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volume 3
november 2000

An examination of the bootleg record industry and its impact upon popular music consumption

Index of the journal Tracking  

  by Gary Warren Melton Winter, 1991
Humboldt State University

Since the 1960s the bootleg record industry has shown considerable growth. Generally bootleg records present unauthorized recordings based on unauthorized taping of live performances or radio and television broadcasts, or stolen tapes from unreleased studio sessions of a particular artist or group. Bootleg recordings exist because they have a market: they fulfill fan needs. Here Gary Warren Melton researches the role of some Beatles' fanzines as an intermediary between the bootleg record industry and the Beatles' fan.

  "Well, when I met you at the station,
you were standing with a bootleg in your hand ...
(from the Wings song "Hi Hi Hi" by Paul McCartney, 1972).
1 Beatles and bootlegs. As indicated in the opening line of the 45 rpm record released by Paul McCartney and his first post-Beatles band Wings in 1972, superstars — and thus their record companies — are very much aware of the phenomena known as the bootleg record industry. In fact, several bootleg records were available during the last few years of the Beatles era in the late 1960's. These discs included several of the live concert performances by the Beatles, most notably the "Beatles Live at the Hollywood Bowl" and the "Beatles Live at Shea Stadium." Why would the typical fan of any group be interested in Bootleg records and what particular impact, if any, does this interest have upon popular music consumption? These concerns were the rationale for undertaking the research reported in this study.
2 Defining bootlegs. Before continuing with the discussion of the Bootleg record industry, it is appropriate to operationally define the concept "bootleg." According to Fenick (1982) bootleg — boot or underground record — "is a newly created item — LP, EP, 45, or CD; also includes record sleeves — which has never existed in this form as an official, original item; any item that was never legitimately released in its present form. These are illegal materials, usually pressed by fans themselves from material otherwise not available on commercial recordings." Denisoff (1975) described record bootleggers as those who "... produce albums and tapes of material which is not otherwise available through legitimate channels." Castleman and Podrazik (1975) stated that "Bootlegs generally fall into one of three categories: Recordings of Live Concerts, Recordings of Radio / Television / Film Appearances, or Studio Outtakes." Schultheiss (1981) stated that bootlegs, pirated recordings, and counterfeit recordings are "three different things, although they are forms of the same illegal activity: Piracy."
  Piracy, according to Schultheiss (1981) is the misappropriation of another's property. This concept has been applied to the unauthorized duplication of any art form where ownership is claimed by and credited to the original artist. A major component of any creator's rights to their original works includes the sole right to license reproduction of that work by another party. The brand of mis-appropriation peculiar to the recording industry is labeled record and tape piracy. Such unauthorized duplication incorporates four forms: pirated recordings, counterfeit recordings, bootleg recordings, and home recordings.
  Typically, pirated and counterfeit recordings represent "dubbing" which is the process involved in the technically advanced mechanical, electrical, or acoustical transfer of sounds from a copy of an authorized recording onto unauthorized blanks. Schultheiss (1981) suggested that the creators of piracy and counterfeiting are motivated by the profits — up to 1,000 percent per item — to be realized from such activity. The pirated and counterfeit recordings, products of the same process, are generally distinguished from one another on the basis of packaging: the pirate is usually repackaged with an album cover, inner sleeve and label which bear little or no resemblance to the original. However, the counterfeit attempts to duplicate the packaging of the original so that it can be "passed off" as a genuine, authorized copy — this activity has been used widely in the video industry for major film releases such as Star Wars and Total Recall.
3 "Performance piracy". Bootleg or underground recordings are generally the product of "performance piracy;" thus, they represent the creation of unauthorized recordings not from preexisting ones, but from unauthorized taping of live performances or radio and television broadcasts, or utilization of stolen tapes from unreleased studio sessions of a particular artist or group. Finally, home recordings — personal piracy — refers to several practices whereby individuals "copy" the contents of a recording for themselves — and / or a few friends — without the intention of starting a duplicating process on a large scale. Thus, both audio and video personal piracy presumes the basic intention of avoiding purchase of an original item.
