Bootlegs: Sound May Vary, But Illegality is Clear
By Phil Vettel
Published: June 29, 1986
During a 1978 concert, Bruce Springsteen dedicated the song ''Racing in the Streets'' to his friends in Asbury Park, N.J. Because the concert was in San Francisco, Springsteen acknowledged that few of them could hear his tribute. ''But I`m sure they will soon,'' he said, ''through the magic of bootlegging.''
They did. ''Winterland--Live in the Promised Land'' quickly became a three-record boxed set considered ''an essential item'' by one long-time collector and bootlegger.
That bootlegger, Max (not his real name), sells via mail-order more than 100 titles of Springsteen albums and singles--bootlegs all. It would take more than $5,000 to buy every record he offers. “'Well, there`s very few that do that (buy everything),'' Max says. ''If you`re into it that hard core, you`ll go overseas and find it cheaper.''
Max is a middleman, one of several that typically stand in line between a bootleg manufacturer and the buying public. ''I`m not the guy who makes these things,'' he says. ''I`m not even the man who deals straight with the guy who makes these things. I mean, it (a bootleg record) might turn over two or three times before I get it, I don`t know.''
Bootlegging, the unauthorized recording and selling of an artist`s unreleased material, is as old as recorded music itself. It is perceived by many as a victimless crime--for a crime it is--and, in truth, it is difficult to assess the damage bootlegging causes the legitimate music industry. But it is illegal, more pervasive than most people realize, and a source of anger and frustration for those in the music industry.
''It is out-and-out thievery,'' says Bob Altschuler, corporate representative for CBS Records. ''What is it that the artist has to bring to the public? What he can create. He has a right to decide what (material) it is he wants to represent him, and he has a right to be the editor of that material. If someone steals his music and offers it for sale to the public, that artist is being deprived of his right to determine how he wants his music released.
''Also, he`s being cheated financially in very severe terms, because every (bootleg) record that is sold bypasses the artist completely. He receives no royalties, no payment whatsoever. The artist has been deprived of any opportunity to earn an income from his creative efforts.''
Springsteen`s prophetic remark about ''Racing in the Streets'' was an easy prediction to make. He has been bootlegged more than 100 times--and that doesn`t include tapings by fans who do not offer their tapes for sale--and is probably the most ''booted'' artist of his generation, approaching the status of such ''all-time'' booted artists as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan. Other frequently booted major artists are U2, the Grateful Dead and Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers.
When Springsteen played four dates in Wembley Stadium, England, last year, bootleg tapes of the opening night show were being hawked on the street to fans on their way to see the third show. ''Do They Know It`s Christmas,'' the Band Aid record released to raise money for the starving in Ethiopia, was bootlegged, as was the subsequent Live Aid concert. So, too, was the song ''We Are the World,'' in record and video form. ''The benefit concert for Amnesty International? I`ll give it a month and a half, and that`ll be out,'' predicts Max.
Tonight, Bob Dylan and Tom Petty share the stage at Poplar Creek Music Theatre. If the concert is not taped illegally, it probably won`t be for lack of trying. Security guards at all concert venues watch out for electronic equipment (and confiscate the equipment they find), but obviously a lot of tapers sneak through.
''Well, you can`t take a guy`s pants off when he goes through the gates,'' Max says. ''You can`t inspect a guy`s arm cast to see if there`s a tape recorder inside. A guy I know dressed to look like he`d slept on (the ticket) line for three days, put a tape recorder in the bottom of a bag and dirty underwear on top. If you were a security guard, would you want to check that?''
''I know of one guy (in the Chicago area) who always buys two seats to concerts, but goes alone,'' says an industry source who requested anonymity.
''He puts a microphone up each sleeve, stands on his two seats so he knows he`s got a clear shot at the stage, and tapes that way. He gets pretty good results.''
In fact, bootleggers occasionally achieve remarkable results. There is a public perception that bootleg records are poor-quality, poorly packaged live recordings of interest only to a handful of hard-core collectors.
