This FAQ discusses bootleg recordings, what they are, the good things about them, and the bad things about them. Even though the practice of bootlegging is illegal, the discussion of bootlegging is not, as free speech is protected by the First Amendment.

What kind of illegal recordings are out there?

There are several types of illegal recordings. Pirated records, Counterfeit records and Bootleg records.

Pirated records are records (or CDs) that have songs compiled and copied from regular records, given a "new" album title and are often sold at a lower price. For instance, if you found someone on the street corner selling a cassette called Madonna's Greatest Hits for $5.00, and it contained a collection of her hit records ("Like a Virgin", "Vogue", etc.) then this is a pirate recording, especially if it is not copying the title of an official Madonna album. Madonna's record company did not authorize the release of this, and the record company, Madonna and the songwriter(s) are not getting any royalties (money) out of the sale of this tape.

Closely related to pirated recordings are Counterfeit records. It was common for pirates some countries like Taiwan to make Counterfeit records, which mirror the content and appearance of the legitimate release. A lot of times, counterfeit records are inferior to the original records in terms of sound quality, and they often have blurry and flimsy covers. Again, the record company, artist and songwriter(s) do not get any royalties from the sale of counterfeit records.

Bootleg Records are usually recordings of live concerts or unreleased songs that were performed in the studio, live TV appearances or alternate versions of well-known songs. These are also illegal, and the record companies, artists and songwriter still do not get royalties from the sale of bootleg records. It has been argued, though, that royalties are not exactly LOST, because people do not buy bootleg records INSTEAD of the regular records, but buy them to AUGMENT their collection of recordings.

How do bootleg records sound?

It depends. There are several ways that a recording is obtained for use by a bootlegger. The sound quality of a bootleg is directly tied to the sound quality of the source tape.

Audience Recording
One way of creating a tape for a bootleg is to smuggle a portable tape recorder into a concert venue. Audience recordings have a tendency to sound muffled, boomy, and badly balanced. Audience recordings also have a tendency to pick up noises made by individual concert-goers, including them screaming, swearing, clapping or singing along. It is considered undesirable to have these noises on a bootleg.

FM Broadcast
Some radio stations broadcast a concert like "The King Biscuit Flower Hour", "Super Groups in Concert" "Captured Live" etc. These concerts were professionally recorded, much like a legitimate live album, and were broadcast over the airwaves to the general public. Some people tape these concerts, and use them as a source for a bootleg record. These sound superior to most audience recordings.

Soundboard Recordings
Often lumped in the same category as FM Broadcasts. Soundboard recordings are also professionally recorded, but the microphones were not turned towards the audience, which reduces the amount of audience noises to almost nil. Soundboard recordings are usually used by the concert technicians and the performers for reference. Sometimes a few of these slip onto bootlegs.

Studio Outtakes/Demos/Rehearsals
When the artists enter a recording studio, it is normal to have several songs that did not "make the cut" and were recorded for, but did not appear on the resulting album. These songs are usually labeled as "unreleased". During the process of recording an album, several takes are done of the same song, and the best one is used for the album. The discarded takes become "outtakes". Also, various tune-ups, flubs and early, developing versions of songs are captured on tape, labeled as "rehearsals" and "demos". Aside from having more hiss than normal, the quality of studio outtakes/demos and rehearsals is excellent.

Live TV Appearances
TV shows like "The Smothers Brothers Show" or "The Ed Sullivan Show" are also used as a source for bootlegs. Back in the 60's and early 70's, it was common for popular artists to sing a few songs on variety shows. Some of these shows featured lip-synced performances, so all you'd get is the artist miming to the record. Lip-synced performances are useless for bootlegging purposes, because they sound exactly like the regular record. Some artists did perform live in the TV studio, and several of their performances that would have been otherwise lost to history were captured on a bootleg. Bootlegs that were recorded from the TV have decent sound, like an AM radio, but they are all in mono, and are not in true high fidelity sound.

How much do bootleg records cost?

Normally Bootleg records cost one-third more than the retail price of regular records. At the time when records retailed for $5.99, bootlegs sold for $8.00. Now that the list price for CDs is $17.99, bootleg CDs sell for $20.00-$25.00 (per disc). Bootlegs are sold per disc, and double and triple album/CD sets cost 2 and 3 times more than a single. There is no quantity discounts for multi-disc sets.

Used bootlegs LPs are viewed in 2 lights. One way of looking at them is that they are out-of-print, limited editions, and should be priced accordingly. LP boots from the 70's sometimes sell for $35.00 for a single disc. Unusually rare and desirable multi-disc LP sets can sell for $200.00.

Another way of looking at them is that they are crummy-sounding, badly pressed relics in poor condition (scratched, warped, etc.) It is possible to find poor-sounding, not-very-popular and/or worn out bootlegs for $1.00.

What's good about bootleg records?

They contain songs and performances that had not been issued by the record company. Once a serious connoisseur of a certain artist's music has bought everything in the standard record company back-catalogue, bootlegs are the only source of new and different-sounding material. Also, live concert bootlegs sometimes contain better performances than those on legitimate live albums (example: In the Round vs. Yessongs). There are also performances of great historical value that have appeared only on bootlegs.