  Denisoff (1975) stated that the practice of "pirating recorded sound is as old as the piano roll and the early Edison phonograph disk. As early as 1905 the Victor Talking Machine Company urged Congress to enact a law to end unauthorized copying of its products." However, the fundamental question of protection for sound recordings through copyright of such was to remain ambiguous until a 1955 court decision — Capitol Records, Inc. versus Mercury Records Corporation — indicated that such recorded performances "were potentially copyrightable," although not under the then current 1909 Copyright statute. Legislative attempts to extend copyright coverage to sound recordings were finally successful with the signing by President Gerald Ford into law on October 19, 1976, of a complete revision of the copyright law. Thus, after more than sixty years of attempts by the recording industry to protect their sound recordings, Congress was finally able "... to see the little 'writings' fixed in sound recordings" (Schultheiss, 1981).
  Today, record and tape piracy are illegal activities subject to prosecution under provisions of the Federal copyright statue. In cases involving criminal violations of copyright in sound recordings, the penalty for willful infringement "for purposes of commercial advantage or private financial gain" is not more than a $25,000 fine for the first offense and / or not more than one year imprisonment, or both. The court may also order destruction of all offending recordings, and all devices for manufacturing, reproducing and assembling unauthorized recordings (Copyright Revision Act, 1976).
4 The growth of the bootleg record industry. Schultheiss (1981) stated one could easily understand the temptations for organized crime involvement in the practice of record piracy by looking at data from the RCA Victor Company and the Record Industry Association of America (RIAA). RIAA data states that legitimate annual recording industry sales grew from around $285 million in 1960 to some $1.2 billion by 1969 — $300 million in tape formats, $900 million in discs. Correspondingly, RIAA annual data for pirates and counterfeits showed an increase from about $20 million lost to the industry in 1960, to $100 million lost in 1969. Further, the estimated loss to illegal piracy jumped to $300 million lost in 1975, $400 million lost in 1980, and over $500 million lost by the end of the 1980's. In 1966 alone, RCA Victor estimated that there were two million illicit copies of The Sound of Music in circulation. RIAA data today indicates that possibly one out of every two prerecorded tapes sold in the United States is a counterfeit. And these are only domestic U.S. losses; large quantities of counterfeited tapes manufactured in the United States are shipped abroad for sale, bringing estimated annual industry losses worldwide to a potential $1 billion.
  Review of the data above suggests that the bootleg record industry began to grow significantly in the 1960's. This period represented the beginning of the British invasion of America by the Beatles and other Merseyside English bands. This era also represented the introduction of serious study of fandom by critics. One critic (Hazard, 1962) has noted that the fan club system and its subsidiary communication networks — the fanzine — are an institutionalization of the affection many people have for their entertainment heroes.
  Gerrold (1973) stated that the behavior of fans appeared to be patterned and organized as well as observable. He also described fandom as a form of subculture in which fans legitimize their behavior by establishing a system structure which is enhanced by publication of the fanzine or specialized magazine. Gerrold further argued that "the magazine is selling a readership of unquestionable homogeneity as it is related to a specific product or activity, while providing a waiting audience with sought after information that often results in intense cover-to-cover reading of both editorial and advertisement content alike."
5 Fandom and fanzines. Denisoff (1975) suggested that Crawdaddy: The Magazine of Rock was the "first" fanzine in popular music in 1964. The first four issues were crudely stapled mimeographed multicolored pages distributed in the Cambridge area. He added that within two years Crawdaddy grew "from these modest beginnings to a nationally distributed color slick selling 20,000 copies per issue." Denisoff also suggested that:
  "Fanzines possess the spark and enthusiasm of writers whose love for music prompted their endless analyses and reams of prose. Prozines entered journalism with the aim of making money by applying the traditional tools of magazine editing to the popular music field."
  Fans form subnetworks of communication as a direct result of fanzine consumption; thus, fandom is dependent upon communication. Bill Harry, founder of the Mersey Beat, a publication which highlighted local bands around England's Mersey River in Liverpool in the early sixties, continues his enthusiasm and interests in the Beatles phenomenon by writing books and contributing to various fanzines. About fan clubs and fanzines, Harry (1977) wrote:
  "When the Beatles disbanded, fans decided to continue running 'unofficial' clubs which still exist today. In fact, since the mid-seventies there has been a rebirth of interest in Beatles fandom and the introduction of a new dimension: second generation fans, youngsters who weren't even born when the Beatles first came to fame, but who became fans nevertheless. The quality of both content and production among the fanzines varies greatly. Some are expensively produced, professionally printed magazines, others are stapled, duplicated sheets."
