They Buy all the Albums, but Trade Concert Bootlegs
January 6, 2003
Marc Daniel added 1,400 albums to his compact disc collection last year. But he is not waging a campaign to reverse the music industry's declining sales. Almost all the titles he acquired, by groups like the Grateful Dead and U2, were live concert recordings that were never officially released. Nor did he buy them in record shops. Instead, he used the Internet to trade for them, swapping copies of his discs for recordings he desired. He said his CD trading with its questionable legality and exhilarating musical payoff was like "a coke run without any drugs."
Mr. Daniel, 51, a property manager in Mount Vernon, Wash., is
to music trading, and he is hardly alone. With a minimum of online
fans of virtually any band from arena-filling superstars to
Bootlegs are unauthorized recordings, mostly of live performances, that were never meant to be released by musicians and their labels. Bootleg CD's are different from counterfeit CD's, which are illegitimate copies of official releases. There are markets for both.
Just as online song-file sharing has challenged how the music industry sells its tunes, so too is digital technology altering the way fans get their hands on bootleg CD's. Although bootlegs, usually costing $20 to $30 a disc, can still be found in record stores, it is cheaper and simpler to get them online. Many new computers have built-in CD recording devices - burners - and some blank discs cost less than 50 cents apiece. Because the Internet enables a band's fans to congregate in one virtual spot, traders connect easily and make exchanges with a few e-mail messages and a couple of stamps.
Bootleg trading is not as widespread as Internet file sharing, however, and it does not provoke as much concern from the music industry, which worries more about piracy, as when counterfeit CD's and song-file downloads cut into the sales of official releases.
Cary Sherman, president of the Recording Industry Association of America, said the association cannot determine how much bootlegging occurs. But, he said, "the piracy problem is obviously a lot larger in scope, both in the physical world and online, because more people are trading and pirating best-selling discs than bootlegs of live concerts."
This explains why the association has not been especially aggressive in clamping down on bootleg trading. There are practical considerations, too. Musicians must object to specific live recordings before the association will step in. While some artists might grouse about retailers who profit from selling their bootlegs, online trades rarely involve money. Artists who prosecute individual fans for merely indulging in music beyond their official CD's would be about as cool as a Guy Lombardo record.
Traders argue that they are performing a public service by undercutting commercial bootlegs. A Philadelphia trader said he used to buy bootleg CD's in stores but started an online mailing list for Rolling Stones concerts that now has 1,700 subscribers. "Once you see that you can trade for the thing for 10 cents a disc," he said, "why waste your money?"
Even in cases where bands do not sanction live recordings,
their actions. First and foremost, they
The Philadelphia trader, who has 733 Stones concerts in his collection, said, "Just preserving that legacy, that 40 years of music, that's the most important thing to us." For instance, he said that "L.A. Friday," a bootleg of a 1975 Stones concert, was more vivid than "Love You Live," the band's official concert album of that time.
Clear sound and glitch-free recordings are just as important to bootleg traders as performance quality. Shows are traded by mail rather than over the Internet as MP3 files to assure the highest possible fidelity. Online traders shun poorly recorded discs and passionately debate the merits of recordings of the same show made by different people. To come up with the best possible version of a concert, some traders blend recordings from more than one source, using software to cover rough spots, then distribute it to their group. Because the copies are digital duplicates, they do not accrue layers of hiss like recordings on audio cassettes.
Online traders are not hard to find. For instance, a search of
section of yahoo.com yields more than 400
Initiating a trade usually requires no more effort than sending a request to another trader with a list of what's in one's own collection. Beginners with nothing to swap can offer to send blank discs with return postage.
Some groups set up trading "trees": a source sends copies of a concert to two or three traders, who in turn send them to two or three others, and so on. Variations of this system include a "vine" whereby a disc passes from trader to trader, being copied at each stage. Some traders also create Web sites from which cover graphics and track listings can be downloaded and printed.
The Internet has quickened the trading process. In the days before e-mail, traders would respond by mail to classified ads in music magazines. A trader outside Philadelphia who founded an electronic mailing list for Pearl Jam shows said, "Before, it took weeks if not months," but now it's so fast that recordings of four December shows by Pearl Jam have already been distributed to hundreds of collectors.
Mr. Daniel admits that he has yet to listen to every minute of every CD in his collection. But he continues to trade at a feverish rate. Last week, he gained a new rationale for his obsession. A musician told him he had stopped drinking on stage when he realized that all his performances were being circulated. Mr. Daniel said, "It causes them to play better knowing that every note is going to be heard by somebody in Australia."