These Boots Were Made For Burning
The Bootleg Collector's Obsession

Rick Ojo McGrath

Dylan bootleg McLuhan bootleg Sade bootleg Jameroqui bootleg

Every day is Christmas

Your mule is approaching the drop point. You assume the disguise and take up position. You're middle aged and looking frumpy in a faded St Maarten t-shirt; your legs look white in shorts, and you're watering your pathetic lawn on a postage-size lot in a tony section of midtown. Your shoes are wet.

The mule swings thru your front gate, opens his blue Canada Post bag, and hands you a pile of brown puffy bags, a few bills, and a letter. "Grass gonna grow" he asks or comments, and beetles thru the hedge and up to your cranky neighbour's door. You smile as you check the stamps on the shipping bags. Finland. England. Japan. Will it be good stuff? You shut off the hose, enter the house, and up the stairs to your media den. You flick on the mini JVC stereo and your NAD cd player. Let's see, whadda we got? You open a package and the shiny discs tumble out into your lap...

Bad Company - Live in Boston 1974
Beatles - Tokyo 6-30-66 & 7-1-66 soundboard
Free - Live In Germany and Denmark 1970
Golden Earring - RAI Amsterdam 1982
Steely Dan - Live in Boston 18/4/74
Little Steven & The Disciples Of Soul - Baptism At The Rockpalast 1982
John Fahey - The Jabberwocky, Syracuse University, 1972
U2 - Heaven Turns To Hell - Molson Centre, Montreal 5/27/01

Nice little haul. And the trader was thoughtful enough to include colour printouts of art for the cd jewel cases. You lower Bad Company into the NAD and press play. Yeah. The room is suddenly filled with the aggressive chant of a restless crowd. For a moment there's a feeling you could be there.Then the crowd roars and the speakers tremble with the shreik of a voice and the rumble of a guitar played thru a mountain of Marshall amps. Sounds good. And you've got two more unopened packages to go. In one of them is a two-cd set of money-grubbing commercials performed by rock icons for FM radio during the 1960s. That should place a lot of nostalgia in perspective. There's also a cd out there of rock stars doing nothing but Coca-Cola commercials, but you haven't found it yet. Yet. But three packages in one day. That's good. You remember Sade's line, "every day is Christmas, every night is New Year's Eve".

The dark thrill of illicit activities...

But let's just hold it a second here, pardner. Whaddya think you've really got there? That isn't the real band.... that's contraband. Illegal or unauthorized recordings of musicians playing live at a concert, or over the radio, or on TV. Demos, outtakes, remixes and jams from recording studios. Interviews, commercials, special shows from the vaults of bigcity radio stations. Deleted, lost, or never-released albums from record company vaults. There are, as a rat would say, many ways into the sewer.

The only reason you're not being advised by a lawyer is that what you're doing is almost impossible to monitor. Or prosecute. What's the law on trading? Bottom line, you're not in the more obviously illegal activity of manufacturing and selling these aural rarities over the web or thru second-hand record stores. But even if you did sell these unauthorized recordings for a profit through a personal website or an international fence like ebay (go there and type in "bootleg"), the odds of you answering your door to a porchful of FBI agents is about as likely as opening your door to the Rolling Stones, over ta borrah a cuppa coke.

Right now, tho, you're not thinking about the legalities of the situation... you've got the discs, let's hear how these puppies bark! The Bad Company boot, you think, is surprisingly good, given the year of recording. You listen more closely... is it a good audience recording, or has this been copied from the soundboard tape? The way to tell is by judging the aural distance from the singer's mouth to the recording device. With audience recordings (you stand in the audience holding a mic up) the gap is the distance from the speakers to your mic; with soundboard recordings, it's the distance from the singer's lips to the mic... usually, they're right on top of the mic, and this gives you the more pleasing vocal front mix. But this singer sounds too far away... it's an audience recording, all right, but the taper has compensated by being close to the stage. You think, maybe you should send a copy of this to your friend out west. He likes these guys. But he also likes pristine sound, you remember, and this bootleg suffers from the primitive recorders of the 1970s. Muffled drums, too much bass, wonky mixing... nahhh, he ain't gonna like this one.

But it's not always the quality of the sound that draws the faithful to their knees, no, it's the mania of the performance as the band happened to pull it off at that point in time. The magic concert. It's a quest among fans. And the Badco Boys are pretty hot this night in Boston. Paul Rodgers is in full vocal prowess, matching riffs with power chord guitarist Mick Ralphs, as they frenetically pay their unwitting homage to Plant and Page. OK, you say... what do we play next?

