Digital Dilemma

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

The ongoing war between the record industry and the music-buying public has taken a turn for the worse in recent years. After winning the format war (forcing record collectors to rebuy their collections on the sonically inferior CD) and then triumphing on the financial front (the retail cost of a new album today vs. that 20 years ago outstrips the inflation rate for a gallon of gas in the same time frame), the industry has spent the last year fighting to ensure its absolute control over music's future. Confident that the Supreme Court will rule in their favor, the Recording Industry Association of America rejected Napster's offer of $1 billion in compensation for copyright infringement, a figure some industry insiders consider "too low for the amount of earnings potentially at stake" (!).

The RIAA's spurning of cash on the barrelhead dispels any notions that the group's beef with Napster had to do with money: What the RIAA is after is control over recorded music and its distribution. This Type A behavior is typical of the RIAA. These are the same folks who sued the radio industry, the jukebox industry and blank-tape manufacturers, with varying degrees of success, to maintain control over what they perceive to be their domain. In the drive to own it all, control it all and earn it all, the RIAA is not just screwing up the present and the future for music fans; the group's actions are slowly but surely destroying the past. Thanks to the RIAA, bootleg records are largely extinct.

Why does it matter if bootlegs disappear? Bootlegs are the secret history of rock & roll, snapshots of bands that have not been retouched by legitimate record labels, producers or PR flacks. They are free of overdubs, edits or second-guessing. Bootlegs are raw data, unfiltered music that, for good or ill, represents how a particular artist performed on a particular night. In his excellent history of the American punk movement, From the Velvets to the Voidoids, Clinton Heylin recommends (and discounts) numerous bootleg albums so that fans can gain a deeper understanding of what each band was capable of when left to its own devices. Which would you rather listen to, the slick David Bowie version of the Stooges approved by the suits at Columbia Records (Raw Power) or the harrowing death-roll Stooges preserved on the unproduced and unbelievable bootleg Metallic KO? Raw Power is a great album, but if you really want to understand how the Stooges spawned punk, you need to familiarize yourself with Iggy's clenched-teeth reading of "I Wanna Be Your Dog" from Metallic KO.

There are those who wrinkle their noses at the mention of bootlegs, as if they had detected the nauseating stench of corporate extreme that ripples off Mudvayne in palpable waves. These people will gripe about the shoddy sound quality and high price tags, and they are likely to point out the dubious legality of bootlegs. Generally speaking, these are the same people who purchase Jennifer Lopez albums and watch the Grammys with a sense of wonder and who have made Elton John's "Candle in the Wind" the bestselling single of all time. You know, saps. They number in the millions, and they keep the record industry wealthy.

Fans of the bootleg, however, understand and appreciate the quirks of the beast. Bootleg aficionados embrace the dodgy sound quality, and they willingly pay exorbitant amounts for these rare documents of their favorite bands (try 50 bucks for the Velvet Underground's whole show at the End of Cole -- and that's post-John Cale-era VU, no less). As for the legality of bootlegs, well, there's no rationalizing or moralizing allowed: The Doobie Brothers were right. It is unlicensed reproduction of copyrighted material and therefore illegal. Never mind that you bought every legitimate release by the band in question and paid 25 dollars for a T-shirt at the concert. You still owe 'em money. But don't sweat it. Rock & roll is more fun if you're breaking the law. It's only a crime if they catch you; until then, it's a hobby.

So, why are people willing to pay so much for an illegal item that may be of poor quality? Because we're saps? No, because we have to have it. The need to acquire bootlegs is more than an obsession, it's an addiction, which medicine now classifies as a disease. And, baby, that's exactly what it feels like: an incurable, occasionally life-threatening disease. When you're down to your last 20 dollars and you find a copy of the Butthole Surfers' Double Live but you need to buy groceries, well, you end up eating rice for another week, because you have to hear the Surfers wade through their brown-gelatin rendition of "Something." You must feed the disease before you feed yourself; it's the first rule of the junkie, and that's the type of person who chases bootlegs -- record junkies.

Now, you'd think in an age in which portable DATs and CD burners are reasonably affordable, folks would be cranking out bootlegs faster than Swedish songwriters crank out boy-band pop songs. But they're not. Lew Prince, co-owner of Vintage Vinyl, noted raconteur and confirmed record junkie, has been around the record business for a long time, and, in his opinion, "It [bootlegging] all went south with Napster and CDs." As recording technology became more advanced, the supply of bootlegs exploded, but the market for them (record junkies) remained fairly small. This made them unprofitable, so a lot of companies got out of the business. Record stores were never that interested in bootlegs anyway, because the risk outweighs the reward.

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.

It's a war, if they want it.

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