Bands beating bootleggers at their own game
Newhouse News Service
The term could hardly be more oxymoronic: "official bootleg."
As old as recorded music itself, bootlegging always has been an unofficial act: sneaking a tape recorder into a concert; attaching a microphone to a light stanchion; paying a soundboard guy to hook you up; or getting an underpaid roadie to pilfer a copy of a band's own recording.
But today — with nearly every concertgoer's cell phone packing the technology to record both audio and video and the Internet offering limitless means of distribution — some bands have decided to try to beat the bootleggers at their own game.
And while some acts have been offering fans a chance to buy recordings of their concerts for some time, music-industry watchers suspect the "official bootleg" may soon be as common as souvenir T-shirts.
As they head for the doors, fans leaving the Who's latest concert tour, for example, are told to go to www.themusic.com if they wish to purchase a CD or DVD of the show they just saw. At less than $30 (profits going to charity, the Who say), the official bootleg is not only cheaper than a T-shirt, it'll last much longer, too.
Pearl Jam, the band that pioneered the modern concept of official bootlegs nearly 10 years ago, offers recordings of its shows for download almost immediately after the final chords are struck. The cost: between $10 and $15 through www.basecampproductions.com.
Joshua James, co-founder of Basecamp Productions of Seattle and New York, which developed the technology that gets Pearl Jam's music from the concert hall to the Internet for download within minutes, said he expects the availability of official bootlegs to skyrocket during the summer concert season.
"I don't think it's for every band, but it's for a lot of bands. I think we're seeing 2007 as the year this really breaks wide," James said. Basecamp, which provides its technology to the concert-promotion giant Live Nation, proved through its work with Pearl Jam that the market for bootlegs is strong.
"A lot of people were selling Pearl Jam bootlegs and making quite a bit of money and the recordings were awful. So they said, 'Let's record this and let the fans have them.' There were those who questioned it, but a few million bootlegs later it's clear that people do want this," he said.
"It's starting to happen now, several acts are already offering their fans official bootlegs and there's no question it's a trend that's going to continue," said Tim Neely, research director at Goldmine Magazine and the author of several price guides for music recordings.
Bands are realizing they need to do more to please their hard-core fan base, Neely said. Offering quality bootlegs at good prices is a way to do that.
"It's only a matter of time until official recordings of all concerts will be available," he said.
Colin Larkin, editor of the Encyclopedia of Popular Music, said technology has far surpassed the ability of bands and venues to prevent illegal taping. He believes all entertainers will soon be following the lead of Pearl Jam and the Who.
"This is now a phenomenon. The artists have to give up and say, 'Enough, we cannot fight this.' And that's why many artists are going with it. It is the only way. It absolutely has to be the future," he said.
Most experts trace the advent of the modern-day bootleg to a two-record set of Bob Dylan's music issued in 1969 called the "Great White Wonder," named for the plain white cover the records came in. These recordings eventually became official releases as part of "The Basement Tapes" in 1975.
Some bands, most notably the Grateful Dead, actually encouraged their fans to record their shows as long as they were not sold for profit, fostering loose-knit networks of fans who traded and collected tapes of these shows.
Owen Sloane, a lawyer with the Los Angeles firm of Berger Kahn who has represented many well-known acts, said the idea of issuing official bootlegs was hatched by one of his clients, Frank Zappa, who gathered up 15 years worth of illegal bootlegs of his music and released it officially in a series called "Beat the Boots" in 1991.
"It's impossible, in practical effect, to enforce rules against bootlegging," Sloan said. "What you're seeing now is the modern-day development of that original concept that we came up with Frank Zappa. They're telling the fans, 'Here, you can have it official.' Who wouldn't rather have an official bootleg than an illegitimate one?"
The Internet vastly expanded the distribution potential for bootlegs, with hundreds of high-quality concert recordings of some acts — Bruce Springsteen for example — being offered for sale or trade at many Web sites. During the most recent tour of the Rolling Stones, unofficial bootlegs were available on the Internet the day after most shows.
British rock-trio Keane set a new standard last year when they printed CDs for sale at the venue 10 minutes after the completion of each show. And some clubs have allowed patrons to download recordings of shows onto portable media as they leave.
Scott Heisel, music editor of the Cleveland-based music magazine Alternative Press, said the sale of official bootlegs could help salvage the flagging market for recorded music.
"The market for CDs is in the toilet, but at the same time the concert and the touring industry and the club circuit are booming. There are bands selling out theaters and clubs every single night," he said.
"Obviously, there's a market for this. It can only grow."
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company