Banning the bootleg: the end of a music era, or the beginning of a new one?

Bootlegs - across formats - have experienced buoyancy within the music marketplace for the last 40 years or so. Shutterstock

The concept of the bootlegged recording has existed for over a century. Bootlegs are unofficial recordings sold without the consent of those who hold the rights to the music. There are many kinds of bootleg, ranging from complete forgeries of the official release to copies that intentionally appear different, for example, through their artwork, pressings and formats.

It was not until the late 1960s that bootlegged music became desirable. This was triggered by the release of Bob Dylan’s 1969 “Great White Wonder”. Recorded with The Band, it was the first major bootleg of the rock era. The record, which was clandestinely recorded without the knowledge of Dylan’s record label Columbia, was released rubber-stamped with the title “Great White Wonder”. The two records had blank white labels where the record company’s name would normally appear.

One of the tracks from the Bob Dylan bootleg ‘Great White Wonder’.

Columbia eventually learnt how to deal with the threat of bootlegs: it released them officially as part of its Official Bootleg Series.

The big bootleg renaissance

The bootlegged product - whether vinyl, cassette or CD - has experienced buoyancy within the music marketplace for the last 40 years or so. Although its popularity faded with the arrival of digital downloads and a focus on data pirating in the noughties, the physical bootleg has more recently been subject to something of a renaissance.

Over the last five years, bootlegged records have been increasingly snapped up by collectors in online marketplaces such as Juno and Discogs. But a few weeks ago Discogs, which has over 35 million items for sale and “connects buyers and sellers across the globe”, took steps that could see the sale of bootlegs banned from its marketplace.

In a recent article in the dance music magazine, Mixmag, Discogs stated:

We must protect our buyers and sellers.

This is, presumably, to protect the sellers from legal action for offering an illegal product for sale, and buyers from being ripped-off.

Discogs is one of the world’s largest online music marketplaces.

Discogs Chief Operating Officer Chad Dahlstrom said it will be focusing resources on its seller’s agreement. Part of this will be not to list for sale items that violate copyright “such as bootlegs, counterfeit, pirate copies”. These releases will nevertheless remain on the database.

This may seem like an obvious and sensible move for Discogs. But the conversations that the move sparked show that banning bootlegs and unofficial products for sale is not so clear cut. This is apparent when you look into the world of hip hop.

Hip hop’s cultural drivers

Hip hop has always drawn strongly and creatively from existing music, and it is this ethos that anchors its cultural value. It’s therefore not surprising that hip hop has a complex history of bootlegging. The “Octopus Breaks” series, compiled and edited by producers, Leonard “BreakBeat Lenny” Roberts and Louis “BreakBeat Lou” Flores, epitomises the value of the unlicensed product. Described as a “seminal series”, it has been sampled by some of hip-hop’s top producers like Gangstarr’s DJ Premier, Dr Dre and Public Enemy’s The Bomb Squad.

Public Enemy used samples to create some on the most seminal hip hop.

The “Octopus Breaks” were compilations of those rare and hard to find records, mainly funk, containing the fabulous percussion breaks which are the foundations of hip hop.

Demand for these compilations was so high that in 1986 the series became legitimate. It followed the acquisition of mechanical copyrights under the new label Street Beat Records which released 24 volumes between 1986 and 1990. Ironically these were in turn bootlegged throughout the noughties. Their contribution to the evolution of hip hop is undeniable, equipping DJs, beat makers and producers with raw material to develop their practice.

Like The Octopus Breaks, new labels such as 5 Borough Breaks and Originals, have sought to bring hard to find songs to a broader audience. Releasing the highly desirable currency of 45 RPM (or seven inch) records, the concept is that each release has the original song on side A, and the hip hop song most famed for sampling that break on side B. The Originals’ eighth release for example, “Amen Brother” by The Winstons, is backed with “King of the Beats” by Mantronix.

One of the most sampled songs of all time, ‘Amen Brother’ by the Winstons.

A further complexity in unofficial hip hop records come via remixed formats such as the edit, the cut ‘n’ paste, the mega-mix and the mixtape, often having solely a regional or local impact, or given away free as promotional material. In these cases, it is the skill and creativity of the maker that is at stake more than the unlawful recordings.

These productions contain a level of critical engagement that hip hop thrives on – a counter-narrative to the official release and the belief that these bootleggers are, in fact, artists. I would argue that these bootlegged products become true reifications of hip hop’s dynamics. They encapsulate an attitude and document the intangible, in the process filling the cultural gaps left by official releases. As such they are crucial dot-joiners in hip hop, contributing much more to music culture than a traditional bootleg.

A welcome relief

Discogs’ decision to retain bootlegs in its database is a welcome relief. Documenting them for historical purposes is essential to the archiving of all music genres.

Of course, there is a darker side to bootlegging. The reality is that bootleggers who are unwilling to approach the original recording artists or record labels and flatly ignore copyright issues are in violation of the law and liable for prosecution.

On top of this, it’s very unfair when artists aren’t acknowledged on a bootleg. In these cases the releases are often ego driven forgeries and act as a substitute for a lack of artistic output on the part of the bootlegger.

I’m in no doubt that bootlegs will continue to be manufactured, but whether they reevaluate themselves remains to be seen. The forgeries we can live without, but I’m optimistic that Discogs’ move will propel a much more engaging form of bootleg.

If recent discussions are anything to judge by, the future of the bootleg might just reinvent the official release.

Facts matter. Your tax-deductible donation helps deliver fact-based journalism.