It all went down on the summer of 69...

The story is a typical tale of youthful entrepreneurial spirit. Beatniks are out to make it rich. And are you really a collector if you don't have a copy of this, the original bootleg recording? It didn't look like it would spawn a revolution, but there it was: a two-record set in a plain white cover with the letters GWW stamped on it. You could find it in some small record stores, if you happened to live in LA. It was Great White Wonder, and it was a poorly produced collection of unreleased Bob Dylan cuts. From this first modern bootleg sprang an industry which, at its $250 million-a-year-peak, was pumping out records and tapes faster than rock acts could put on shows.

Bootleg: the Secret HistoryThere's a book out on the subject -- a good one -- called Bootleg: The Secret History of the Other Recording Industry, written by a Brit, Clinton Heylin (St Martin's Press, New York, 1995). It pretty well gives the entire scoop on the players, the law, the bands, the money, the lawyers, the sellers, governments -- the whole history. And you'll note, won't you, that the book was published in 1995 -- just about at the time that everything that this book talks about is, to put it bluntly, over.

That's right. Kaput. Sure, you know why. It's what got you here right now. The internet. All of a sudden the dynamic changed. Rather than slog thru fanzines, or hike out to swap meets, or seek out dark little used record stores, collectors were presented with the opportunity to post an electronic bulletin board for the world to see, and with the speed and anonymity of email, it wasn't long before the old paradigm of a bootleg company producing, distributing and counting the profits was replaced with a protestant-type system of each collector dealing directly with other collectors over the net. And now, instead of buying & selling, the emphasis is on trading -- a much foggier legal zone, as the contents may be unauthorized, but nobody's profiting from the exercise.

The availability of other people's collections over the web was a boon to the sport, but up until a few years ago collectors were still hampered by technology -- the inability to copy cds. If you wanted to make or copy a bootleg, you really had only three choices: vinyl, cassette or cd. Producing boots on vinyl was a daunting task, and this technique was replaced in the 1970s as cassette recorders became cheap and of fairly high quality, thanks to the Dolby tape hiss reduction system. Blank cassettes, unfortunately, were expensive and notoriously poor in quality. And even with Dolby, sound degradation occurred every time it was copied. Traders bumped up against the limited xerox quotient, meaning cassettes could be copied only three, maybe four times before their already questionable sound quality morphed to white noise. This wasn't too bad with live stuff, but it made a difference with the high quality material which was starting to find its way out of sound studios and record company vaults.

The compact disc, tho, was a quantum leap in recording technology. It was digital, man, and light and small. In the beginning, the high cost of slow cd burners kept the masses in Pause Mode. But thanks to Moore's Law, and a persistent demand, the cost of better and better burners plummeted like the Nasdaq market. Best of all, now your computer could be booted up and into the bootleg scene. It could rip. It could burn. And it connected you to an internet of opportunity. The new medium had arrived, cheap, fast, and best of all -- digital reproduction meant lossless sound reproduction!

Bootleg junkies... it's not a pretty sight

I know how I got into it. There were those old cassettes, those concerts I recorded from 1970 to 1976, when I was in my late 20s and concerts cost five bucks and nobody cared if you wandered in covered with cameras and tape recorders. I only recorded about ten to 12 concerts in all, plus a few I borrowed from fellow tapers, and I thought every one of them had terrible sound... that bassy, condenser mic sound you got with early portable cassette recorders. After Jim Morrison died I thought one of them -- a 1970 Doors concert -- was of high enough audio quality to make into a vinyl record, but the concert was over 100 minutes, and about the most you could squeeze on both sides of an lp was 40 minutes. What tracks to choose? Then there was how to find an independent record presser who wouldn't ask questions, and distribution, and well, it was just way too much hassle for the few beans involved. So the cassettes stayed in a box.

Bootleg Clapton: Vancouver 75Thirty years later, and everything has changed. By now I had my very own cd burner. I was aware of bootlegs, but not really sure about how to tap into the culture. But you can't trade if you have nothing to trade, so I digitized my old cassettes, cleaned up the sound with some audio software, and burnt those ancient concerts onto silver discs of plastic. Now, when I say "clean up", I mean maybe add a little filtering to boost the treble, or mute the bass a bit... you really can't fiddle with it that much... and like furniture collectors, many boot collectors want the sound as pristine as possible... just as the original tape recorder captured it. Regardless, the sound is still very poor when compared with studio recordings. But poor is often acceptable in the murky aural swamps of bootlegging. Especially if its a concert that's new on the block. And, oh yeah, I also made some snazzy jewelcase covers.

