The Dawn of Online Music Piracy
By 1994, the development of the first mp3 encoder was complete. Working at an audio research laboratory at Germany’s state-funded Fraunhofer Institute, engineers had labored for seven years and spent millions of dollars to develop a functioning prototype.
The encoder was marvelous—by exploiting inherent flaws in the human ear, it could reduce the size of compact disc audio by more than 90%, with minimal losses in quality. But Fraunhofer had been outmaneuvered in the marketplace, and couldn’t generate sales.
In desperation, they decided to distribute their encoder for free. They began by handing out floppy disks at trade shows and conferences. Soon, distribution moved to the Internet, with a limited-functionality DOS-based encoder posted on Fraunhofer’s FTP sites. The encoder was supposed to produce only low-bitrate files, and stop working after 20 uses. Quickly, it was cracked.
By late 1995, USENET was awash with pirated music files. Most of these were simple demonstrations of the technology, not full songs. Modern conveniences make it hard to remember the limitations of media distribution of the time; bandwidth meant 28,800 bits per second over a screeching telephone line, and compressing an mp3 from a CD meant a dedicated hour of CPU resources, accompanied by the buzz of a whirring fan.
The underground pirates of the Scene first adopted the technology in August of 1996. The pioneering group was Compress ‘Da Audio (CDA); their first release was Metallica’s “Until It Sleeps.” The full song was stored as a RAR file across four 3.5” floppy disk drives. These disks were then sent through the mail.
By late August, the rival Digital Audio Crew (DAC) had moved into the space; they posted an mp3-ripping tutorial to USENET, along with a direct link to Fraunhofer’s FTP site, accompanied by the serial numbers needed to unlock the encoder.
By the start of 1997, piracy had moved from floppy disks to campus servers, and processing power had doubled. Scene groups started releasing whole albums, not just individual singles. The files were no longer distributed through the postal service, but instead through IRC networks, FTP sites and even HTML links.
The Scene celebrated a “0-day” mentality—one gained notoriety by being the first to post pirated material to the Net. With music, that meant getting inside the retail industry’s supply chain.
The pioneering Scene group Rabid Neurosis (RNS) began infiltrating record stores, exploiting offset international release dates, and recruiting music journalists and commercial radio DJs. Music became available on the Internet weeks, sometimes months, before it was due in stores. In time, RNS became the dominant player, sourcing thousands of pre-release albums from Dell Glover and Tony Dockery, two workers at a North Carolina CD manufacturing plant.
A generation came of age in that IRC underground—for many users it was their formative experience online. Included were Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker, who’d met in an chat channel, where they’d shared their frustrations with the inefficiencies of late-90s file-swapping. Fanning, 18, wrote 80,000 lines of code, for a new peer-to-peer platform he called Napster. Parker, 19, was deputized to promote it. In June of 1999, the software débuted.
The golden age of online piracy had begun.
About The Author
Stephen Witt is a journalist from Brooklyn, New York.
He’s the author of “How Music Got Free,” a well-researched book about the rise of music piracy and the key players that contributed to the early success of online file-sharing.