The Delta Snake Review

The Delta Snake Review


Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Bootleg Recordings: Fan Love Or A Fart In The Elevator?

You don't see as many bootlegs around anymore, at least the type that you saw in the 60s. The things are certainly around, but getting ahold of one doesn't seem as easy as it used to be at least for the average consumer.

A lot of times while I'm cruising through YouTube, I recognize live recordings that were once famous bootlegs.

Bootleg records in the 60s was the musical equivalent of download piracy today, at least in the music industry's eyes, but what was different back then was that the villain was on the supply side.

People didn't prosecuted back then for owning a bootleg record, like some downloaders have been in this era.

For one thing you would've had to sue more than a few artists. Many of the Dylan covers that came out while he was semi-retired due to the now famous motorcycle accident, were learned by artists who bought the "Great White Wonder" bootleg.

Some histories date that as the first rock bootleg, and later on it was issued as a legitimate record as the "Basement Tapes." Or at least some parts of it, there were actually a few different versions that were going under that bootleg name.

Other famous bootlegs  included "Wooden Nickel," that forced Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young to issue "Four Way Street," and the bootleg of the Stone's Oakland concert that some people feel was a better performance than the one that came out on the "Ya Ya's" album. 

Also the famous Woodstock Festival was pretty much in circulation in its entirety before even the first three record set came out.

Bootlegging wasn't some new development in the 60s, it had been common in jazz for decades.

There was a difference in the attitude about it in jazz. It was considered more of a hard-core collector hobby, and the tapes were traded back-and-forth between fans. It was considered bad form to sell them.

The early rock bootlegs actually started to become a large industry, and more than a few vinyl record pressing plants knew that some of the releases they were contracted to put out were bootlegs.

The bootlegs were marketed like most rarity items, without any quality control, and often were what they call audience tapes. A tape made by somebody sitting in the audience.

As a general rule, unless you were a fanatic fan of the artist, bootlegs were a rip-off. Extremely bad sound in most cases, and low quality vinyl that would sometimes last only a few plays.

In the early rock days, most of the artist were ambivalent about it at first. For one thing it was the label's problem, and it was probably at least a little flattering to know that people wanted everything that you recorded.

What the artists mostly complained about was the lousy sound. When you see some video on YouTube that was once a famous bootleg, it's probably higher-quality because it's a more direct copy of the original video or tape. Back then, combined with a bad vinyl pressing, the music would often be almost unrecognizable

Later on the money got serious, then artist began to become more hostile to the idea of bootlegs.

Which is perfectly understandable. Most sensible artists know that people probably lend each other recordings, or trade tapes, but it is mitigated a bit by the fact that somebody bought an actual product and copied it. In other words the artist did get a sale from it, and maybe more if the copy turned a listener into a fan.

A bootleg is something different entirely. It's basically a recording of a performance taken without permission, and sold for profit. It doesn't matter if the artist is already a millionaire, it's not fair.

Criticizing an artist for being greedy for not liking bootlegs obscures the real issue, that somebody is profiting off another without their permission.

When CDs became common, bootlegging really took off because you didn't need a chain of vendors to create a bootleg anymore. A single person with a computer or CD duplicator could crank out thousands of a bootleg copy with very little overhead.

It also made it possible to bootleg videos of concerts, which is pretty evident on YouTube. That makes it possible to make a higher-quality bootleg when you have the video or film since that was probably the source of many bootlegs.

Other sources included tapes from the soundboard, and some even stolen from recording studios.

Ironically most of those bootlegs don't get censored on YouTube because of the lousy sound. It's the studio recordings that the artists often block, and sometimes they get around to the live recordings, but as a rule you're more likely to hear a song from some old TV show on YouTube, than from a copy of the studio recording.

When I first started record collecting, I start off buying the new stuff. I then discovered trading those in to the used record store would stretch the dollars spent, and from there discovered bootlegs.

I only ended up buying a few, there was the thrill of having something rare at first, but it didn't take long to get out the habit.

