetitively, by "an indefinite number of performers." With no fixed instrumentation, tempo, or structure, Riley created a beautiful, formless, musical mutant that inspired decades of minimalist experimentation.

Mike Jones ft. Slim Thug and Paul Wall — Still Tippin'
There are three ways to be a fan of rap music. First, you can listen to Hot 97 and refresh Worldstar and cheer along for Drake and Nicki like the rest of the basics. Second, you can be one of these cornball phonies who edits the Wikipedia page for Tribe Called Quest and writes cranky posts about "real hip-hop" on Reddit, even though you were probably born in like 1992 or something. Third, (and this is what I recommend), you can commit Slim Thug's verse on this song to memory, and attempt, as best you are able, to live according to the moral principles it espouses. An all-time classic.

Boris — Absolutego
It starts with 25 minutes of droning guitar feedback. Then comes a deafening wall of sludge, followed by five minutes of solid metal thrash. It ends with another 30 minutes of droning guitar feedback. Three art-school dropouts from Tokyo who started as a Melvins cover band, Boris have spent their careers confusing their critics and giving their fans tinnitus. But if you get it, you get it. This is my favorite song.

Stephen Witt and How Music Got Free links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book

Guardian review
Independent review
New York Times review
New York Times review
Telegraph review
Washington Post review

CBC Radio interview with the author
Guardian interview with the author
Irish Times interview with the author
WBUR interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists
Word Bookstores Books of the Week (weekly new book highlights)