Bootlegging­— a dark art with a bright side

I bet when you read the title of this article, you thought I was talking about liquor. I guess the same could apply to that, to an extent, but I’m talking about bootlegging music. If you’re unfamiliar with that, it’s very basic: unauthorized music releases, usually of live performances, are made available and the artist gets no money.

The first thing you might ask is why the artists don’t simply file lawsuits to shut down bootleggers. If it was that simple, I wouldn’t be writing this article. I don’t believe it’s as much of a problem now as it might have been in the past, though. With the internet, you don’t really have to buy a bootleg. If you know where to look, you can probably get a free download. So while no money is technically taken from the artist, they still have no control.

Some bands, like Metallica, have begun offering official releases of live recordings, formerly on the bootleg circuit, through their websites. I’ve found that most fans will gladly pay for these recordings. They just want to get their hands on them.

To be fair, some artists may not have much control over bootlegs, depending on what kind of contracts they might have with current or past record labels. And some artists may not have the means to release these recordings independently.

Sometimes the artists just won’t do it, and other people have to step in. Companies like “Shout! Factory” have begun legally releasing many of these sought-after recordings. A great example of this is the long list of performances from the legendary 1983 “US Festival,” held in San Bernardino, California. The festival featured a wide variety of acts, from Judas Priest to Waylon Jennings.

For years, it was rumored that these recordings hadn’t been released due to financial and legal difficulties. Every now and then, something from the festival would appear on the bootleg circuit but not all of the full-length performances.

Where bootlegging starts to get a bad reputation is illegal copies of official releases. Simply put, an artist releases an album, and then a bootlegger will make unauthorized copies of the album and sell them. Usually this is the case for albums that are hard to find, and the buyer may not know that it’s an illegal copy.

Bobby Barth, vocalist and guitarist for iconic bands such as Axe and Blackfoot, once told me in an interview that he’s had problems with people selling illegal copies of Axe albums, for which he’s received no payment.
“It used to make me very angry…but that stuff wasn’t available for so long. I can’t get mad at the people for wanting it,” Barth said.

To me, if something you’ve done is in high demand on the bootleg circuit, chances are it would sell very well if you put it out as an official release, which would also mean you’d get the money. While it can be easily argued that it’s not my place to decide, I can just as easily argue that I should have at least some say in the matter because I’m a fan. I’m a paying customer, and the customer’s always right.