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The Great White Wonder that is bootlegging

The Great White Wonder that is bootlegging

A look at the history and impact of bootlegging on the music industry.

Not to be confused with piracy (the illegal sale of material under copyright or existing releases), bootlegging (the distribution of non-released material) has a colourful and crucial impact on modern popular music and the record industry.  Without bootlegging, bands such as the Grateful Dead would not have a rightful place in musical history.  Without bootlegging, the post-death careers of artists such as Jeff Buckley, Nick Drake and Jimi Hendrix would not have been as extensive or as interesting.  Most importantly to the record industry, without bootlegging, they wouldn’t have the opportunity to find new material to flog to devoted fans.

The first bootleg of note in the rock world was A Great White Wonder, a release of Bob Dylan tunes that he had been working on with the Band in semi-retirement in Woodstock, after his legendary (and some would say mythical) motorcycle accident in 1966.  These tracks were later released by his record company in 1975 as The Basement Tapes.  At the time there was an insatiable appetite for new material from Dylan who had disappeared into the ether. Many of his fans who followed each and every utterance from Dylan in the mid 1960s were in despair!  This release came at an opportune time and many were probably unawares that this was a bootleg record. Great White Wonder was so named because it came in a white sleeve, with a white label and cover (later reproductions of GWW added useful information such as the name of the record to the cover).

Around the same period as GWW other important bootlegs came about, such as Brian Wilson’s Smile.  This recording survived and became a much talked about record by those in the know.  It kept people talking about the famous ‘lost-album’ and a few years ago, Wilson was able to release it (and finish it) in all it’s full-glory.  It is fair to say that its commercial and critical success would not have been as important, had the album not remained in the background for Beach Boys/Wilson fans.  It is entirely plausible, that the recording may only have been known to a few hard-core fans and Wilson himself, without the illicit sale of tapes.

In the 1970s, the coming of the super-gig at Stadiums across America saw the bootleg gain importance to the average music fan.  Mega-concerts by Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd allowed for tapers (those actually recording the concert for release on record) to smuggle their equipment in easily, while the huge amounts of people that these bands were playing to provided a huge customer base. Gigging was going mainstream as an activity and many wanted their souvenir of their one show a year.  In 1970, the Who even paid tribute to bootleggers, by releasing their The Who Live at Leeds album with a fake home-made style sleeve.

Another development increased the popularity of bootlegs – tapes.  This meant that for the first time fans were able to copy and share music.  This proved to be the kick-start to a community that still exists today, albeit in a different form, the trading community.  Making contact through classifieds in music magazines and fanzines, collectors would swap music with each other by post.  Fans of bands such as Grateful Dead came together to become the largest trading community.  The Dead even helped them by creating dedicated taping sections within their shows which allowed for the recording of shows away from the LSD addled crowds who could unfortunately say weird things without a moment’s notice.  This has in fact vindicated the band who were always better as a live act than their studio records suggested.  Today the surviving members and legacy of the band are reaping the financial rewards of bootlegging with the release of many of these shows on a commercial basis (known as Dick’s Picks).

In the 1980’s, some artists were becoming even more astute and were using bootlegs to their legal advantage. Prince’s The Black Album was pulled almost immediately after it was released by a label due to Prince’s problems with his record company.  It is said that it went on to sell over 500,000 illicit copies.

The arrival of CDR and the internet has kicked-started the interest in bootlegs and field recordings (recordings of shows).  A number of specialist websites and download services have even been created to cater for this demand.  Now hundreds of bootlegs from the 1960’s to the present day are all available for download at the click of a button.  Many also include artwork and older recordings have been remastered at home by wanna-be Tony Viscontis.  All in all an industry for fans made by the fans has been created.  While there are still some collectors buying silver-disc bootleg releases, these have dwindled as people realise that they can get unreleased music for free over the internet.

Indeed, there are many bands who are now following the example of the Grateful Dead and being more accommodating to their fans.  Perhaps they have realised the importance in keeping their fan-base happy.  A list of bands on Wikipedia shows that The Cure, Bjork, Dave Matthews Band, Iron Maiden, Manu Chao, REM, U2 and Wilco, all allow for the taping and distribution of shows on a not-for-profit basis.  Meanwhile, blogs are posting ever increasing numbers of rarities, outtakes, radio sessions and live concerts.

