B y D a v e M c E l f r e s h
YOU'RE A BEATLES fan, and you've owned all of their releases since you were in high school. Every few years you quickly snatch up the latest offering of unreleased cuts (like the BBC radio concerts), which usually are touted as having just been discovered in the label's vaults. If you're lucky, in two more years they'll unearth something else, coincidentally just in time for Christmas merchandising.
Meanwhile, there exists a black market recording industry that since 1969 has released 1,600 Beatles albums, no two of them exactly alike. They're called bootlegs, and every major rock act in the last 30 years can be found on dozens, sometimes hundreds, of these unofficial recordings. The early bootlegs are on vinyl, the most recent on CD; some are live concert recordings, others are studio outtakes; some were recorded straight from the soundboard in the studio, others with a hand-held microphone and a $20 tape deck from the upper balcony. All of them are illegal, usually twice the price of a normal release, difficult to find and always interesting. Who's going to be bored by a Springsteen bootleg called I'm Turning Into Elvis or the Hendrix disc, Let's Drop Some Ludes And Vomit With Jimi?
The legitimate record labels have tried hard to snuff out their existence. They never will, of course, but some recent changes in copyright law in Italy may knock the bootleg industry to its knees for a while. Until this past May, anyone with a tape of an artist's live performance could pay songwriting royalties through an Italian association in charge of composer's fees and press a disc, regardless of whether the artist or the artist's label approved. Unlike elsewhere in the world, the Italy-based bootlegger was not required to remain anonymous and do business in the shadows. But all that's changed. Now, anyone in Florence pressing copies of an unreleased Clapton concert is going to get whacked hard in the direction of prison, just like they would here or in England.
Though they may be pictured as shifty lowlifes paralleling their alcohol-bootlegging cousins, the typical music bootlegger throughout this century has cut the illicit recordings wearing a tux. Oddly, the bootleg phenomena centered almost exclusively on illegal opera recordings for 60 years, going as far back as 1901. In spite of more than 30 attempts by the record industry to extend the coverage of the 1909 Copyright Act, unauthorized live opera recordings flourished, especially in the '30s and '40s, and remained a commodity well into the '60s.
It was Bob Dylan's 1966 motorcycle accident that indirectly moved the bootleg scene into the rock arena. Fans waited a year and a half for the followup to Blonde On Blonde and were given the hokum backwoods sound of John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline. But circulating in Los Angeles in 1969 was a several-year-old tape of the hibernating post-accident Dylan practicing in a basement with a group called The Band--and playing music fans considered a lot more potent than the label's current Dylan releases. Columbia Records, though, had no plans to issue the session on record.
A couple of employees working at a major record distributor in Los Angeles located a copy of the tape, coupled it with other reel-to-reel recordings of some Dylan studio outtakes and the singer entertaining at a girlfriend's apartment in 1961, and turned them into vinyl at a local record-pressing plant. The only source of identification on the plain white cardboard sleeve was a handstamp reading GWW, for Great White Wonder. Dylan fans depleted the stock immediately.
It was the same year, 1969, that The Beatles' Abbey Road appeared. Word was out that a previous album project had been recorded but temporarily shelved by the group. Again fan interest led to a bootlegging of the unreleased session, given the title Get Back. The year also brought a highly touted Rolling Stones tour, which a fan decided to tape and release on bootleg as LiveR Than You'll Ever Be. All three bootlegs were successful, and all three were eventually released in altered, authorized form as Dylan's The Basement Tapes, The Beatles' Let It Be and the Stones' Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out.
Without exception, legit record labels hated sharing their roster of artists. Some artists, though, like Patti Smith and Little Feat's Lowell George, were pleased to find themselves popular enough to merit being bootlegged. Other musicians like Dylan and Springsteen vacillated between statements both for and against the illegal releases. Chief among those opposed was the highly bootlegged Frank Zappa, who craftily countered the illegal trade by gathering 16 of his bootlegged recordings and releasing them on his own label, original artwork and all. The intent was to one-up the bootleggers, not to showcase the musical content, as is evident by the refusal of the usually meticulous Zappa to clean up their sound quality.
The anti-bootleg arguments presented by artists and record labels have never changed, and remain flimsy at best:
The artist doesn't receive royalties. (Though Italy is one exception, it's true that most bootlegs never exceed pressings of several thousand copies, which translates into very few dollars. So why not increase sales and rake up the royalties by releasing authorized versions like Zappa did? Their reproduction costs a fraction of that spent on producing a regular album.)
The artist has no power to control the availability of music he finds unsatisfactory for public release. (Even lousy bootlegs are seen by fans as cherished artifacts of the musician's history. Upholding an artist's image is not the job of the fan.)
And the mother of the arguments presented: Fans buy bootlegs instead of authorized releases. (Rubbish. Someone chose to buy a bootleg of alternate takes from the Let It Be album instead of Let It Be? They buy both. Bootlegs are treasures sought by obsessive fans who want it all, as evident by the success of bootleg box sets with 10, even 14 discs. A 20-album Dylan box set was released in Europe, and a 70-album collection of Zeppelin in the mid-'80s. Yeah, probably the owners of that one haven't laid out the bucks for the first Zeppelin release.)
No doubt major bootleggers are cutting secret deals with pressing plants and restructuring distribution routes somewhere else in the world. Possibly they have already relocated, if the growing trickle of bootlegs from Australia and Japan are any sign.
Labels will continue to piously scream that their artists are being cheated out of royalties, while themselves negotiating royalty agreements that keep even very popular artists in our income bracket. Musicians will continue to object to the availability of their unpolished performances, which are exactly what bootleg fans are looking for. It boils down to a sad confrontation between industry and consumer, between money and image and love of the music.
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