To the contrary, bootlegging is a big and increasingly sophisticated business, capable of producing surprisingly good sound packaged in glossy, four-color jackets, sometimes including lyric sheets, tour photos (unauthorized, of course) and multicolored vinyl. Such packages are the highlights of a decidedly mixed bag--bootleg audio quality varies wildly, and most recordings are fair to poor. But forget the image of bootleggers as altruistic music lovers creating basement tapes for the masses; the big boys are taking over.
An anonymous record collector talks about an experience in New York:
''It was 2 a.m.--record stores stay open real late out there--and I was talking to the guy at the counter, since I was the only one in the store. And he gets a call, and it`s someone asking for bootleg orders, and the guy says `Let me count what I`ve got, and I`ll call you back.` He does this right in front of me, it`s so open. And in the store, he`s got maybe 1,000 bootleg titles.
''In any case, he calls the guy back and orders 50 of `Great White Wonder` (a Bob Dylan bootleg), 20 `Rolling Stones Live at Garden State`--real specific, well-known bootleg titles. I noticed the number he used to call the guy back; I dialed it the next day. And it`s a CBS records plant in New Jersey.'' Tales of industry corruption go hand-in-hand with bootlegging, because not all bootlegs are taped from the audience. Some are soundboard tapes, made by taping directly from the concert sound-mixing board. Other bootlegs consist of unreleased studio material, which somehow finds its way out of the corporate vaults and into the hands of bootleggers. Both instances suggest inside help, and payoffs.
The suggestion that a rogue employee might be conducting illegal bootleg sales using the phone lines of the very company he`s robbing didn`t surprise Joel Schoenfeld, head of the Recording Industry Association of America`s Anti- Piracy division. Schoenfeld`s division works with the FBI and other law-enforcement officials to curtail bootlegging, piracy and counterfeiting activities in this country, and while Schoenfeld claims a good measure of success in this struggle, he concedes that the boots go on.
''It actually can be easy to get a recording-board tape of a concert,'' Schoenfeld says. ''Many of the major artists record many of their live performances, either to rehearse from, shorten the length of a set or to store footage to eventually put out a live album. And sometimes people bribe someone to run an extra line off the board, or dub a copy of the tape later.''
Turning the tapes into records is a relatively simple matter, Schoenfeld says. ''There are literally hundreds of pressing facilities in the country, which are not major plants, that can do very good quality work and probably have.
One such facility in New York was closed late last year, when an alleged bootlegger was convicted on 26 charges related to bootlegging. ''That was a major facility,'' Schoenfeld says. ''We felt that was one of the major sources of disc bootlegs in the country. Most of the bootlegs pressed in the U.S. that are out on the street now, I think, are leftovers. But there has been an increasing amount of imported bootleg product coming in.''
And some of it is as close as the corner record store. Of 10 independent Chicago record stores contacted, 3 admitted to carrying bootleg materials. Bootleggers are a common sight at record conventions, which draw large numbers of legitimate and shady collectors. ''There`s really no way to control that,'' says Tom Arnbo of ARC Promotions, which was to stage a record convention Saturday in Rolling Meadows. ''Our policy is that bootlegs aren`t allowed, and if I catch them, they`re gone. That keeps people from openly displaying boots, but it`s still hard to stop the guy who keeps a few bootlegs under his counter for certain customers.
''Very truthfully, I started the policy two years ago because I had a ton of complaints on bootlegs,'' Arnbo says. ''The legitimate dealers complained that bootlegs were taking away from their business, and buyers were complaining about poor quality. And that`s the real problem; you really don`t know what the hell you`re buying. There`s just no way to tell.''
One enterprising Midwest collector wrote ''The Bruce Springsteen Bootleg Bible,'' a compilation of Springsteen boots complete with track listings and quality evaluations. But it wasn`t out long before someone photocopied the book and began selling it cheaper, and someone else took the trouble to design a fancier version of the original. All the versions had the same listings, the same comments--and the same errors.