But why is this becoming an ever popular way to consume music? What attractions do bootleg’s and live recordings offer?  Well, they offer a souvenir of a show.  They also offer the chance to catch those classic live moments that cannot be captured in a studio.  Additionally they allow for new fans to catch a glimpse of an older artist in their prime.  I for one am too young to have been around when Dylan went electric or when Bruce Springsteen and the Stones was first making their name in the music world, and will never see those artists at such peaks again.  However, the bootleg allows me to catch a glimpse of artists such as these in their prime.  For newer bands, it allows one to keep track of their musical direction and for bands who rarely tour in certain areas, keeps interest alive without the need for constantly jet-setting across the world.

But where for the future of bootlegging?  It seems that the idea of trading has long-since given way to downloading.  Many bands are realising that not much can deter hard-core fans who will obtain whatever material is available on the net.  With this in mind many are now trying to make some money out of this situation.  The Raconteurs recent tour of the UK featured the sale of a recording of the show just ten minutes after the end.  This service has also been used by Keane, the Magic Numbers and others.  Columbia and Bob Dylan have released bonus live tracks on albums and via Dylan’s website which have been sourced from bootlegs.

In other moves that show that bootlegging is going legit, the estates of former musical icons will continue to try to cash in on their existing and new fan-bases with the release of archival material and live recordings.  Bob Dylan has recently released his seventh album in his Bootleg series, while Neil Young has only just started releasing material from his vaults that was only previously available as illicit bootleg recordings.  With the post-mortem careers of artists such as Jeff Buckley being sustained by rarities and bootleg recordings, the record industry should actually be thanking bootleggers.


Wilco – Yankee Hotel Foxtrot Demos
Well, I would put this in here as they are one of my favourite acts (as regular readers may have gathered). What we have here are a collection of tracks that are radically different to the released masterpiece. There are two circulating versions, the YHF Demos and the YHF Engineer Demos, both with completely different takes of the songs which eventually appeared on the finished article, as well as instrumentals and outtakes. The reason why this has been included here is to highlight the creative process that the band went through with this album. One can hear the songs change and morph into the beautiful melancholy that was eventually released.

Bruce Springsteen & the E-Street Band – Agora Nights
In 1978, Bruce Springsteen was at his peak as a performer – before the band were forced into becoming stadium filling bombastic performers and just after the release of Darkness on the Edge of Town.Taken from a radio recording of the August 9th 1978 show in Cleveland, the recording comes on a mammoth four CDs with the last CD featuring an interview with the man himself. What we have here is the Boss at his most primal – screeching guitars, songs of innocence and youth which so characterised his early career. The highlights are simply too many to describe, but the segueing of ‘Gloria’ into ‘She’s the One’ is simply amazing and sends shivers down the listener’s spine. At that point, the crowd go wild. Other highlights include ‘Racin’ in the Streets’, ‘Backstreets’ and the monumental live songs ‘Rosalita’ and ‘Kitty’s Back’. Over three hours of music and none of it is ever lacking in quality.
Rolling Stones – Live at the Astoria
Released by famed bootleg label Crystal Cat, this recording featured the Rolling Stones playing the intimate Astoria club as part of their Live Licks tour in 2003. Tickets were hard to come by and this is perhaps the only way for fans to really get a feel for the show. Featuring an array of covers and rare material the show was completely different to their normal offering on that tour.

The physical version of this bootleg is, as always with Crystal Cats, astounding. The package features a cardboard sleeve, extensive booklet with exclusive photos and two beautiful silver pressed CDs. Meanwhile, the audio is a little below par as far as the Crystal Cat label is concerned but still above most bootlegs and close to a commercial release (indeed it exceeds certain official releases too!) This is as good as it gets and definitely one to try and get an original copy of (ebay is probably your best bet here).

Bob Dylan – Blood on the Tracks NY Sessions
I spent ages mulling over which bootlegs to choose for Dylan, so I’ll have one show and one outtakes/sessions choice. Blood on the Tracks is the break-up masterpiece. An exercise in catharsis for Dylan, it chronicles the break-up of his marriage and is a beautiful, yet deeply distressing album to listen to. In my personal opinion it is one of the greatest albums ever made.However, before he recorded the songs in Minneapolis that appear on the released album, he recorded them in New York. What we have is a completely different album – ‘Tangled Up in Blue’ looses some of its pace and sets the tone for the rest of the album. ‘Idiot Wind’ seems more resigned than angry, while ‘If You See Her Say Hello’ has a more haunting quality to it. Overall it gives a clearer picture of the writing process and adds an extra layer of emotion and insight to these already emotionally drenched songs.

