One Saturday in 1994, Bennie Lydell Glover, a temporary employee at the PolyGram compact-disk manufacturing plant in Kings Mountain, North Carolina, went to a party at the house of a co-worker. He was angling for a permanent position, and the party was a chance to network with his managers. Late in the evening, the host put on music to get people dancing. Glover, a fixture at clubs in Charlotte, an hour away, had never heard any of the songs before, even though many of them were by artists whose work he enjoyed.
Later, Glover realized that the host had been d.j.’ing with music that had been smuggled out of the plant. He was surprised. Plant policy required all permanent employees to sign a “No Theft Tolerated” agreement. He knew that the plant managers were concerned about leaking, and he’d heard of employees being arrested for embezzling inventory. But at the party, even in front of the supervisors, it seemed clear that the disks had been getting out. In time, Glover became aware of a far-reaching underground trade in pre-release disks. “We’d run them in the plant in the week, and they’d have them in the flea markets on the weekend,” he said. “It was a real leaky plant.”
The factory sat on a hundred acres of woodland and had more than three hundred thousand square feet of floor space. It ran shifts around the clock, every day of the year. New albums were released in record stores on Tuesdays, but they needed to be pressed, packaged, and shrink-wrapped weeks in advance. On a busy day, the plant produced a quarter of a million CDs. Its lineage was distinguished: PolyGram was a division of the Dutch consumer-electronics giant Philips, the co-inventor of the CD.
One of Glover’s co-workers was Tony Dockery, another temporary hire. The two worked opposite ends of the shrink-wrapping machine, twelve feet apart. Glover was a “dropper”: he fed the packaged disks into the machine. Dockery was a “boxer”: he took the shrink-wrapped jewel cases and stacked them in a cardboard box for shipping. The jobs paid about ten dollars an hour.
Glover and Dockery soon became friends. They lived in the same town, Shelby, and Glover started giving Dockery a ride to work. They liked the same music. They made the same money. Most important, they were both fascinated by computers, an unusual interest for two working-class Carolinians in the early nineties—the average Shelbyite was more likely to own a hunting rifle than a PC. Glover’s father had been a mechanic, and his grandfather, a farmer, had moonlighted as a television repairman. In 1989, when Glover was fifteen, he went to Sears and bought his first computer: a twenty-three-hundred-dollar PC clone with a one-color monitor. His mother co-signed as the guarantor on the layaway plan. Tinkering with the machine, Glover developed an expertise in hardware assembly, and began to earn money fixing the computers of his friends and neighbors.
By the time of the party, he’d begun to experiment with the nascent culture of the Internet, exploring bulletin-board systems and America Online. Soon, Glover also purchased a CD burner, one of the first produced for home consumers. It cost around six hundred dollars. He began to make mixtapes of the music he already owned, and sold them to friends. “There was a lot of people down my way selling shoes, pocketbooks, CDs, movies, and fencing stolen stuff,” he told me. “I didn’t think they’d ever look at me for what I was doing.” But the burner took forty minutes to make a single copy, and business was slow.
Glover began to consider selling leaked CDs from the plant. He knew a couple of employees who were smuggling them out, and a pre-release album from a hot artist, copied to a blank disk, would be valuable. (Indeed, recording executives at the time saw this as a key business risk.) But PolyGram’s offerings just weren’t that good. The company had a dominant position in adult contemporary, but the kind of people who bought knockoff CDs from the trunk of a car didn’t want Bryan Adams and Sheryl Crow. They wanted Jay Z, and the plant didn’t have it.
By 1996, Glover, who went by Dell, had a permanent job at the plant, with higher pay, benefits, and the possibility of more overtime. He began working double shifts, volunteering for every available slot. “We wouldn’t allow him to work more than six consecutive days,” Robert Buchanan, one of his former managers, said. “But he would try.”
The overtime earnings funded new purchases. In the fall of 1996, Hughes Network Systems introduced the country’s first consumer-grade broadband satellite Internet access. Glover and Dockery signed up immediately. The service offered download speeds of up to four hundred kilobits per second, seven times that of even the best dial-up modem.
Glover left AOL behind. He soon found that the real action was in the chat rooms. Internet Relay Chat networks tended to be noncommercial, hosted by universities and private individuals and not answerable to corporate standards of online conduct. You created a username and joined a channel, indicated by a pound sign: #politics, #sex, #computers. Glover and Dockery became chat addicts; sometimes, even after spending the entire day together, they hung out in the same chat channel after work. On IRC, Dockery was St. James, or, sometimes, Jah Jah. And Glover was ADEG, or, less frequently, Darkman. Glover did not have a passport and hardly ever left the South, but IRC gave him the opportunity to interact with strangers from all over the world.
Also, he could share files. Online, pirated media files were known as “warez,” from “software,” and were distributed through a subculture dating back to at least 1980, which called itself the Warez Scene. The Scene was organized in loosely affiliated digital crews, which raced one another to be the first to put new material on the IRC channel. Software was often available on the same day that it was officially released. Sometimes it was even possible, by hacking company servers, or through an employee, to pirate a piece of software before it was available in stores. The ability to regularly source pre-release leaks earned one the ultimate accolade in digital piracy: to be among the “elite.”
By the mid-nineties, the Scene had moved beyond software piracy into magazines, pornography, pictures, and even fonts. In 1996, a Scene member with the screen name NetFraCk started a new crew, the world’s first MP3 piracy group: Compress ’Da Audio, or CDA, which used the newly available MP3 standard, a format that could shrink music files by more than ninety per cent. On August 10, 1996, CDA released to IRC the Scene’s first “officially” pirated MP3: “Until It Sleeps,” by Metallica. Within weeks, there were numerous rival crews and thousands of pirated songs.