Making bootlegs of bootlegs is a fitting irony, but it`s also a problem for collectors. Once a bootleg record begins selling well, it`s only a matter of time before somebody boots the bootleg, a simple matter of acquiring a copy of the bootleg record and using it to produce additional records. In that process, significant amounts of sound quality are lost--but that`s the buyer`s problem. This practice renders bootleg ratings obsolete; a buyer of a well-rated bootleg may be getting a good-quality recording, or may be getting a recording of that recording.
Not that quality control is exactly a priority among many bootleggers. Bootlegs have a richly deserved reputation for spotty quality and inferior sound--particularly among the older recordings. There are some excellent-quality recordings available, but even these are subject to glitches.
''Winterland--Live in the Promised Land,'' for example, has two Side Ones and no Side Six. Hard-core collectors apparently take this all in stride; first-time buyers are more likely to feel burned.
''There`s no guarantee of quality whatsoever,'' says a collector. ''I`ve actually bought bootlegs that were not of the artist advertised. I`d buy a Springsteen and get Rod Stewart. You can`t trust these people, or anything they say. There are some recordings that are completely unlistenable, billed as `excellent sound quality.` Do you think bootleggers ever tell you, `Sounds like it was recorded in a basement`? Some of them are. If you`re going to deal with those people, you have to be willing to be ripped off.''
Concern about quality is such that some music magazines write about bootleg material, advising readers about the relative merits of new bootlegs as a sort of consumer service. ''The way I look at it,'' says Charlie Cross, editor of Backstreets Magazine, a quarterly devoted to New Jersey rock in general and Bruce Springsteen in particular, ''is that if the people are gonna spend their money, they might as well buy the good ones. We generally only mention the ones that are good and avoid giving bad ones any publicity. I personally find it detestable, and it point-blank disgusts me. But many fans don`t seem to have that way of thinking.''
Says Trey Foerster, managing editor of Goldmine Magazine, a biweekly collector`s publication: ''We have a quarterly Collecting Bootlegs column, and bootlegs come up from time to time in our other columns, too. We have an advertising policy that forbids bootleg advertising (so does Backstreets Magazine, although both policies are easily circumvented). But in my understanding of the law, it`s not illegal to be educated about bootlegs. It`s a reader service, so they know legitimate from illegitimate, good boots from bad. I don`t think that through that educational forum we promote the collecting of boots; it`s simply a matter of fact that people do. And we cover them.''
Record company executives complain bitterly that such coverage is tantamount to endorsement, giving bootleg recordings undeserved legitimacy to readers. Earlier this year, CBS angrily pulled its advertising from Rolling Stone after that magazine wrote an article on ''Ten of Swords,'' a bootleg Bob Dylan anthology. The article, claimed CBS spokesman Bob Altschuler, amounted to a favorable review of the bootleg--this at a time when CBS had just released a legitimate Dylan anthology, ''Biograph.'' Bob Dylan found himself competing on the street against his own music. (Rolling Stone subsequently issued an apology of sorts, in the form of a clarification stating that the magazine neither condoned nor endorsed bootleg recordings.).
Dylan took the time to lash out at bootlegging in the liner notes of ''Biograph,'' something major artists rarely do. ''They have stuff you do in a phone booth,'' he says. ''If you`re just sitting and strumming in a motel . . . it`s like the phone is tapped . . . and then it appears on a bootleg record. With a cover that`s got a picture of you that was taken from underneath your bed . . . and it costs $30. Then you wonder why most artists feel so paranoid.''
CBS and the RIAA moved swiftly to crack down on ''Ten of Swords, ''succeeding in driving the bootleg deep underground, while simultaneously driving the price through the roof. ''Ten of Swords'' reportedly was priced originally from $30 to $60; the cost today is more than $300, Shoenfeld says. And that, more than anything else, seems to be the industry`s plan to fight bootlegs, by pressuring dealers enough to drive the price beyond anyone`s willingness to pay. As it is, bootlegs are extraordinarily expensive compared to legitimate pressings; a typical boot in Max`s catalog goes for $25. ''Winterland,'' a three-record set made from a radio broadcast, costs $32; one collector estimated the profit on that price to be nearly $20.
