‘How Music Got Free’ Filmmakers Talk Piracy Era, Eminem, and AI

April 3, 2024

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The story everyone knows about the rise of the Mp3 and the end of the CD gold rush is a good one. It’s got Metallica and Dr. Dre, Sean Parker and the RIAA, Napster, Kazaa, Limewire, and the record industry’s flabbergasting decision to sue its own fans. But the real story, or arguably the most nuanced and fascinating one, lies elsewhere with a bunch of young computer wizzes scattered across the country and a handful of crafty, underpaid factory workers in Shelby, North Carolina.

This story anchors the new MTV documentary, How Music Got Free, directed by Alex Stapleton and based on the 2015 book of the same name by Stephen Witt (also a producer and talking head in the film). It’s a remarkable turn-of-the-millennium caper centered around Dell Glover, a tech-savvy employee at Universal Music’s CD manufacturing plant in Shelby, who — with the help of some of his co-workers — smuggled out unreleased discs, ripped them to his computer, and shared the files with a mysterious figure known as Kali, leader of the most prolific digital piracy groups. (The film just premiered at South by Southwest and will get a wide release in early summer.)

If you used Napster, Kazaa, or Limewire to download new music from the Universal catalog, odds are you were enjoying the fruits of Glover and Kali’s labor. Together, they leaked everything from Jay-Z’s The Blueprint and Eminem’s The Eminem Show to Blink-182’s Take Off Your Pants and Jacket and Queens of the Stone Age’s Rated R. Glover even put his finger on the scale of the great Kanye West/50 Cent showdown of 2007, leaking both Graduation and Curtis within a few days of each other. 

How Music Got Free features extensive interviews with Glover, some of his plant co-workers, and other key pirates in the so-called “Warez scene” (though not Kali). But that’s just one side of the tale. Eminem and his manager, Paul Rosenberg, helped produce the film, and both sat for interviews; as did other artists and industry figures — 50 Cent, Timbaland, Jimmy Iovine, and Steve Stoute — who still harbor residual leak-induced trauma. 

“Eminem was one of the most pirated artists during this time period,” Stapleton tells Rolling Stone. “He was so vocal about how much he hated these kids that were screwing up this album releases. But they just kept doing it. That kind of paradox is a filmmaker’s dream… [Eminem] trolled the music industry. He had a lot of fun, and that’s why we loved him. And then you have this whole other world that was getting his goat.” 

How Music Got Free is filled with fascinating tensions: between artists, fans, and corporate interests; music and technology; those who put in the labor of all kinds to make music possible and those who see the largest profits. In the opening five minutes of the film, the rapper Rhymefest offers the perfect hypothetical for the file-sharing era: “We talk about what went wrong—what went wrong for who? The artists or the industry?”

As Stapleton notes, when “things were good” for the music industry in the CD days, “it was bad” for the workers at the plant making $8.50 an hour and consumers forking over $20 for a disc that cost a couple of bucks to make (to say nothing of the environmental toll from all that plastic). But when things got bad for the industry, those who bore the brunt were arguably those who weren’t doing much good anyway. 

“The concentration of the means of production of the CD factory plants and the expense of distributing stuff in stores created a class of gatekeepers,” Witt says. “I don’t think, in aggregate, they were good for creative arts. It was bad, in aggregate for society, that in 2005 and 2006, the recording industry revenues collapsed by 50 or 60 percent — but it did kind of get rid of a lot of these gatekeeper types.”

Stapleton and Witt were both part of the file-sharing generation. Stapleton remembers using the high-powered internet connection at the production company where she interned to download stuff on Napster — everything from hip-hop and R&B hits to electronic artists like Moby and Daft Punk to weird covers of pop songs. Witt filled up multiple hard drives with pirated music — Radiohead, Nirvana, Jay-Z, N.W.A., Snoop Dogg, etc. — after arriving at college in 1997. This was the pre-Napster days when you still “had to go into a chat room and be like, ‘Hey, do you think anyone’s ripped this song? Where could I find it?’” 

The eclectic nature of their collections speaks to the ultimate meaning of the title How Music Got Free: “I think the aggregate result of this era was to collapse many genre distinctions; force into the hands of consumers a much wider variety of music than they’d ever really expected before; and broaden people’s horizons and tastes to create the expectation that you should have access to basically the entire history of recorded music at the press of a button,” Witt says. “You don’t have that with television or movies. There’s not an omni channel, in the way there is for music.”

