Dammit, Dell: Stephen Witt’s How Music Got Free

You’ve most likely never heard of Dell Glover but, if you’re anything like me, he had a large impact on your holiday season whether you knew it or not. Being a compulsive audiophile who grew up in the ’90s, I have amassed a massive number of compact discs and a substantial portion of those CDs were received as Christmas gifts. The whole premise of hoarding physical media is laughable these days but as an adolescent and young adult, there was no hobby more personal. And now, due in large part to Dell Glover, that hobby is dead.

dell full
Thanks, Dell.

It seems insane to say this now, as some of the biggest releases in music completely forego physical releases but, for a decade and a half, the CDs on your shelf (or in your binder) were more than just an indicator of who you were as a person—they were the full extent of your listening options (save Top 40 radio, a listening fate that no self-respecting audio-snob would have subjected themselves to). Naturally then, I spent my teen and early adult years committing the vast majority of my disposable income to the acquisition of new CDs which would then become nigh-religious objects of reverence and inspection. With no Spotify, Apple Music or SoundCloud, I would sit in front of my stereo, jewel cases in hand, listening to whatever CDs I had most recently purchased, poring over liner notes until I had memorized lyrics and songwriting credits and, in some cases, production engineers.

Because my means were limited, every year contained a multitude of albums that friends had recommended or that seemed intriguing and that I could not afford to purchase. And thus my annual Christmas lists, for half of my life, were primarily composed of CDs. Christmas morning would dawn and when the ribbons and bows and shredded wrappings had finally settled, I’d be sitting on the floor next to a stack of twenty albums that were simply begging for the deep inspection that I couldn’t wait to give them. Some would become favorites and some would survive only a few listens before being shelved (alphabetically, of course) and forgotten.

Regardless of the outcome, the process of finally diving into a deep slush pile of music that had, for one reason or another, piqued my curiosity was one of my favorite parts of the holidays. And now that entire process has been exterminated. Because of Dell Glover.

how

See, back during the late ’90s, Glover worked in a manufacturing plant in North Carolina. Who cares, right? Well, Glover’s plant manufactured compact discs. And not just any compact discs but huge commercial releases from artists like Eminem, Mariah Carey and Jay-Z. And, as Stephen Witt outlines in his thoroughly-reported and extensively-named How Music Got Free: The End of an Industry, the Turn of the Century, and the Patient Zero of Piracy, Glover began to smuggle CDs out of his factory and into the hands of the first meaningful media pirates.

Sourced by Glover, these pirates built massive, shareable online databases of music, almost singlehandedly initiating the end of the era of physical music. It was a swift sea change; within less than a decade, the once mighty compact disc had become a relic, rendering those Christmas morning album stacks archaic and unnecessary.

cd-trash
Yeah, that’s about right.

These days, as an Apple Music subscriber, I don’t need to wait for the gift-giving season to hear any release, old or new. For less than the cost of one CD per month—well, $2 more than those amazing (and now thoroughly extinct) $7.99 release-day deals from Best Buy—I can listen to nearly every single album from this or any year. Though my nostalgia wants to blind me to it, this current system is undeniably the better one for consumers. It’s less wasteful and more economically beneficial for me, the listener, and yet it also feels so much worse (without even factoring in the further impoverishment of sub-A-level artists). And what is the consumption of art if not the pursuit of feelings?

Even as we march into the indomitable domain of the digital, I can’t help but feel like there’s value to physical media. There’s inherent value in holding a thing in your hands, in being able to physically pass a recommendation to a friend, in embracing higher audio quality even if it’s tethered to a less convenient experience.

Oh God, I don’t have to start collecting vinyl, do I?

One thought on “Dammit, Dell: Stephen Witt’s How Music Got Free

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