For one thing, those who know me well, know that I can't stand a recording where you can't hear the drums, which is a common fault of bootlegs. 

When I'm considering a new recording in a record store or download site, the first thing I check out is the drum track. If the mix is bad and the drums mixed down too low, no sale.

Another factor is bootleg pricing isn't standard. Some could cost over a hundred dollars back then, and like I said, unless you were a fanatic fan who had to have everything, in virtually all cases the bootleg was a huge letdown.

If you notice later on in the CD era just before digital took off, and up to the present, artist have started routinely including rare cuts and demo tracks. Most of those mainly appeal to collectors, but it's a smart move, and gives the artist a return on the earlier stuff that before would often end up on bootleg. 

It's also an irony, when you think that artists complained about the lack of quality, and now they're getting a premium price for adding their demos and cuts that in most cases are pretty dull stuff.

Some artists have actually taken to studying bootleg patterns, and regions where illegal downloading is heaviest, and use it as an indicator of where to market heavily, and have been quite successful at it.

That doesn't make bootlegging good, but it certainly shows that the difference between different artists isn't just talent, but also business acumen.

Eventually industry will figure out that the emergence of all these unauthorized recordings into public outlets like YouTube will work in their favor.

If someone who holds the rights to a particular concert season on YouTube, it becomes relatively easy to take control of that video, or block it. Many groups have done the smart thing and released official videos, which they did for MTV anyway.

So you have bootlegs that started from tapes, and I'm sure there's still websites out there where bootlegs are traded or sold, and have continued their life now on video on the web.

But the emergence of YouTube puts that sort of material into what I think is still unknown territory. Personally I think YouTube is the new radio, or at least one of its most important forms. It'll take a while, i'm sure, or the record industry to figure out how to monetize it, and what parts to leave free for promotion. 

That's important because radio play in the old days was very important, and it's better to study YouTube and civilize it slowly, rather than take a chance on killing the next era equivalent of radio.

I think the primary problem with the recording industry and bootlegs, is that the recording industry and more than a few artists simply don't get that if you charge too much for a product where most of it has a short shelf life (most don't become hits), it creates a temptation to take it for free when the opportunity arises. Most of the music industry business is spent putting out music that people listen to for a while and then move onto the latest.

Hits are great, but in industry terms, detrimental if they all become classic and get listened to over and over and people don't get interested in the new stuff.

I think streaming may not make a lot of artists entirely happy in terms of the lower royalty rate, but it's a new industry, and if they support it will probably drive most of the people who were illegally downloading into the fold of paying users.

I would think that's something the recording industry and artist would understand, since more than a few debut albums in retrospect didn't really provide top value, and tacitly assumed that the fans would stick with the artist as they grew and developed.

But that's a little off-topic. In terms of bootlegs we're talking about an unauthorized product that often can command a big price. It's created by somebody not authorized by the artist, and makes money off that artists name.

I think that the labels and artist will get a lot more of the fans support in this when they go back and start suing the supply side, instead of suing the potential customer.

Underlying all this drama about bootlegs, there is one central fact it's almost always ignored. That there isn't an artist on this planet who's a big star that didn't get there without the help of countless fans who paid money for his product. There is, or was, any other path of stardom. The idea that someone became famous because of some sort of genius or talent is a fairytale. In the real world, fans make you famous, nothing else.

As Napoleon once said, talent is nothing without opportunity.

Get the fans back on your side, stop giving all those inflated figures for downloading and suing fans, and I think bootlegging will simply go back to the small time trading between fanatic fans that it used to be. Most fans aren't inclined to buy a bootleg anyway in this day and age, and could be easily persuaded to buy the legal product for a bootleg.

(Keep in mind talking about music here, the problem of movie bootlegs I think is a more complex and different subject)

Then the entertainment industry can worry about the real problem, which is the mass counterfeiting of their products overseas, much of which ends up back here. Putting a lid on that will bring a real return.

Much more than trying to collect a hundred thousand dollars judgment against a single mother or college student...