The first half of the 1970s was the golden age of the bootleg, just as it was the golden age of rock ’n’ roll.
The vinyl was not always the best quality, the sound reproduction could be dodgy at best. The artwork tended to be minimal, a plain white sleeve, shrink-wrapped around a single-color sheet of paper that may or may not bear an accurate track listing and a picture of some kind, sometimes a photograph (clipped from a magazine), sometimes a piece of art. Titles rarely bore any relation to the contents, and the contents weren’t always what they seemed to be, either.
But still you usually got what you paid for. Radio bristled with live concert broadcasts, with the King Biscuit Flower Hour only one of several reliable sources for some excellent quality recordings. Recent years have seen a handful of these released officially, but it is only a handful. So many more can be heard today only through the bootleg medium, to preserve a vital part of our musical history.
Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, Dylan, The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Bruce Springsteen (sorry)… no matter how many fly-by-night, Johnny-come-latelies have gnawed at the golden ring of success over the past three decades, the most bootlegged acts of all time today are precisely the same as the most bootlegged ones of the 1970s: David Bowie, Queen, Pink Floyd, Genesis, The Grateful Dead, Aerosmith.
Neither is the idea of bootlegs acting as a conduit for new musical ideas — or even new acts — an uncommon one. Patti Smith is not the only “new” artist whom bootleggers helped to break; neither were record companies blind to the impact that bootlegs can have on nascent careers. Blue Öyster Cult ignited its career in 1972 with the self-released Live Bootleg EP, while newcomers Nils Lofgren, Tom Petty and Graham Parker were all recipients of oxymoronically titled Official Bootleg promo releases, as their labels hit upon the admittedly ironic notion of legitimizing an artist by making him appear palatable from an illegitimate angle. If Nils Lofgren was worth bootlegging (and he was — his first two albums were masterpieces), the theory went, he must be worth listening to, and the fact that Back It Up! An Authorized
Bootleg would soon be bootlegged only proves what an effective idea that was.
The official industry’s own legal maneuvering never truly dented the hold that bootlegs had over their audience. But, by the mid-1980s, with the Powers That Be busily engineering the changeover from vinyl to compact disc, it did seem that the day of the bootleg was over. CDs were originally expensive to manufacture, and there was only a handful of pressing plants capable of producing them. Yet, after but a short lull, the market adjusted and not only began to pick up speed again, it flourished to such an extent that, by the mid-1990s, production was even heavier than ever before. So was the attendant controversy.
The vagaries of international copyright law have dogged the arts for years now. Throughout the 19th century, in the decades before modern copyright agreements came into place, American publishers were blithely reprinting best-selling novels from the U.K. and elsewhere, knowing that the authors had neither redress nor rights. All of those early American editions of Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, Sir Walter Scott and Beatrix Potter that the modern bibliophile cherishes so much are nothing less than bootlegs.
Neither does it end there. Even today, there are still a few countries around the world whose own artists remain unprotected (and uncompensated) by any reciprocal copyright agreements, yet whose work is readily, and legally, available in the United States. In those (primarily Third World) artists’ eyes, bootleggers aren’t the only people making bootlegs.