Next step: distribution. It was easiest to make "first contact" with this alien culture thru an internet fan group... I selected a Van Morrison trader group, signed up, went online and announced to the dumbfounded Vaniacs that a very rare, early concert from 1974 was now available for trade. Within a minute I had 50 email requests, each with an attached word document listing the cds they had for trade. Within an hour, over 200.

Aha, this is how it works.

OK, so much for growing your collection. Now the anal part: managing your stock. You make a list of all your boots, paying special attention to your "master" bootlegs -- "master" because you're offering them at source quality (this is a hangover from the cassette days) -- and because of their rarity, and you post them all on a website and then communicate the site's url on other fan-based sites, and presto, you're in the bootleg trading business. As your collection grows, you add each new cd to your list of tradeables. The more cds you have, the more likely it is another trader will email you with a request. Within 18 months of my first trade I'm sitting on 1,500 bootleg cds... and counting.

I'm also running out of space.

Driven by fans... supported by obsessives

The whole bootleg thing has all the good and bad qualities of any "hobby", and we all know there's a thin line between hobby and hopelessly crazy. I, for example, seem to have collected what a reasonable person might perceive as an unhealthy amount of bootleg material concerning that sultry nubian sexpot, Helen Adu. You might also have noticed that I have even attended and taped her recent concerts and once again have produced my own little "master bootlegs" of these events.

"Unhealthy? Not so", I reply. "That was pure research. The information collected was used in a number of analytical pieces which I wrote over these past two years. It was a study of the role of the blasé voice in the sexual arsenal of the femme fatale. Those files are now closed". But that's a complete rationalization, obviously, as I think I've simply run out of Sade bootlegs to collect, but my specific visceral fantasies pale in the paranormal light of some of the more aggressive collectors out there, such as Beatle Bob, who has a good sized room in his house constructed specifically as a shrine to the Fab Four. Now, I have actually seen The Beatles in the flesh, in 1964, but Beatle Bob wasn't even born by the time the band broke up, and yet he has been consumed by a fire of acquisition and totemization which is now ridiculing the absurd. Aside from mountains of Beatles pix and paraphernalia, Bob has over 5,000 cds of bootlegged Beatles stuff. Virtually every session they taped at Abbey Road. Yoko ruining the White Album. Awful recordings of The Quarrymen. The Silver Beatles. The Hamburg gigs. Whole cds filled with takes of one song -- Bob's favourite is Norwegian Wood. I've seen it, man. It's a freaking womb of mophead virtuality, where, I suspect, late at night Beatle Bob turns down the lights, slips on the headphones, pushes back in his chair, reaches out as if to twist a few dials on the soundboard, and pretends John, Paul, George and Ringo are in the next room, listening to his instructions as they create another masterpiece... until, finally, John calls out, asking Bob to enter the studio and become the fifth Beatle. Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, whispers Bob, I'm the fifth those chicks down at the mall will know who's cool!

Variety is a kind of store...

Take a gander at my list of bootlegs. What's still surprising to me is the incredible variety of music available. The Big Five among bootleggers are The Beatles, Stones, Springsteen, Led Zeppelin and Bob Dylan, but I've delved into some dark and bizarre corners. I was amazed at stuff like the boot of Marshall McLuhan lecturing, and that four-cd set called The Acid Tests, which are tapes of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters throwing dances in Frisco in 1966. There may have been some Owlsey acid involved... it's a rumour. But that's pretty tweedy stuff. It can get wacky: like Lie, the Charles Manson album produced by the Beach Boys. Or the boot of the Doors concert in Miami, made famous when Jim Morrison pulled down his pants and waved his dick at the audience until the police decided to arrest him. Yes, culturally significant. Or stuff in the necrophilic theme: the last tapes Lennon made before he was shot, and the last concerts performed by Buddy Holly and Stevie Ray Vaughn. Oh yeah, I bet you're dying to hear them.

For me, that's what it boils down to, man. I think the fun is finding the oddball stuff, or tracking down the boot of a concert you attended, or listening to the concert version of an album you particularly liked, and not falling for the seduction of the collector's obsession: the thrill of ownership -- the actual physical possession of a keepsake as a function of "consuming" the artist. At the very high end of the collectophonic scale, there are cats who aggressively protect the rarity of their obscure stuff by either never trading it (but they let other people know they have it), or by only trading for a boot of equal rarity... with value set by the ever-present Law of Supply & Demand.

