Bootleggers: The Brewers And The Baristas

They pioneered peer-to-peer networks through record conventions, want ads in music magazines and judicious use of the postal service.

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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

33 comments sorted by best / new / date

    fireoptic
    Bootlegging is a great thing. Especially when you get a hold of pro-shot concerts that you can put onto a DVD, or soundboard quality live shows. Theres nothing better than having DVD's and CD's of your favorite bands that your friends have never seen.
    strong_wizard
    RockInPeace, that isn't the point of bootlegging bro. If you're gonna collect bootlegs, you're GOING to have all the albums of the bands anyway... you're just collecting over and above what's available.
    BrainDamage
    mp3stalin wrote: umm... sorry but the live stuff BANDS do has crappy quality... i REFUSE to believe that your bootleggers can do something better than people who are paid to record live concerts.
    as TooFast just mentioned, you are going to have some good ones and some bad ones, but I have heard some audience recordings that sound just as good, if not better then official recordings/releases. Plus, there are a large amount of soundboard recordings, FM broadcasts, etc. out there available as bootlegs. Are you going to tell me that the quality of those recordings sucks as well?
    TooFast
    Well, I don't think all bootlegged albums suck in audio quality. I've heard some good ones, I've also heard some bad ones.
    mp3stalin
    BrainDamage wrote: that is so far from the truth it's not even funny. I am a big live bootleg collector. It opens up a whole new world of stuff to listen to after hearing studio albums for so long.
    umm... sorry but the live stuff BANDS do has crappy quality... i REFUSE to believe that your bootleggers can do something better than people who are paid to record live concerts.
    BrainDamage
    mp3stalin wrote: bootlegs lack quality and sometimes just dont work at all.
    that is so far from the truth it's not even funny. I am a big live bootleg collector. It opens up a whole new world of stuff to listen to after hearing studio albums for so long.
    ismith
    I love bootlegs. It's increasingly harder for me to find good ones online, but thank god for USENET. I haven't dealt much with any physical bootleggers, although it is what I myself have become to some of my friends (a dealer of bootlegged materials). It's nonprofit though for me
    saad_nirvana
    i hate it when the artists that bootlegged and still do bootleg say "oh dont pirate our discs" and stuff like that hypocritical?
    wasp2020
    Satriani himself contributed to one of the largest Satch bootleggers around. I always love knowing that.
    powerage225
    25% markup... thats why these things are so expensive in record stores as far as I know, the place they're talking about could be a few blocks from my house
    rusrec00
    I find bootlegs are generally crappy recordings and a large portion are reorganized tracks of other bootlegs...I did get into it a bit while I was stationed in Germany in the 90's when there was no good rock to be found...So I started collecting bootlegs of stuff instead of listening to the total crap that was coming out at that time...no offence to Slaughter and Black Crows etc....but most of the early 90's was complete mind slobber. But I digress. Bootlegging can be a savior for the serious collector or to fill a musical void. Other then that, it is closely related to the current downloading trend and technically is stealing regardless of your thoughts on how many good songs are on an album.
    RockInPeaceDime
    strong_wizard wrote: RockInPeace, that isn't the point of bootlegging bro. If you're gonna collect bootlegs, you're GOING to have all the albums of the bands anyway... you're just collecting over and above what's available.
    eh, I put downloading music off the internet in the same category as bootlegging (not the same but might as well be) and I'll freely say I dl my music instead of buying it for the reasons I listed (bands release 40% albums most of the time these days). I guess my first comment was less about bootlegging and aimed more towards dling music/cd's off the internet.
    saalkin
    fxt_fella wrote: The Brewers and the Baristas? Excuse my ignorance, but I don't get it. And I'm a barista, so i really should know.
    Hes referring to 1930s bootlegging which was booze.
    TheSilverBeatle
    Bootlegging actually started in the 60's...Dylan, The Beatles, Hendrix, etc. were all bootlegged in the 60's. Dylan is one of the world's leaders of bootlegged material and he has often expressed his agrivation but on Love and Theft he gave a nice salute to the bootleggers in the final track. [quote=Bob Dylan]Some of these bootleggers, they make pretty good stuff Plenty of places to hide things here if you wanna hide 'em bad enough[/quote]
    penthousestudio
    "I have traded with some of the 'biggest' traders, [and they will only trade] rare bootlegs for rare bootlegs," laments Howdo. nerd
    The_Man_IV
    Good stuff Its true whats said but still does effect in some negative ways But not as much as the MI would point out !!
    RockInPeaceDime
    I love stealing! Maybe if bands put more then 2 good songs on albums these days, people wouldn't hesitate to buy them. Very rarely are there any albums put out in recent times that have less than 6-7 TERRIBLE songs. Nobody in their right mind is gonna spend 15 bucks for 2 songs when they could get it for free.
    civildp1
    selling bootlegs for profit, is completely despicable. It really is stealing. Give that stuff away for free.
    mp3stalin
    wow... how did this get on UG? this is by far the worst article ive read on here. bootlegs are just that. it's you know... a NEGATIVE statement to say "it's a bootleg". why is that? bootlegs lack quality and sometimes just dont work at all. sigh... the RIAA is a bunch of douches... but this has reminded me that so are all the hardcore bootleggers. sigh... "freedom fighters" my ass. try "self praising cheap asses"
    fxt_fella
    The Brewers and the Baristas? Excuse my ignorance, but I don't get it. And I'm a barista, so i really should know.
    SuperRitsu
    nice article.. ohh hey judging from all the comments this must be new.. 12th post
    add666
    did anyone else notice that this started off in the music news section
    MartinMaher
    Hey, TheSilverBeatle, the article acknowledges 60s bootlegging in the last paragraph, and it also points out that the first bootlegs were opera recordings from the 30s not rock concerts from the 60s. The point is that within that thirty year period, when people said "bootleggers," they meant semi-professionals who pressed vinyl and made money off of it. It wasn't until the early 70s that fanmade cassettes and hardcore trading started. It's actually a really well-researched article. It just doesn't throw too much exposition at you. Also, the barista thing was a little confusing. He was probably just trying to emphasize that he was interviewing people who made it themselves and people who sold it for profit.