Bootlegging The Underground Pipeline Is Live Music's Lifeline

Bootlegging The Underground Pipeline Is Live Music's Lifeline
If history is any indication, in this age of information availability, most music ever created will eventually be made available - through legitimate or other means - for public consumption. Since the late '60s, demand from music lovers has driven an illicit "underground" in bootlegs - illegally produced "unreleased" albums or live recordings sold in collectors' circles.

Bootlegs have done as much to create myths as any publicist or historian could hope to; this raw, primal work that hasn't been cleaned up for public consumption pulls back the curtain and shows the creative process in progress. Occasionally, bootlegs are made of otherwise unreleased studio albums, but the lifeblood of the industry is in chronicling live recordings. It's no coincidence that the most bootlegged bands - the Grateful Dead or Phish are obvious examples - are those whose live performance is considered better than their studio work. It is the spontaneity of the moment, an insight into the creative mind at work, that most music fans who collect bootlegs seek.

For many, the tapes (or CDs) that change hands between them do so without any exchange of cash - through magazines or tape-trading web sites, communities of fans meet and bond over a mutual musical interest. For money to enter the transaction would be to belittle their love of the treasured bootlegs; the idea that music should be freely accessible to all fits perfectly with the '60s counter-culture that spawned it.

Money isn't always left out of the equation, though, and fan demand has helped create a cottage industry that, according to the Canadian Recording Industry Association (CRIA), is worth $30 million a year in Canada alone, worldwide it adds up to $5 billion a year.

This trade can create conflicts between the interests of fans, the artists who receive no royalties for their work, and the labels that carefully plan every aspect of an artist's career, and who would like to stop a lucrative trade from which they receive no cut.

Despite the efforts of artists, record labels and governmental organisations designated to police the trade in such recordings, very little has actually stemmed the tide of people who scour for these rarities. Even the most guarded recordings thwart the efforts of those who hide them, and the best bootlegs don't stay secrets for long. That's been true since 1968, when Rolling Stone magazine published an in-depth review of Bob Dylan and the Band's famed double album bootleg Great White Wonder . By the time the album was officially released (in a cleaned-up form) in 1975 as The Basement Tapes , it was old news. The same could be said for Prince's Black Album , (see Timeline, pg. 24), which circulated long before Warner finally put an official version in stores.

The world of music distribution has changed radically since the days when self-righteous fans and shady entrepreneurs bluffed their way into record pressing plants and boldly displayed the results in stores alongside legitimate product. In this age of MP3s and CD-Rs (recordable CDs), music is potentially available as it is being recorded in the studio, and CDs of live concerts can be distributed literally days after the event. No longer do fans have to frequent the small speciality stores that stock bootlegs, often in the second hand section to avoid liability - the internet has led to an explosion in tape-trading access. With CD-Rs, bootleggers no longer have to ship to European pressing plants; individual orders can be filled one at a time. Since the bootleg industry and the net are such a perfect match, the rules have changed, and it's thrown the music industry into fits about the digital distribution revolution.

Bob Dylan's Royal Albert Hall
was one of the last classic bootlegs to see official release.

Digital technology is currently adapting faster than the policing agencies can keep up with, and copyright legislation with regard to the internet remains in its infancy. Yet the music industry still has a couple of more traditional tricks up its sleeve. Since the beginning of bootlegs, major labels have resorted to "official" releases of commonly bootlegged, popular recordings; if they're going to sell, the logic goes, why shouldn't the profits go to the label rather than some basement entrepreneur? Last year's release of Bob Dylan's 1966 Live Royal Albert Hall recording was one of the last classics left; his label, Columbia, had already mined Dylan's backlog with 1991's The Bootleg Series .

Another tactic is cracking down more vigorously on the recordings that can be tracked, nailing retailers and independent record fair vendors who sell bootlegs. In April of this year, the largest ever seizure of bootleg recordings in Canada - 28,000 CDs totalling $1.25 million - occurred at a Montreal record store called Rock En Stock. Three people affiliated with the store face copyright violation charges. While there are no laws against possessing bootlegs for personal enjoyment, amendments to the Canadian Copyright Act in 1996 allow the Canadian Recording Industry Association (CRIA) Anti-Piracy Office, and the Canadian Musical Reproduction Rights Agency (CMRRA) to join other international agencies in a zero-tolerance approach toward the commercial sale of bootlegs.

"We're waiting for the RCMP's investigation to be completed, as well as investigations going on in other countries," says CRIA President Brian Robertson. "The next step is we anticipate the actual laying of charges." Pending the results of the investigation, employees of Rock En Stock declined to comment.

"What we create can be stolen so easily," David Baskin, executive director of the Canadian Music Publishers Association told Canadian Press . "We need remedies to take action against this theft, remedies that are affordable and accessible." On Oct. 1, Canadian copyright laws were further amended to speed up the prosecution of copyright infringement cases, and fines were raised to between $500 and $20,000.

The same message is being driven home south of the border. Earlier this year, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), in association with U.S. Customs, arrested Charles LaRocco, considered to be the most successful North American bootlegger of the past decade. According to the The Village Voice , in 1996 nearly one million CDs and $490,000 in cash were seized from warehouses and LaRocco's apartment. According to LaRocco's own records, he made $15 million from 1990 until the arrest. His method was simple: obtain tapes of live shows and studio sessions through a network of national contacts; send the tapes to a number of production facilities in Europe; have the discs shipped back to New York, where LaRocco would install them in jewel cases along with his own artwork; then distribute them to his clientele of independent record stores who bought the albums for $10 and resold them at $25 or $30. LaRocco's 1996 bust only temporarily halted his operation. This year's arrest followed the discovery that LaRocco was selling bootlegs through the popular online auction site eBay.