  Some fanzines are mimeographed, printed on computer, or mailed in cassette form. Advanced technology has enabled the producer to "cut the cost" or the necessity of professional printing expenses thus allowing many fanzines the chance to survive. Yet that does not guarantee receiving a fanzine on a consistent basis. Fanzine editors have an expensive hobby as well as a separate life of their own, but generally one can find those publications which are reputable and fairly regular by inquiry.
  Fan clubs and fanzines, then, are specialized institutions / social networks; a specialized social organization that links together numerous associations and groups, throughout society, all of which are interrelated through their concern with a common set of activities. Therefore, one fanzine may be more specialized than another depending whether or not the topic can generate enough audience need and interest to sustain the publication.
6 Fanzines and bootlegs. Several rock magazines — prozines — that began publication in the 1960's included reviews of bootleg records, editorials and classified advertising for these illegal discs. According to Denisoff (1975):
  "Greil Marcus, one of the most prestigious of rock journalists and editor for Rolling Stone, clearly outlined the ideological and cultural implications of the bootleg industry by observing that one or two disks a year from the 'Big Three of rock and roll' Dylan, the Beatles, and the Stones were not enough. He argued that despite the mediocre fidelity of many Bootleg records, an objection raised by some segments of the underground radio and press, they were in many cases esthetically superior to the material being released by the legitimate record companies."
  Thus, Denisoff argued that the rock press, while rarely questioning the ethics of the bootleg industry itself, did object to the alleged inferior quality of discs. One particular example, according to Denisoff, was a July, 1971 Rolling Stone review of a Beatles Bootleg, "Live at Shea Stadium." The reviewer's assessment of the disc appeared in the regular record review section and although the review was negative, the conclusion was "with the familiar statement that these inferior products would have to do until Capitol or Apple saw fit to release the nostalgic reminders."
  With the passage of the Revised Copyright Statute of 1976, the advertisement and reviews of pirate records within the Prozines or Rock Press have all but dis-appeared because of possible suits from the major record companies. However, in the world of the fanzine for the subculture networks, "Boots" remain a highly visible element of content for the fans. L.R.E. King (1988) provided some interesting insight as to why fans perhaps desire such content:
  "Trying to understand the Beatles' music only through their authorized releases is like trying to understand an automobile by admiring its paint job. They are only the surface, the end product, and they say little on applying craftsmanship to basic creative genius. The final product gives great pleasure, but we have the responsibility to find out how things work and only by studying the processes of creativity can we demystify it and derive useful knowledge. Beyond that, study of their abandoned projects and failures helps keep them in perspective. We can see that they weren't godlings, but merely four human beings whose talent, skills, and chemistry, combined with hard work, and the luck of being in the right place at the right time gave them unprecedented artistic and commercial success. Today's art historians x-ray important paintings to see the rough sketches beneath. Studying the Beatles' unreleased recordings is our way of doing the same thing."
7 Trends in bootlegging. King (1988) stated that with the advent of the Compact Disc format — and the corresponding high profit margin — outstanding Beatles bootleg material has started to emerge which could represent the "golden age" for Beatles music collectors.
  Since the mid-seventies, the impact of bootleg releases upon legitimate releases has been highly evident; that is, several record companies have rushed released "commercial" sets to offset profit losses to illegal discs. During Paul McCartney's 1976 tour of the United States, engineers recorded several live concerts in both audio and video formats. Bootleggers released a high quality concert bootleg of McCartney's Los Angeles concert in 1976. According to Fenick (1982) a deluxe three disc box set entitled "Wings from the Wings" reportedly sold in the tens of thousands due to excellent sound quality, good packaging, and wide distribution. Within months of this bootleg release, Capitol records put out the commercial "Wings Over America" set. Reviews of the legitimate release were harsh because most of the chatter between songs in the three disc set had been removed whereas such "star talk" remained intact in the bootleg version. McCartney just recently completed another world tour after a thirteen year break from the road. And again, the bootleggers had a triple record set available for the fans six months prior to Capitol Records' rushed release of a two compact disc set compiled from live segments of this recent tour. Thus, this was an effort on the part of the "official" record company to act quickly in order to reduce the potential negative impact upon its profit margins.
