The question, whether or not music should be free doesn't really have a right or
wrong answer, and in my opinion, is really more about how people value and relate
to music. In terms of radio or any broadcast medium, music has always been technically
free (though conditional).
For example, the basic agreement between music makers and listeners used to be,
if you bought a particular delivery system, like a radio, it was free. There
were strings of course; there were ads to listen to, not to mention the hope
that you would buy the record or CD on the basis of the free sample (the
single). On that basis, the record company was willing to have songs played for
free over the air.
That wasn't a bad deal for the listener. Most music, especially in pop, has a
shelf life and you're likely to hear it about as many times as you care to in
the time this or that song stays on the charts. The label took the risk here.
The one thing the record company counts on is that a song or album is even more
pleasurable when it can be heard on demand. Which required a record company to
record an artist, capture a sound, get it onto a medium like a record, package
it and distribute it, and of course, pay the artist (which may or may not have
happened of course). People knew this, and many were willing to pay money for
There was a clear perception that it was a concrete product, something that not
only held the music one enjoyed, but was an object worth keeping, and it only
provided the service to the holder.
What changed all this didn't come with the digital age. What started it was
access to consumer level tape recorders. Now, a record could be lent out and
taped by another. In effect, a record was no longer a self contained
product...the music could now be separated and given to another, or sold by a
third party. It wasn't easy, and required an investment on the part of both
parties, but it was easier. Especially with the advent of cassette tapes and
recorders, though believe it or not, music pirating has been around since the
days of paper sheet music.
The sale of that copy in vinyl (or tape form) was called "bootlegging."
Bootlegging was sort of common among jazz fans in the 60s, and was mainly
confined to live performances and rare recordings not generally available to the
public. There was a "code," that such recordings were only to be traded or given
out in limited distribution, and as a rule, the recording industry didn't
aggressively prosecute the practice. If for no other reason that prominent music
writers were among those collectors.
Bootlegging began to be more of a business when it entered the rock market. Most
accounts say that the first really popular rock bootleg (it hit gold status in
sales) was the "Great White Wonder," a copy of the tapes Bob Dylan made with the
Band as he recovered from his now famous motorcycle accident. There were
different versions with various collections of songs from the sessions (and
other sources), and even that record was bootlegged under other titles. The
sound quality varied from poor to downright tinny, and it's main appeal was the
fact that it contained Dylan songs during a period where he was as hot as an
artist could get, but wasn't releasing product.
Many of the Dylan songs that artists were performing during that time were
compositions that he hadn't recorded yet, and were taken from that bootleg and
other similar tapes. In other words, even artists bought bootlegs back then.
Still, the practice generally stopped well short of copying legal releases in
the vinyl era. It was simply too expensive and legally dangerous to make a vinyl
copy of an album and still make a profit from the effort.
Where the rock bootleg had it's main impact was with live albums. Countless live
albums have been released, if for no other reason, than a bootleg of a concert
or tour was already out and selling well.
One good example is the Rolling Stones "Get Yer Ya Ya's Out" live disc. Before
it came out, a double set from the Oakland Coliseum gig was out and doing well.
To this day, some feel that it was the better live album.
A good second example is the Crosby, Stills and Nash "Four Way Street" double
LP. It's now considered classic, but at the time, it was described more as a
ragged document by a band that couldn't duplicate it's tight harmonies and
arrangements. The primary reason the band put it out was probably because due to
their popularity at the time, a bootleg of their earlier gigs called "Wooden
Nickel" was already out and selling well. In terms of sound quality, it was one
of the worst of it's era, but it capitalized on the group when it was a top
The reason most artists and labels gave for countering the bootlegs was that it
gave the consumers access to a better quality product, as most bootlegs were
basically rip offs.
Still, it took a lot of effort to put out a vinyl bootleg, and most weren't put
out in large quantities. One had to take the source recording, get it into a
mold, contract a pressing plant to make the vinyl records (generally under a
fake title or name), package it in an LP jacket, and get someone to sell it (and
taking the risk of being busted).
At this point, it could still be argued that it provided a product that the
label or artist wouldn't have put out, and mainly fed a dedicated fan base.
What isn't always said is that bootlegs are parasitic. In rare cases, it can
document a cult artist's output and keep interest alive, but it's main function
was to captialize on an artist during the period when he or she was at a career
peak. To put out the money to issue a record was a real risk back then, and
bootleggers only bet on sure things.
The basic perception that justifies bootlegs is that it only affects record
labels. Which isn't true.
Even the most popular artists have a period when their earning power is at a
peak. During this time, they're going to make as much money as their recordings
are going to ever generate and as a rule, that income is going to decline.
Artists need this period to pay back the label's advance on royalties and have
something to show for their work. If they don't generate enough income, they
often find themselves in serious debt.
This is also the time when bootlegs of that artists are the most salable also,
and anything the bootlegger makes doesn't go the artist. The argument that such
recordings help the artist isn't true...no one bootlegs unpopular artists,
except in rare cases like cult artists, and even they would benefit more if
royalties were generated by that activity.
The fact is, commercial bootlegs are always parasitic.
Once digital music could be easily duplicated onto CD with perfect quality, then
the nature of pirating changed. Instead of rare or "legendary" live performances
or demos, just about every live gig could be easily put out. "Soundboard"
recordings (from the soundman's console) used to be considered a high grade
bootleg and relatively rare...now, the range of bootlegs easily encompassed any
live recording that could be captured on a small digital (or even analog) tape
recorder, but also illegally obtained soundboard and soundcheck tapes, demos,
unreleased albums still sitting in "the can" in a recording studio, or even
currently available product.
The reason is simple, it's about distribution (as it usually is)...
Like I said earlier, with vinyl, you have to get the tape or bootleg mastered
into a mold, find a pressing plant that would take the job (or fool one into
doing it), package the LP and distribute it. That's a huge trail and it wasn't
very hard to track down a bootleg, or a store that would sell it.
I remember one used/new record store that was an institution in my teenage
years. It was hit by an FBI raid, and the fine essentially crippled it and it
went out of business a short while later. Because the vinyl bootleg was a
concrete item, with a complex trail, it was an easy product to stamp out once
people got serious about it.
CDs are another matter, those can be duplicated privately by a console (in the
old days) or by a computer now. There's essentially no financial risk either.
Copying legal releases and selling those at a lower price became easy, and it's
now relatively easy to make it look like a legal product also.
When services like the original Napster appeared, music pretty much stopped
being a commodity in the traditional sense. The music was now a digital file
that could be transmitted without the traditional vehicle of a record or CD, and
listeners didn't necessarily need radio anymore and the tacit agreement between
label and listener for that service was no longer in effect. The relationship
between radio, the artist, labels, and the listener is a complex one, and that
will be talked about in part two.
Music that once was free to listen to also became free to own with the advent of
file sharing, and even with sites like Napster forced to change to a commercial download or
streaming model or others like Limewire simply shut down, there's no denying that the public's
perception of what music is as a product has changed.
In part two of my thoughts on this subject, I'll talk about the good and bad of
the advent of mp3s...I should note, that everything I've said is purely my
opinion and not intended to be a definitive history or final authority on the