At the end of November, eBay was confronted with another legal entanglement regarding bootlegs when a suit was filed by a San Francisco man alleging that the site is violating state laws by allowing bootlegs to be sold.

If these recent busts proved anything, it's that the concept of selling bootlegs publicly seems to be going the way of the dinosaur bands that originally inspired it. The controversy generated by MP3s - digital encoders that compress audio files, then decompress them in real time - and digital distribution in general, have become the primary target of copyright legislators. The RIAA in the U.S. recently won three $1-million lawsuits last year against creators of illegal MP3 sites. One University of Oregon student recently convicted of distributing copyrighted material by MP3 was forced to give up not only his internet account, but his CD burner as well, and at Carnegie Mellon, 71 students had their internet accounts suspended for four months when a random search of internal university computer systems revealed they were trading MP3s on the system. The RIAA has also initiated a campaign, called Soundbyting, to teach American college students the laws surrounding the distribution of illegal recordings over the internet.

While MP3s and other digital distribution methods are the future of bootlegging, CD-Rs are the present. According to the RIAA's recent annual report, it seized seven times as many CD-R bootlegs in the first half of 1999 as it did in all of 1998, while seizures of traditional bootleg CDs were down nearly half during the same time period. Officials claimed that the seizures only scratched the surface of the amount of product available, since CD-Rs allow the producers to make small runs and take orders on an individual basis, either through stores or via email.

The report also claimed that CD-Rs and mix tapes containing illegal compilations of dance tracks are now a major target. (See "Mix Tapes" sidebar.) The RIAA's illegal cassette seizures have increased 20 per cent since 1997, mostly through regular busts in New York City. Apparently, the word has spread to Toronto where, on Oct. 4 this year, five employees of two dance music stores, Play De Record and Traxx, were charged with fraud for selling mix tapes. Play De Record owner Eugene Tam responded to the Toronto Sun by saying, "CRIA was always against this stuff, but they don't understand these tapes help promote the artists all over the world."

The same argument for promotion first emerged more than 30 years ago when bands like the Grateful Dead realised the value of letting their music circulate; their openness to tape-traders was one reason for the band's enduring popularity. Many bands have followed that example - Phish, Dave Matthews Band, U2, R.E.M. and Pearl Jam are among the biggest - encouraging fans to trade recordings as long money was kept out the transaction.

It's the idea of doing it for love of music, not financial gain, that drives fans like Gabe Sawhney, who started the Canadian Bootleg Traders Index ( a couple years ago. He says his reasons came purely from a love of music and a need he saw to connect music fans across the country. Links on his site are limited to traders with Canadian mailing addresses and he does not accept advertising.

"The first time I came across an internet list of traders was around 1992 when traders would submit their lists to email 'publications'," he says. "Today it's about web sites. Most allow you to search by artist, format [cassette, CD, DAT, MP3], trader addresses; it makes finding something specific a little faster."

The sound of Canadian bootleg mainstays like the Tragically Hip harkens back to glory days of bootlegging.

Currently, CBTI posts several dozen links and Sawhney says he receives an average of six requests a week to post new lists. The music ranges from traditional bootlegger favourites (Led Zeppelin, Bruce Springsteen) to most current touring bands, including Canadian mainstays the Tragically Hip, the Tea Party and Big Sugar, whose sound not surprisingly harkens back to glory days of bootlegging. However, Sawhney believes that taping is no longer limited to white male guitar bands.

"It's clear that a handful of bands dominate the CBTI list - that's the general nature of tape-trading - but it's not just the old-school traders who are hip to the net trading scene now. I've added way more lists from women in the past year than ever before, and likewise I'm getting longer and more diverse lists, especially with collections branching out into jazz and other more experimental music that hasn't been traditionally big with traders," he says.

Sawhney is encouraged by this shift to new music, since it is bringing along traders with a fresh commitment to the process. He admits the sheer amount of recordings by heavily bootlegged bands has attracted some people just looking for a quick score and warns newcomers to be wary of quality.

"A lot of people get stuck on getting scammed. For a while I had a message board on my site and it was overrun by kids bickering about 'bad traders.' I've been trading for five years and haven't had anyone not fulfil a trade. It's a matter of knowing who you're trading with and, by extension, what you're trading. If you're trading with someone who obviously has made an investment in collecting, you'll rarely have any problems."

Whether the industry at large disagrees with this philosophy is a moot point; anyone who continues to lament the "death of live music" today need only to take a casual look at tape trader sites or specific band web sites, which reveal more live documents now than ever before. Those who believe in bootlegging feel a lifelong tie to an admired musician's work; to think that a fan that would shell out $30 for a bootleg live recording won't then buy the next studio album (as major labels seem to fear) is short-sighted. Bootlegs have played as large a role in cementing bonds between artists and their fans as any personal gesture from the artist could. These hidden gems shine a little light behind the wizard's curtain, and bootlegs will be with us for as long as music fans want a peek.