Max, for his part, won`t discuss profit margins. ''Let`s just say I`m making enough to go out for Chinese food,'' he says. Others say he`s making enough to buy a Chinese restaurant. ''There`s one album out going for $40, and I know that`s $36 profit,'' says a collector. ''The profit is ridiculous. They`re really taking advantage of the fans` love of the artists.''
''This is a hobby,'' Max insists. ''I do it for the fun of it. I make a few bucks, I support my own collection, and that`s it. This is not what I do for a living, and it never will be.''
And while the music industry talks of crackdowns, Max is confident that it won`t reach down to him.
''Let`s put it this way,'' he says. ''There are bunches of other guys dealing on a larger scale than I do. I`m aware there are risks involved; I try to take precautions. I`m don`t try to be blatant about it, I don`t go to record shows, and basically I try to deal with as few people as possible.'' At the same time, Max advertises occasionally and gives customers his home phone number. ''I think if you put a phone number down, people are less afraid (to deal with you),'' he says. ''I mean, I`d be skeptical of sending money to just a post office box. If someone`s really nervous, they can pick up the phone and call.
''Let`s face it; if they (the industry) really wanted to crack down, they probably could,'' he says. ''But they`d spend more trying to get us than they`d lose letting us alone.''
''The retailers are not difficult to find,'' he says. ''Some of them you get by calling up and asking, `Got any good boots?` But it`s a matter of whether it`s worth the expenditure of resources in relation to the return (to prosecute), unless you can work your way up to a major distributor or manufacturer. We follow priorities.
''I would put bootlegging third in significance to piracy (copying material from released records and tapes and selling it) and counterfeiting (copying an entire package--music, jacket, label--and selling it). I`d also place it behind parallel imports, which are legitimately made overseas records coming in against the wishes of the U.S. owners (i.e., gray-market records, infringing on the distribution rights of others).
''But while I would put boots at the bottom in terms of impact, it still has an impact,'' he says. ''Fourth place doesn`t mean it`s not causing problems or harm. It`s less significant in the major scheme, but some artists are extremely offended by it, and some bootleggers just flaunt what they`re doing, and those people have to have an example made of them. Bootlegging is in fourth place, but it`s still up there on the menu for things we`re going to handle.''
Max doesn`t believe bootlegs have much impact at all.
''As far as hurting the record companies, I would say that 99 and nine-tenths percent of people who buy a bootleg of a particular artist own most if not all of that artist`s albums and would buy any new album of that artist. If a person is into it enough to pay a minimum of $8 and as much as $300 for a bootleg, he`s going to buy any regular album.
''There aren`t that many people who buy bootlegs,'' he claims. ''There`s only about 1,000 copies of a typical title anyway. It`s not that big a deal. I`ll bet there are fewer than 10,000 people in this country who own a Springsteen bootleg. I`ll bet there`s fewer than 30,000 people in the country who own any bootleg album.
''I don`t think the record company loses one cent on a bootleg. If they go after bootleggers, they`re wasting their money. If they think someone`s going to buy a bootleg and not buy an album, they`re living in a dream world. It`s not going to happen.''
The industry response: Who`s living in a dream world?
''The claim is always that these are all collectors, that they just do it for the sake of the music, that they only do 1,000 or so of each tape, and that a 10,000-unit run is like the maximum they`ve ever seen,'' Shoenfeld says. ''That may be true for some small segment of the bootleg population. But there`s definitely big-time commercial criminals involved. They`re not investing in four-color glossy jackets for a 1,000-copy run; they do major runs, they do 50,000 to 100,000 units of someone`s product.''
A collector agrees. ''A lot of people think that `Great White Wonder` sold about a million copies,'' he says. (Actual sales figures are impossible to obtain.) ''There are some Springsteen titles that probably sold that many; `E Ticket` (studio outtakes from the ''Born to Run'' album) certainly did.