  Fenick (1982) suggested that the trend in Beatles bootlegs for the 1980's seemed to be in taking the same material and repackaging the whole album with a new name and cover. She argued that:
  "... collectors every year, bootleggers can sell the same album in just as large quantities as they did originally. 'The Beatles Vs. Don Ho' from the late seventies was a fairly good seller, and it sold just as well entitled 'Beatles Silver Lining' in the early 80's. Indeed, many collectors will buy the album knowing it is the same thing, just to have the different album jacket. Bootleggers, knowing that, go so far as to make label and jacket variations within a single series of bootleg pressings just to sell the same album to the same fans twice."
  Beatle Bootleg records began originally in the 1960's as plain LP's with simple white jackets. However, the genre has expanded into all forms of recordings. The 10-inch EP became the rage in the late seventies. According to Fenick (1982) a whole series of 10-inch EP's were released under the Tobe Milo label which spoofed not only other bootlegs but legitimate Beatles products as well. These 10-inch EP's started the fashion trend toward numbered copies. Usually, only 500-1,000 copies were pressed in total, and numbers were stamped on each one to show the exclusiveness of these limited editions.
  Beatles LP's, EP's, and 45 Singles have been bootlegged complete with the colorful picture sleeves and / or album jackets and usually colored vinyl record pressings. Every color in the rainbow, including a clear wax and a marbled one have been introduced. The recent introduction of CD's with high quality sound and deluxe packaging has continued the piracy trend of collecting by the fans. Indeed, some collectors — the present author included — have felt that they had to get every version of a recording; thus, this has no doubt contributed to a boon to the manufacturers and sellers of such items.
8 "Beatlefan" and "Beatles Unlimited". There have been literally dozens of fanzines published during the last twenty years which deal specifically with the Beatles. Two of the most popular and enduring fanzines include Beatlefan and Beatles Unlimited. Both of these fanzines publish six issues per year. After reviewing all issues of these fanzines published during the last ten years, the following types or kinds of items were found consistently across all issues:
  (A) editorials; (B) current news and events that are Beatles related including convention reports; (C) reader letters and collecting questions and answers; (D) features, including interviews, historical perspectives, and such articles as encounters with the Beatles; (E) fan directory listing pen pals; (F) reprints of newspaper photos and article clippings, including album, book, film and video reviews; (G) reviews of new books on the Beatles; (H) record reviews, including "bootleg" recordings as well as commercial releases; (I) trivia contests and quizzes; (J) advertisements — both display and classified — which can be categorized as follows: video, audio, club sales, memorabilia, advertising of other fanzines, wanted lists, trade or sell, auctions, and advocates for expression and mobilization — such as the Spirit Foundation, a charitable organization, and groups for causes such as gun control.
  As one might suspect, the amount and type of content as described above did vary among the issues reviewed. For example, there have been periods where "new" bootleg products were scarce; thus, the amount of reviews for such discs and related material was less than in other issues when such products flourished.
  Beatles Unlimited has been published in the Netherlands (Nieuwegein) since 1973. It is printed on high quality stock paper and has color photos in each issue. Beatlefan has been published in the United States since 1978. It will typically feature a color cover, but the inside is printed on lesser quality stock paper.
9 Surveying the bootleg record fan: select results. A non-randomized survey technique was employed to gather baseline data pertaining to the Beatles bootleg record fan from the fanzine Beatlefan. Each issue of the fanzine contains several fans listed in the "pen pal" section. Out of the total listings of pen pals in each issue per year (from 1980 to 1990), two individuals were randomly selected for inclusion in the mail survey, for a total of 120 respondents.
