In hindsight, they were freedom fighters. They pioneered peer-to-peer networks through record conventions, want ads in music magazines and judicious use of the postal service. Music's bootlegging community was born in the 1970s, a time when prudence demanded cautious disrespect of intellectual property laws, but like any subversive element, their ethos has become fashionable. Today's music "pirates" believe that the greatest treasures are bobbing along on the Internet's seven seas, waiting to be looted at the click of a mouse. In reality, the most coveted contraband remains in the bootlegging community, a group that is still as secretive, still as intimate and you still need to barter or buy your way into it.
"When I first started, [buying bootlegs] was the only way to get into trading," recalls Howdo, a well-known Britpop bootlegger, "After contacting a few [eBay members who were selling bootlegs], one of them gave me a link of a bootleg trading community website and sold me some DVDs, and slowly but surely I started trading and increasing my collection." Trading on these websites is pretty faithful to the classic process. Traders meet on a series of band or genre specific message boards. They contact each other off-site and exchange lists, which are just inventories of the traders' libraries in the form of Word or Excel files. The trade is usually initiated by the newer, thus less trustworthy, member, who has to send a bootleg before he can get one back.
"Trading was mostly done by postal trading when I first started," says Howdo, who traded between 10 and 20 CDs and DVDs each week through the mail, "The availability was mainly audio bootlegs, as DVD bootlegs were just becoming available [but] when I got in touch with the 'big traders' I found out there was a lot more out there still to be put onto DVD from VHS." Howdo purchased a DVD recorder to convert VHS bootlegs and to make bootlegs of his own. His collection is now fully digital and he makes most of his trades online.
"There is a massive increase in traders using BitTorrent sites now," Howdo claims. BitTorrent is a popular file-sharing program that communities use for both public distribution and private trading. However, postal trading still has its advantages, as Howdo explains, "A lot of trading communities still prefer [mail], especially when doing a big trade [because it can take] about two to three days to send [a DVD] over the Internet." Many website communities share newer bootlegs, but the online boom has done very little to increase the availability of rare bootlegs.
"I have traded with some of the 'biggest' traders, [and they will only trade] rare bootlegs for rare bootlegs," laments Howdo. This standard protects the big traders from an uneven exchange, but it also acts as a safeguard against the communities' cardinal sinners: sellers. Most traders feel that selling bootlegs is wrong or that it undermines the rarity of their own collection. Howdo regularly has sellers banned from trading websites, and he publicly shames them, "The way a bad trade gets all around [to the entire community] makes it difficult for a bad trader to trade again." So, the most successful sellers do their business where the community is not likely to notice: physical retail.
"You can only tell with certain artists, like our Prince section or our Beatles section. It has [all the classic albums], but you say 'Whoa, what's all this other stuff? Why's this section so big?'" says Barry, a clerk at a small record store where around 15% of the inventory and business is bootlegs. "The last record store I worked at had been busted before, and it was a chain store so we got secret shoppers. We had to keep the bootlegs in the used section and call them 'collector's items,' but there's no need for that here." Indeed, Barry's current workplace has stayed blissfully under the radar for the past decade, while establishing itself as a bootleg mecca.
The store orders its bootlegs from a single seller through a printed list, which they call "the catalog." At least three times a year, they order $2,000 in bootlegs, a hefty shipment for a store that spends only $500 a week to restock inventory. "He keeps calling. He always wants to know if we're ready to make another order. We have to be like, 'Dude, we'll order when we're ready.' He probably likes us because we're small and reliable," Barry estimates. "If he dealt with a lot of shops, he'd probably be in jail." The business relationship is quite lucrative; between orders the shop sells over half of each shipment.
"We stock them for the fanatical, and only a handful of guys get to order out of the catalog. Like, there's this guy in his 40s or 50s, huge Led Zeppelin fan." But are there still new Led Zeppelin bootlegs surfacing? "You'd be surprised," Barry answers. "Every time I ring this guy up or look in the catalog, there's something new. He's probably put together a whole tour by now." These middle-aged completists keep the store afloat. Almost three-quarters of the shop's business is vinyl and bootlegs, and with the standard vinyl markup and a 25% markup on each bootleg, the shop doesn't really need to sell a single kosher CD.
Bootlegging began as a business, from early opera recordings to the bootleg record labels of the late-'60s, but the fans took it over. They taped their own shows, and built a black market that was open to anyone with a cassette recorder and stamps. So, if you are sitting at home, laughing at copyright warnings and overestimating your own importance (as the MP3 generation tends to do), The Rockit recommends you tip your hat to those who did it first and still do it best.
2007 Arthur Javier Originally ran in Rockitnews.com