What's bad about bootleg records?

Well, there is the potentially bad sound quality. Since there is no quality control over the source of the recordings, as far as the bootleggers are concerned, have tape, can do. Some bootlegs have songs cut in the middle, some are missing songs, some use extremely bad, high-generation source tapes, some have bad pressing quality, some are mastered at the wrong speed... the list of potential problems is endless. Murphy's Law rules in the bootleg realm.

Where can I get bootleg records?

You will not be able to buy them at major chain stores, like The Wherehouse or Tower Records. Your chances of finding bootlegs are better if you frequent collectable and used record stores. You can also find an occasional bootleg at record conventions, record swap meets or in collectable record magazines (Goldmine, Discoveries, Record Collector).

How do I make bootleg records?

You probably don't want to do that. You could be arrested and tossed in jail for a long time, or you can be heavily fined for doing that. Selling them is bad enough (I've seen 2 busts at record conventions).

What about live CDS from Europe?

Live CDs from Europe have been enjoying a semi-legal status for the last few years. Private CD companies have been taking advantage of a copyright loophole that allows the manufacture of unauthorized live CDs of concerts that were NOT performed in European countries. This basically makes all concerts recorded in the U.S. fair game for these companies. CDs that have been stamped with the S.I.A.E. mark indicate that the manufacturer has paid a royalty.

In the early days of S.I.A.E. stamping, some companies tried in earnest to leave money in bank accounts at Italian banks for the performers to claim. Listed below for everyone's amusement is an example of this:

[this company] wishes to notify to the members of the group as on the back cover mentioned that when this record has been issued, meanwhile has been deposited in their behalf, or to whom it may concern, a sum per each printed copy, as an adequate renumeration according to art. 80 ff, L. 22/4/1941 nr. 633. The sum has been deposited on a saving account to [bank information follows...] and shall be at the disposal of the owners of the Rights.

Do bootleg CDs sound better than bootleg LPs?

That's also dependent on the source. If a bootleg CD and LP are mastered from identical sources, then the CD would have some advantages (indestructibility, no surface noise) over the more fragile LPs. However, it is common for bootleg CDs to be mastered from bootleg LPs, so obviously the CD would not be superior in terms of quality. There have been some instances where the CD sounds worse than the LP, because the CD used an inferior tape source. LPs have the distinct advantage of eing able to have their speed adjusted manually by the listener. This is especially important for bootlegs that were mastered at the wrong speed (too slow or too fast).

What about tape trading? Is it legal?

Tape trading is not specifically legal, per se, but it is not prosecuted to the extent that selling bootlegs is. Since no money changes hands, tape traders are basically left alone.

What are the common tape-trading rules?

The tape-trading community has its own set of rules. Selling tapes is frowned upon, and selling bootlegs is also disapproved of. Tape traders often use bootleg records the source of their tapes. As long as the true title of the bootleg record is listed, as well as a fair grading of the sound quality, tapes of bootlegs are acceptable. The main reason for this is because the original LPs are no longer available for purchase. Be absolutely honest about the number of generations that the tape has gone through, if you know it.

The use of noise-reduction is not standard within the tape trading community, so if you prefer the use of Dolby NR, make the arrangements ahead-of-time. Do not use non-standard forms of noise-reduction like Dolby C or dbx unless it has also been agreed upon ahead of time. (Refer to the DOLBY NR FAQ).

What can be done to stop bootlegging?

I have a tendency to view bootlegging as I do religion and abortion and many other potentially controversial things. I don't have a problem if it's there for people who want it, and if you don't want it, you don't have to get (buy) it. Unlike other illegal substances like drugs, I don't see any permanent harm that would be caused by them. People who have additional records in their record collections are not damaging themselves or others (unlike, say, people who drive when high on drugs). If you disapprove of bootlegs, then boycott them. That is your right.

Some bands like the Grateful Dead encourage people to tape their shows, so that in itself does devalue Grateful Dead bootlegs, simply because there's so much live material floating around that could be of better quality than bootleg discs. Grateful Dead fans prefer to trade tapes instead.

At various times, members of Yes have shown the good sense to release selected live shows legitimately on small record labels. For example, An Evening of Yes Music Plus by ABWH, released last year on the Fragile/Griffin and Herald labels, had immediately rendered all previous bootlegs of that same show (Long Distance Roundabout and Inca's Valley) null and void. Right now, no one in their right mind would buy the bootleg versions of that show, now that there's a much better copy to be had at their local record store. There is also the moral superiority of buying the legit release, because ABWH can now collect their proper royalties for their performance.

It has been suggested that bands like Yes can authorize the release of additional live shows on small record labels, bypassing the need for a multi-million dollar recording contract, and also bypassing the [record company's] expectation that the record should end up on the best-seller charts and sell a few million copies.

This article is Copyright 1995, K.F. Louie. May not be reproduced without the written permission of the author.
This article has been previously published on Notes from the Edge

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