In the latest New Yorker, author Stephen Witt writes about the AOL dial-up era infrastructure that bolstered online piracy of music, television, and film; an industry scourge that’s exponentially cheapened commercial entertainment since the mid-1990s. The New Yorker story is an adapted excerpt from Witt's forthcoming book, How Music Got Free, which will be published in June.
Witt’s reporting focuses on Kali, the leader of RNS, and Dell Glover, an employee of a CD pressing plant in Kings Mountain, North Carolina. Recounting 15 years of IRC chat-room history, Witt chronicles the major label leaks and hacks of piracy collectives the Scene, which initially shared single mp3s, and Rabid Neurosis, a.k.a. RNS, which was the first of these groups to traffic in full, pre-release albums.
With assembly line access to Universal Music’s latest releases, Glover leaked pre-release versions of 2Pac’s “California Love” in 1996, Jay Z’s Blueprint in 2001, The Eminem Show in 2002 and Lil Wayne’s 500 Degreez later the same year. While peer-to-peer networks like Napster and Kazaa would eventually cut into Glover’s profits, RNS and the Scene were briefly the sole pioneers of this new, illicit distribution model.
“RNS was the most pervasive and infamous Internet piracy group in history,” according to the F.B.I.
Through his network of barbershop distributors and private customers, Glover made as much as $1,500 per month in the prime of his home-based bootlegger’s operation. The network came crashing down in September 2009, however, when the F.B.I. raided Glover’s home and pressured him to mislead his co-conspirators. When Kali reached out to Glover soon after, none-the-wiser to Glover’s encounter with the Cleveland County sheriff’s office, Glover warned:
“You’re too late,” Glover said. “They hit me yesterday. Shut it down.”
“O.K., I got you,” Kali said. Then he said, “I appreciate it,” and hung up.
Since 2009, the music industry has mitigated few of the vulnerabilities highlighted in Witt’s excerpt. The growing popularity of digital-first releases—e.g., Jay and Kanye’s Watch The Throne in 2011 and Drake’s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late earlier this year—means that record companies are ideally less susceptible to pre-release leaks, which bootleggers typically secure by intercepting physical releases once they official distributors ship CD copies to retailers.
Still, once an album releases in full, it’s immediately jacked and illegally distributed via Sharebeast, Zippyshare, and the like. Nineteen years after the Scene pirated its first mp3—Metallica’s “Until It Sleeps”—the most pervasive online piracy group is the internet at large.