A confederacy of completists

With organization comes community, and the web has quickly created an outstanding platform from which this particular culture has evolved. Yahoo Groups is a vast community which enjoins fellow addicts from every corner of the world. Among bootleggers this usually takes form as a "Trade Group", which congeals on a web host and exists as a platform for traders to congregate, post offerings and requests, pass on gossip associated with the artist, and fink on "bad traders" -- cats who set up a trade & then take the cds and run. Really. There's a chat group for virtually every rock star, every classification of rock, every era of rock. The same thing goes for jazz, folk, world, R&B, classical -- everything is collected.

There is also something even more basic on the web: sites that contain lists of traders with their web urls, email addressses, and indications of what they collect. If none of that works, you can simply boot up Google and type in something like "rolling stones bootleg" and away you go.

Didn't you once read it was conservatively estimated there were probably a hundred thousand bootleg lists on the worldwide web?

And the record companies still don't get it...

Aside from a few acts which actively promote fan recordings of their concerts, most musicians and their record companies are freaked to death over the snowballing rise of digital recorders, burners & playback units. That whole "sharing" scam that napster pulled when the ultra-compressed mp3 format was developed, was pure robbery, but that hasn't stopped everyone with a computer and internet access from freely downloading terrabytes of music that used to cost money.

A few rockers are onto it -- a lot of them 70s and 80s icons who have fallen from pop grace but who retain a loyal following. Phil Manzanera has a great site; so do the wacky Firesign Theatre. These are not fan sites; these are legit commercial outlets that allow anyone in the world to buy anything from a hat to a signed cd.

Record companies also have sites on their artists that flog product. Or link to Amazon.

But if artists or their record companies had half a brain they'd recognize the huge market potential for bootleg-type product, and get off their asses and make it. Springsteen is on a comeback tour... you know the Stones are in Toronto right now, rehearsing for their next tour. An "official" bootleg of each show would be snapped up by the legions of acolytes who would normally be happy with a crappy audience recording, if that's all there was. Soundboards today are all computer-run, digital master manipulators of sound, and a very good recording could easily be made and stored of each concert. You want a copy? Go to a web site, buy it and download it... Then burn it on your own cd.

Or, seeing as concerts are not exactly the property of the record companies -- it's and interesting legal point: who does own a concert? -- the artist/group could issue a recording of each concert. Hell, they could even sell their studio outtakes!

But they don't, so the fans continue to search for quasi-illicit sources of what they crave...

Welcome to the fractal museum...

The distribution of a new bootleg cd looks exactly like atomic fission. I trade a new concert I've taped with, say, ten collectors. They in turn trade with ten, who also trade with ten. In three steps there's a thousand copies out there. In three more steps there's a million. It's an almost instantaneous international dissemination, and it flows like a fractal -- no matter where you are in it, it all looks the same.

In the biggest picture, what is being created is a vast collection of cultural artifacts, nurtured, analysed and maintained by an army of devoted priests, keepers of the faith, fertilizers of the truth. That the information so carefully collected and treasured is a postmodern function of Pop Culture is Alanis Morrisette ironic, but perhaps not as ironic as all the future PhD theses which will be written on the rise and fall of rock 'n' roll in some distant future. Because when those groovy graduate students at Jetson U. go looking for raw material to grist in the mill, they won't have far to go. And it will all be organized for them. This, of course, is yet another rationalization.

Burn, baby, burn...

Where does the bootleg culture go in the future? During the glory years of bootlegging for profit, almost everything worth stealing was stolen, packaged and sold. But there's always a seemingly endless supply of new concert material and studio outtakes for albums. As well, high-tech, PC-based digital audio editing systems are breathing new life into old, substandard recordings, with audio fanatics correcting speed, combining tracks from multiple tapings, and issuing new & improved versions of old classic boots.

Digital technology is also changing the way concerts are taped. Some enterprising tapers rent audio earphones for the hearing-impared at venues equipped with this technology, and play this soundboard feed into their digital recorders. Mini digi video cameras are appearing more and more, and a huge subculture of tape collectors has also risen up, trading videos of concerts, tv appearances, and movie clips. And with the world covered in computers, cheap cd burners, cheap cds, and cheap distribution costs, one has to predict that the trend will be to more and more people joining the party -- because they're fans, because of an interest in the energy and spontaneity of the live performance, and, yes, for the thrill of harbouring unauthorized material that none of their friends will ever possess -- unless they burn them a copy.

And let's not forget the simple fun of playing with the machinery. You burn, baby, therefore you are.

PS.. if any reader has any old tapes of concerts you once recorded, you'll get in touch, right? We can do a trade. Honest.

© Rick McGrath 8/02


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