Digital Dilemma

Wave bye-bye to the bootleg -- in the MP3 domain, a digital file is replacing an artifact

But along came Shawn Fanning and Napster, and suddenly bootleg recordings had a home. Oh, and they were free, which sort of bypassed the legal issues.

But digital MP3 bootlegs just aren't the same. Downloading bootlegged Suicide cuts from a database doesn't provide the same hunter/gatherer thrill as finding a copy of 23 Minutes over Brussels in the aisles of a record store after three years of searching. Holding a nondescript plastic disc encoded with a 1978 college performance by the Scientists is nowhere near the visceral experience of holding a white-label cassette version of Rubber Never Sleeps with a rusty smear on the cover that may or may not be blood. Bootlegs are artifacts, tiny fragments of rock history that somehow end up in your possession. They are talismans of everything fun and exciting about rock and roll: It's outlaw nature, it's unpredictability, the possibility that on any given night a band can play beyond itself and become the greatest band in the world and that someone will be there to record it as is.

And the RIAA is attempting to take all that away. When they finish eviscerating Napster, they'll go after Gnutella and BearWare and all the other online music services, and they'll make damn sure that whoever replaces them posts nothing but RIAA-approved, legitimately recorded music. But the record junkies will still win, because they love music, and the RIAA only loves money. It took one college kid to create Napster and beat the industry giants to the punch. At some point in the not-so-distant past, there was only one bootlegger -- just one record-junkie kid with a clunky Radio Shack tape deck, furtively recording the Kingsmen, or the Beatles, or Dylan, or some crappy neighborhood garage band. And from that one kid and his scratchy mono tape, an entire shadow record industry rose and flourished briefly and is now flickering out of existence. It happened once; it could happen again.

Jeremy Eaton
Jeremy Eaton

It's a war, if they want it.

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