This, of course, has created a new set of problems for the streaming era. Music is technically no longer free — you’re either paying about $10.99 a month or listening to ads — but streaming royalties are doled out proportionally, funneling the most money to the biggest artists; the rest are left to split the remaining pennies, and frequently, advances and expenses must first be recouped before any profits can be made. Putting further pressure on all of this, as both Stapleton and Witt note, is the rise of artificial intelligence and large language models (allegedly) trained on copyrighted materially that potentially portends an even graver existential crisis for music (and other forms of entertainment) than Napster ever conjured. 

In a wide-ranging interview with Rolling Stone, Stapleton and Witt discussed this brave new world and its resonances with the file-sharing era, as well as perennial questions about how to survive as an artist and what went into the making of How Music Got Free. (This conversation was edited and condensed for clarity.)

Were there any stories or angles that emerged while making of the movie that weren’t part of the book? 
Alex Stapleton: Finding more factory workers was a big mission. Shelby’s a tiny town, so everyone worked at that plant. But getting people to go on camera and talk about copping CDs added another layer to it. But it became really important to give this context and backstory, showing that this is a place that didn’t have a lot of opportunity. These people were not being paid anything.

Stephen Witt: I went into this a little [in the book], but I think Alex really captured Shelby in a way that was difficult to do in print. What it looks like to be in an economically depressed, post-industrial town in the South. It’s not an accident that the manufacturers locate their sites in these economically depressed places. They don’t want to pay high wages. There’s not a lot of other opportunities, there’s no unions, so [manufacturers] have a lot of bargaining power.

How did you get people like Dell Glover, these factory workers, and the pirates to speak on the record about this stuff? Was it difficult, or were people willing to discuss it after all these years?
Alex: The roadmap was started by all the research and writing that Stephen did. Obviously, Dell was central to that. Tony Dockery is another big character in the book. But I could never get Tony to come to the table. I really wanted him to talk, but he’s moved on with his life and doesn’t want to revisit that chapter. 

With the pirates outside of Shelby, there were a lot of people that we really wanted to talk to. One would only let me use his voice. He was the pirate who compressed a Metallica song [into an Mp3] and put it on the Warez scene — he was the first guy to do it. He now works in IT for some big company and was like, ‘No, I can’t be a part of this.’

The pirates that did participate, it’s not that they’re proud of being criminals, but I think they’re proud of building a world and an ecosystem that we’re all part of today. And I also think they wanted their story to be told. It was really extreme, the sentences for what they did, because the problem was really the music industry not embracing technology. These kids were just doing the inevitable. Some of them, after a screening, came up to us and were like, “Thanks for doing this, because now I can show this to my kids to explain why I have a federal record.”

I thought the movie made an interesting distinction between the piracy itself and leaking albums early, which is what really seemed to rattle artists more than anything.   
Alex:  When you’re 19 years old, you don’t have any money, you’re a super fan, and you have this tool on your computer — what do you really expect people to do? Going back to the artists and their position, I think the connection that wasn’t being drawn from their perspective — and Eminem, this was something that was really important to him — is that the albums were part of the art. You had skits and all these interstitials — it was a movie. And I think [Eminem] was really traumatized when little pieces, little scenes, were being leaked because you weren’t getting to experience the album and the songs as he wanted you to.

Stephen: The pirates didn’t have any concept of how much damage they were causing. They thought it was funny; they were trolling. I don’t think they recognized that there were 50 to 100 people working on an album launch. It’s not just Eminem pressing a button. They were pretty economically divorced from what they were doing.

Alex: This is also an era of extreme gluttony in America. The 2000s were so live with money — popping champagne bottles and making it rain. And I think for all of these kids, how would they understand that those cars are rented and the money is fake? They’re taking it at face value when you’re saying you’re a millionaire and nothing can hurt you. They’re like, “Ok, well I’m gonna keep doing my thing over here.”

That dynamic is even more acute with Dell or the factory employees like Rodney and Kimberly, who were smuggling CDs and sometimes selling bootlegs to their friends in town. Rodney has this great quote, “If they wanted me to be good, they would have paid me more.” 
Alex: Exactly. There are different degrees of this piracy. In Shelby, a lot of it was tangible. Rodney and Kim — they were not necessarily online during that time period, understanding the bigger picture. They’re like, “I’m one human giving out 10 CDs, and one goes to this guy, Dell.” But Rodney kept saying he had no idea!

Stephen: No one understood that Dell was a direct conduit to Limewire. They thought they were like selling these for $5.