Glover’s first visit to an MP3-trading chat channel came shortly afterward. He wasn’t sure what an MP3 was or who was making the files. He simply downloaded software for an MP3 player, and put in requests for the bots of the channel to serve him files. A few minutes later, he had a small library of songs on his hard drive.
One of the songs was Tupac Shakur’s “California Love,” the hit single that had become inescapable after Tupac’s death, several weeks earlier, in September, 1996. Glover loved Tupac, and when his album “All Eyez on Me” came through the PolyGram plant, in a special distribution deal with Interscope Records, he had even shrink-wrapped some of the disks. Now he played the MP3 of “California Love.” Roger Troutman’s talk-box intro came rattling through his computer speakers, followed by Dr. Dre’s looped reworking of the piano hook from Joe Cocker’s “Woman to Woman.” Then came Tupac’s voice, compressed and digitized from beyond the grave, sounding exactly as it did on the CD.
At work, Glover manufactured CDs for mass consumption. At home, he had spent more than two thousand dollars on burners and other hardware to produce them individually. His livelihood depended on continued demand for the product. But Glover had to wonder: if the MP3 could reproduce Tupac at one-eleventh the bandwidth, and if Tupac could then be distributed, free, on the Internet, what the hell was the point of a compact disk?
In 1998, Seagram Company announced that it was purchasing PolyGram from Philips and merging it with the Universal Music Group. The deal comprised the global pressing and distribution network, including the Kings Mountain plant. The employees were nervous, but management told them not to worry; the plant wasn’t shutting down—it was expanding. The music industry was enjoying a period of unmatched profitability, charging more than fourteen dollars for a CD that cost less than two dollars to manufacture. The executives at Universal thought that this state of affairs was likely to continue. In the prospectus that they filed for the PolyGram acquisition, they did not mention the MP3 among the anticipated threats to the business.
The production lines were upgraded to manufacture half a million CDs a day. There were more shifts, more overtime hours, and more music. Universal, it seemed, had cornered the market on rap. Jay Z, Eminem, Dr. Dre, Cash Money—Glover packaged the albums himself.
Six months after the merger, Shawn Fanning, an eighteen-year-old college dropout from Northeastern University, débuted a public file-sharing platform he had invented called Napster. Fanning had spent his adolescence in the same IRC underground as Glover and Dockery, and was struck by the inefficiency of its distribution methods. Napster replaced IRC bots with a centralized “peer-to-peer” server that allowed people to swap files directly. Within a year, the service had ten million users.
Before Napster, a leaked album had caused only localized damage. Now it was a catastrophe. Universal rolled out its albums with heavy promotion and expensive marketing blitzes: videos, radio spots, television campaigns, and appearances on late-night TV. The availability of pre-release music on the Internet interfered with this schedule, upsetting months of work by publicity teams and leaving the artists feeling betrayed.
Even before Napster’s launch, the plant had begun to implement a new anti-theft regimen. Steve Van Buren, who managed security at the plant, had been pushing for better safeguards since before the Universal merger, and he now instituted a system of randomized searches. Each employee was required to swipe a magnetized identification card upon leaving the plant. Most of the time, a green light appeared and the employee could leave. Occasionally, though, the card triggered a red light, and the employee was made to stand in place as a security guard ran a wand over his body, searching for the thin aluminum coating of a compact disk.
Van Buren succeeded in getting some of the flea-market bootleggers shut down. Plant management had heard of the technician who had been d.j.’ing parties with pre-release music, and Van Buren requested that he take a lie-detector test. The technician failed, and was fired. Even so, Glover’s contacts at the plant could still reliably get leaked albums. One had even sneaked out an entire manufacturing spindle of three hundred disks, and was selling them for five dollars each. But this was an exclusive trade, and only select employees knew who was engaged in it.
By this time, Glover had built a tower of seven CD burners, which stood next to his computer. He could produce about thirty copies an hour, which made bootlegging more profitable, so he scoured the other underground warez networks for material to sell: PlayStation games, PC applications, MP3 files—anything that could be burned to a disk and sold for a few dollars.
He focussed especially on movies, which fetched five dollars each. New compression technology could shrink a feature film to fit on a single CD. The video quality was poor, but business was brisk, and soon he was buying blank CDs in bulk. He bought a label printer to catalogue his product, and a color printer to make mockups of movie posters. He filled a black nylon binder with images of the posters, and used it as a sales catalogue. He kept his inventory in the trunk of his Jeep and sold the movies out of his car.
Glover still considered it too risky to sell leaked CDs from the plant. Nevertheless, he enjoyed keeping up with current music, and the smugglers welcomed him as a customer. He was a permanent employee with no rap sheet and an interest in technology, but outside the plant he had a reputation as a roughrider. He owned a Japanese street-racing motorcycle, which he took to Black Bike Week, in Myrtle Beach. He had owned several handguns, and on his forearm was a tattoo of the Grim Reaper, walking a pit bull on a chain.
His co-worker Dockery, by contrast, was a clean-cut churchgoer, and too square for the smugglers. But he had started bootlegging, too, and he pestered Glover to supply him with leaked CDs. In addition, Dockery kept finding files online that Glover couldn’t: movies that were still in theatres, PlayStation games that weren’t scheduled to be released for months.
For a while, Glover traded leaked disks for Dockery’s software and movies. But eventually he grew tired of acting as Dockery’s courier, and asked why the disks were so valuable. Dockery invited him to his house one night, where he outlined the basics of the warez underworld. For the past year or so, he’d been uploading the pre-release leaks Glover gave him to a shadowy network of online enthusiasts. This was the Scene, and Dockery, on IRC, had joined one of its most élite groups: Rabid Neurosis, or RNS. (Dockery declined to comment for this story.)