  Concerning the survey design, respondents were asked to rate items on a four point Likert scale which indicated a range of agreement / disagreement with such statements as "I read Beatlefan to find out which records to buy." Respondents were also asked to rank fanzine content items in order to ascertain potential use patterns. Finally, a series of open-ended questions provided data on fanzine helpfulness, dependency and expectancy of the fanzine, as well as allowing the individuals to indicate motives or reasons for using Beatlefan.
  Of the 88 respondents who completed the mail questionnaire, more than half were female (57 percent). Interestingly, over two thirds of the respondents were age twenty-six and older. While eighty percent of the respondents stated that they actively engaged in collecting bootlegs, thirty percent of the group stated they could collect as well without reading Beatlefan.
  Concerning other functions of the fanzine, fifty percent of the sample base reported communicating with other fans via mail while one-third of the sample reported telephone contact with other fans. Twenty percent of the respondents did acknowledge Beatlefan as the communications facilitator. As an indicator of the "hard core" fan, seventy-three percent of the sample reported that they also attend Beatle fan conventions (BEATLEFEST in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles), but only eighteen percent of those who actually attend such conventions said that Beatlefan had influenced their decision to participate in such activity.
  Seventy-four percent of the sample said they subscribe to more than one fanzine to obtain information on bootleg records. And surprisingly, though the fanzines subscribed to by respondents were predominantly oriented towards the Beatles, some listed fanzines with other affiliations — Springsteen / Stones / Elvis — for gratification of bootleg record needs.
10 Discussion. Generally, fanzines would appear to provide social integration functions, entertainment functions, and cognitive gain functions through subscriptions to Beatle fanzines such as Beatlefan and Beatles Unlimited. Pertaining to the data base gathered from the readership of Beatlefan, this fanzine does impact upon popular music consumption by affecting the type and nature of record purchases, especially in the rare recording area. Secondly, fan dependency upon the fanzine is evident but somewhat ambiguous with the small sample and exploratory measures employed. Third, some behavior patterns appeared to be associated with exposure attributes. Fourth, several functions appeared to exist for some fans across several fanzine subscriptions.
  Fenick (1982) argued that the most obvious reason why fans want to own bootlegs when they can buy all the legitimate recordings of the Beatles is because such fans want to own material that is just unavailable in any legal form. This rationale was reflected in several comments from the readership of Beatlefan as respondents indicated their desire to obtain "unreleased tracks, live concert performances, and rare BBC radio appearances." The "live" appearances from 1962 to 1965 by the Beatles on BBC radio were considered by one fan as "historic" because they featured the group playing live without audience noise and featured several entertaining interviews with the group as well as non-Beatle cover songs.
  In summary, Bootleg recordings exist because such fulfill fan needs. And, in some instances, the fan will buy the "boot" version rather than the commercial source. As Fenick (1982) concluded, as long as fans like to follow a song's progression and gain a deeper insight into the musical workings of the Beatles, the bootleggers will continue to enjoy the challenge — and profit — of competition with each other and the commercial record industry for the leisure time of fans.
  • Castleman, H. and Podrazik, W. (1975), All together now. New York: Ballantine Books, 1975.
  • Denisoff, R.S. (1975), Solid gold. The popular music industry. New Brunswick: Transaction Books, 1975.
  • Fenick, B. (1982), Collecting the Beatles. Chicago: Contemporary Books, Inc., 1982.
  • Gerrold, D. (1973), The world of Star Trek. New York: Ballantine Books, 1973.
  • Harry, B. (1977), Mersey Beat. Beginnings of the Beatles. New York: Quick Fox, 1977.
  • Hazard, P. (1962), "The entertainer as hero. A problem in mass media." In: Journalism Quarterly, 39, 436.
  • King, L.R.E. (1988), Do you want to know a secret? Tucson: Storyteller Inc., 1988.
  • Schultheiss, T. (1981), "Everything you always wanted to know about bootlegs but were afraid to ask." In: C. Reinhart (ed,), You can't do that. Ann Arbor: Pierian Press, Inc., 1981.
  A version of this paper was presented at the 21st Meeting of the Popular Culture Association, San Antonio, Texas. This essay was published in:
Tracking: Popular Music Studies, vol. 4, no. 1 (Winter, 1991)
  1997 © IASPM / USA