The new threat of illegal live recordings explored in a 1971 documentary that includes shameless criminality and John Lennon hiding in a bag.
From 1971 comes a British TV documentary – itself, ironically, bootlegged by someone with access to the vaults – about the bootleg record industry, then a new and scary violation of record label and rock bands ability to rake in money hand over fist. The presenter visits West End record shops that openly sell bootlegs and interviews the manager of Virgin Records who cheerfully talks about how he sells illegal records that he’s bought from shady suppliers in cash-only, no invoice deals – those were the days, eh? He also meets The Bootleg King, who claims to have been given the nod of approval by Pink Floyd‘s manager – the band and said manager then pop up to deny this and listen, aghast (or as aghast as the Floyd ever got) to a snippet from the album Pinky, which frankly doesn’t sound that bad. Of course, we know that nods, winks and backhanders were common between bands and bootleggers, but no one was ever going to admit that on camera, were they?
Much more entertainingly, Yoko Ono turns up to defend bootleggers (“I’m sure we’re losing money in all sorts of ways” she smartly responds) while John Lennon – or someone – sits beside her in a bag (“he prefers to be in a bag today”) – a wonderful piss-take and ‘fuck you’ to the greedy bleating of rock bands. Somehow, I suspect that her ‘power to the people’ attitude may have hardened over the decades, though I hope not.
Peter Grant, referred to as the manager of ‘The Led Zeppelin’ and notorious for beating up bootleggers, pops up to claim that the band have lost up to $200,000 through bootleg recordings. In truth, the actual amount of money that bands and labels lost through bootlegging was ‘nothing’ – because no one was buying an expensive bootleg LP of a live show unless they were a big fan who had already bought all the official LPs, T-shirts and concert tickets and wanted more. Despite claims by the music industry and the media about underworld connections – the go-to accusation for any fringe industry you disapprove of, from porn to pirate DVDs – the truth about most bootleggers, as history has shown, if that they were usually old hippies who loved music, as far from organised crime as you could get. They were, if anything, providing a public service.
For bands, there seemed to be a love/hate relationship with bootlegs – some artists actively collected them, some chose to issue them officially and others were obsessively against them (Led Zeppelin seemed torn – Grant famously went on bootleg smashing raids and Jimmy Page in recent years was a prosecution witness against what must have been one of the last bootleg sellers, but Robert Plant was known to buy the odd recording for his own collection). And in a way, a vinyl bootleg was a sign that you’d made it – given the legal and financial risks involved, bootleggers were not going to press up recordings of any old here today, gone later today pop act.
Given the horror stories that abound about dreadful record company and management exploitation where artists are ripped off and left almost penniless after naively signing reprehensible contracts, the moral indignation about bootlegs seems a touch hypocritical. The worst thing we can say about bootlegs is that some were shockingly poor quality and if you’d paid a good chunk of change for it (the documentary quotes £3 as a standard price; when I was buying them in the early 1980s, the price was between £15 and £20, at a time when a legal LP would be a fiver) that was obviously disappointing (and notably, for many bands the real objection was to substandard material rather than bootlegs per se). But the best are excellent, and all are important documents of performances that simply wouldn’t exist if it had been left to the bands and their record labels.
The days of the bootleg are essentially over – I see evidence that the upsurge of interest in vinyl has seen new grey market recordings emerge, but by and large, the market has shifted online – YouTube and other sites are full of audience recorded shows (as well as classic bootleg LPs now freely shared) and most acts are happy to tolerate it, given that no one is making any money and the recordings are helping publicise the act. But I can’t help but feel that a certain thrill of record collecting has died – the hunt, the mystery and the excitement of finding something genuinely rare and obscure.
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