I got the sense that no one in the industry really suspected the leaks were happening at the plant level. Like, everyone thought it was the engineers or something. Was it really not until the FBI got involved that they started tracing this back to the factory?
Stephen: They were so clueless, and you’d think they would know. I mean, I interviewed the plant security guard. He didn’t know! It was a Keystone Cops kind of thing, like how are you not finding this? [Laughs

Another thing is, at a certain point, Universal sold the plant. So while they were telling artists, “We’re really locking down the plants,” in reality, they were just like, “This is a wasting asset, we’re not going to pump anymore money into this, including security.” They basically took this plant, shoved it into an open grave, and waited for it to die. Nobody at the plant, after a certain point, took anything seriously.

Speaking artists and people in the industry, what lessons do you think they took away from this era, besides that it’s probably not a good idea to sue or prosecute your own fans?
Alex: I think that for artists — maybe not necessarily all of the executives — they just want to put their art out, and most are very flexible about how that happens. But when you start messing up the process, so that they can’t afford to work on the art they want to make — I think artists are resentful at that. And I don’t think artists were part of the conversation during piracy. It was very much like, “Don’t worry your pretty little head about this, we’re gonna figure it.” And that added 10 years onto the pain of an industry falling. 

Stephen: To quote Twin Peaks, “It is happening again.” The New York Times is suing OpenAI right now. The ongoing growth of large language models and music production models — think about where that comes from. They hoover up this raw content and repurpose it for profit. None of that flows back to the original creators, which they need to make that stuff work. Something like ChatGPT, in a certain sense, is like the new Napster. It’s a more sophisticated technology, but it essentially is an engine for copyright infringement for the profit of a narrowly defined company. The lesson for The Times and other content creators like us is that you can’t just fight it. You’re not going to successfully suppress this. And that’s what they tried to do with Napster. They did sue it out of existence, but ultimately, they were unsuccessful in their aims. The cat was out of the bag. It took way too long for the labels to accept that they weren’t going to sell CDs at the mall anymore.

Now, I’m on The Times’ side in the lawsuit. Clearly, OpenAI is committing copyright infringement and attempting to profit off of it. But they can’t just shut down OpenAI. They have to reach some kind of agreement where the content creators are paid back for the generation of the automated text of the AI.

Did you do any research into what the contemporary piracy scene looks like these days, like private torrent trackers? My assumption is it doesn’t carry much weight anymore, but I’m curious if you found anything to suggest otherwise.
Stephen: I think it has almost zero impact.

Alex: Yeah. But the pirated world for film, I think that’s becoming a bigger threat than for music in today’s world. I don’t think it’s taken off. It’s a little bit more complicated to understand how to get free movies. 

Stephen: There’s nothing like Napster for TV. I mean, it’s out there. There’s top sites and private trackers that have all of Netflix, Hulu, and all of that stuff. And as the costs to stream multiple services go up, you might expect more people will gravitate back to piracy. But [this] generation didn’t come up with it in the same way that we did. So maybe they just don’t feel that sense of entitlement, frankly, that my generation felt — that all files should be free at the push of a button. I don’t think it’ll ever come back, or at least not soon, in the way that it once was. If I were a streaming executive, I’d be more concerned about the potential impact of artificial intelligence, and, frankly, YouTube, than piracy. 

How so?
Stephen: It’s a tough moment for TV streaming, I don’t think that’s a secret. A lot of the stocks are down, and I think they have to figure out a business model that works. At the same time — this is looking into the future a little bit — but if you had something like Sora that could create entertainment on demand, that could create a big problem. If you’re watching that, then you’re not watching a scripted show. This hasn’t happened yet. The technology isn’t there, but it’s what they’re trying to do. 

Alex: It’s very close. It’s scary, but also cool. You can take an iPhone 15 and go shoot anything that you want. The tech is moving so fast, and I think you’re gonna see a lot of amazing filmmakers on YouTube. There’s still going to have to be some kind of curation of the content, and that, to me, is what will be interesting. What will that look like, and how will the industry figure out how to monetize that?

Stephen: I’m watching Shogun right now, and just the level of human artistry and craft that went into it is very high. It’s a great show. And I think we’re a fair distance away from a computer being able to make something like that. 

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Alex: We are. But the crazy part about Sora and the visual part of AI, the tech changes so fast. The distance between the innovation is a lot smaller than AI than anything we’ve ever seen in my lifetime.

What’s Shelby like now? Is the plant still open?
Alex: It’s not a CD plant. That shut down sometime in the 2010s. It is currently occupied by the Chinese government [laughs]. We got in trouble trying to get on their property a couple of times. Even flying a drone in that area. You can do that in most rural areas with no problem. But it was kind of creepy. I would ask the locals like, what is going on in that plant? And nobody knows.

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