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...
Company - Live in Boston 1974
Beatles - Tokyo 6-30-66 &
Free - Live In Germany and Denmark 1970
Golden Earring - RAI Amsterdam 1982
Steely Dan - Live in
Little Steven & The Disciples Of Soul - Baptism
At The Rockpalast 1982
John Fahey - The Jabberwocky, Syracuse
U2 - Heaven Turns To Hell - Molson Centre, Montreal
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
The dark thrill of illicit activities...
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?
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.
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.
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
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.
Thirty 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,
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.
also running out of space.
Driven by fans... supported by
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
Beatle...now 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
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
A confederacy of completists
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...
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.
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.
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
But they don't, so the fans continue to search for
quasi-illicit sources of what they crave...
Welcome to the fractal
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.
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
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