Bob Dylan – Euro 2000 tour
Naming one particular bootleg or field recording for Dylan is nigh-on impossible. There are thousands of recordings of Dylan live. So for this reason I have chosen, almost at random, a series which I think deserves praise, however there are numerous others that do too. In fact there are so many that it is probably best to go to this dedicated website which focuses on the world of Bob Dylan bootlegs to make your own mid up.So for purely academic purposes I have chosen the series released by Crystal Cat which focuses on the visit of Bob Dylan to Europe in the Autumn of 2000. The band featured Charlie Sexton, Larry Campbell, Dave Kemper, and Tony Garnier, as well as Mr Zimmerman himself. The music they played on this tour was a mix of Rock and Americana, with a traditional cover kicking things off. The whole tour is represented in superior quality with Crystal Cat’s usual high quality audio and presentation, as well as excellent bonus tracks tacked on the end of the second disc.Although it would be tough to decide which ones to get, the two Wembley shows are superb, as are the two Portsmouth shows. Dublin is also a highlight. This part of the Never Ending Tour is really what got me into Dylan – he was mixing things up on a daily basis but still playing vital rock and roll having just passed 60. A brilliant series and a brilliant tour. One for all modern-day Dylan fans to own.

How can I get into bootlegs ?
So you’ve now read about this history of the bootleg and you’ve now seen some of the best ones to hear but how does one even start to get this stuff? There are a number of resources out there on the internet which can help the beginner get into bootlegs.

For a start a number of blogs regularly post bootleg shows in part or as a whole. Owl and Bear has a number available for download (including the YHF Demos mentioned above), as does this blog, Smuggled Sounds. A good way of finding MP3s is by using a blog aggregator such as the Hype Machine and searching by artist. Many bloggers post live recordings and/or studio sessions, outtakes and radio sessions online.

YouTube is increasingly acting as a massive dump of the unofficial bootleg video recording. Old and new concerts are often posted. However, it can be difficult to find what one is looking for. Recent mobile phone footage of a concert can be questionable at best. However, there are also many video bootlegs, old TV performances and things that people had generally forgotten about available for all to watch.

Wolfgang’s Vault is a massive repository of the history of the Californian musical scene. Original posters, T-Shirts, ticket stubs are all sold over the net at their site which also hosts Wolfgang’s Concert Vault and an archive of interviews. This radio feeds live recordings which took place in the area in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s through your computer for your listening pleasure. There are also occasional shows which are released for download.

If you’re looking at fully dipping your toe into the downloadable bootleg scene, then obtaining a bit-torrent programme and downloading torrents may be the best way forward. There are a number of sites available which offer live concert recordings or bootleg material for download including Hunger City, Traders Den, Dime-a-Dozen and e-tree. However, a word of caution, bit-torrent can be a little confusing. Probably best to read this guide if you’re not so technically inclined. But there is a more friendly way of entering the world of bootlegs. By signing up and taking part on fan forums, many will offer “newbies” recordings. Build up a small collection based on the generosity of others and then start trading, always replicating the generosity that was first shown to you. Ultimately, this is how the massive trader communities of the Grateful Dead and Dylan built up over time. Fan forums are also rife with MP3 posting which will allow you to build up a sizeable collection of live recordings and outtakes. Please note that it is generally frowned upon to swap MP3s and that only audio files are traded.
Finally, what if the CDR copy of a show isn’t enough? What if you want the touch and feel of an original illicit copy. Well there are networks of sellers, although these are extremely difficult to tap into, if you are unknown to them (what with it being illegal and all!). One could pay a trip to Eastern Europe to secure some. Closer to home some very specialist record shops, market stalls or record fairs can be helpful!

I hope this Rockbeatstone guide to bootlegs has proved useful to you and that you can now go forward to discover all the amazing unofficial music that is out there, available for free. Just remember the rules! If you are going to massively get into a certain artist’s bootleg back catalogue then it would be nice to buy a few official releases too and perhaps catch them if they’re touring close to you.

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