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Time to re-think policies on decades-old bootlegs

Published 11:05am Sunday, November 17, 2013

I recently purchased a 1970s Pink Floyd vinyl bootleg called “The Whole Hog” at a record store. I was a bit surprised when the store owner told me he’d posted the record on eBay, and the bids had far exceeded what I paid for it. However, eBay — or as he said “Pink Floyd’s people” — pulled the sale.

I was a little taken aback, as I always keep my eye out for bootlegged albums to add to my collection as rare, unique pieces of music history. Frankly, I’d completely neglected to consider the somewhat controversial nature of bootlegs. For me, they’re just another album in a store; ones far harder to come across. Companies like eBay and Amazon still don’t allow the online sale of bootlegged albums, though they’re available on a host of other sites and at many record stores.

In large part thanks to the Internet, bootlegs aren’t the scourge to the record industry they once were. In fact, the whole perception of bootlegs has changed. Quite simply, traditional bootlegs are live recordings, demos and alternate takes recorded and produced without the artist’s — or record company’s — permission. The market for such bootlegs has been almost wiped out for two reasons: 1. Record companies are embracing fans’ desire for such content, and 2. Smartphones.

Back in the day, the unauthorized bootlegs were the only way for many fans to hear live recordings of their favorite bands or hear rare demos and unreleased songs. Now, all people have to do is pull up Youtube, type the band and song name, and pick from the mass of content. But, there’s a big differences between bootlegs and Youtube: People posting Youtube videos don’t receive any monetary profit.

Online sales of bootlegs are limited and sales at record stores are a bit of a grey area; however, owning bootlegs is not a crime. Before I thought much of the legal ramifications of these bootlegged 1970s recordings, I bought a select handful. These bootlegs are really a high-risk, high-reward purchase. They’re nothing flashy, typically coming with plain, white sleeves with a photocopied picture falling off the cover with faded scotch tape. The records themselves are usually unmarked or are marked incorrectly (The disc marked side A is actually side C, and so forth). Many are printed with the logo of an entirely different album. But, they cost more than traditional albums, but you’re getting a rare recording and a very rare album, which ups the value for collectors.

Some are fantastic. A few of my Pink Floyd bootlegs are some of my favorites of my collection, like “And the Walls Came Down” — an entire live album of “The Wall” — and “Brain Damage” — an entire live recording of “Dark Side of the Moon.” But for each gem, there’s a pile of garbage: Poor recording quality, takes that were rightly left off the recordings, and just bad albums. I’ve learned most Beatles bootlegs are worth skipping altogether.

But to me, I keep taking the risk. These bootlegs are rare pieces of music history. I’ll never see Pink Floyd live, but I can still remember listening to “Brain Damage” all the way through with a few friends — none of us said a word as we listened. It’s the closest we’ll ever come to seeing the band in concert in its heyday.

It’s about time record companies and online stores ease their policies on these bootlegged albums, at least to a point. People are always looking for ways to get people to buy music today, rather, downloading music illegally online. Further embracing these decades-old, rare bootlegs could bring collectors into stores and boost business for many small companies.

There’s little harm in selling bootlegs produced 30 to 40 years ago, especially when it’s safe to assume the ones who recorded and produced them are no longer benefitting. Chances are anyone looking to buy these bootlegs has already invested in a band’s catalogue.

Record companies have already embraced fans’ desires to some degree. Bootlegs now are being widely viewed as the “bootleg series” albums record companies release of outtakes, live takes and demos of famed artists like Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash. The same tunes that would have been released by unauthorized dealers are now being released legitimately, and with much better quality. Plus, record industry leaders have bigger things to worry about with illegal downloading and file sharing.

It’s time for some online companies to start re-thinking their policies on bootleg vinyl. The records are there, and embracing them would boost business for everyone.

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