It’s not widely known, but the first bootleg recording was made by Thomas Edison back in 1902. Edison snuck one of his wax cylinder recorders into a parade where he briefly recorded John Philip Sousa’s band as they passed by. Edison was a huge fan of Sousa and was eager to use his invention to relive the performance in the comfort of his own home. Sousa, on the other hand, hated Edison’s invention and refused to be recorded. Edison knew that his clandestine recording was the only hope he had of ever enjoying Sousa’s music privately. Music fans have been recording and trading live performances of their favorite artists ever since.
Edison’s recording is what we commonly call a bootleg. Bootlegs have been a rite of passage for music lovers throughout the rock era. You discover a band, become obsessed with their music, buy everything you can get your hands on, then move on to unreleased live recordings.
A recording of Bob Dylan and The Band released under the name Great White Wonder is said to be the first bootleg of the rock era. The release started what eventually became a thriving industry of bootlegged live recordings. The history of the bootleg industry is documented by Clinton Heylin in Bootleg: The Rise And Fall Of The Secret Recording Industry.
So, did this parallel recording industry damage the legitimate recording industry? Probably not. Bootlegs are for hardcore fans. Because of their price, quality, and limited availability, the casual music fan was never likely to accidentally buy a bootleg thinking it was the latest release. Fans who bought bootlegs did so because they already owned everything they could possibly purchase by their favorite artists.
The distribution of bootlegs has changed over the years. What started as the illicit sale of unauthorized vinyl LPs eventually morphed into the trading of tapes, CDRs, and now digital music files. In the process the profit motive has been lost and black market profiteers have been replaced by a network of fans anxious to share their favorite shows with their peers. As a result, the dark side of bootlegging (the fact that someone else is profiting from your favorite artists music) has largely been diminished. Trading of live recordings is now an act of pure joy that can be practiced among fans without contributing to a black market economy that artists don’t profit from.
These live recordings fill a hole in the market by allowing hyper-responsive fans to connect with their favorite bands and create a community around the hobby of collecting and trading performances. While it may sound like a recipe for rampant piracy, labels shouldn’t worry too much about this activity. Bootleg collectors are among the music industry’s very best customers. These are people who will buy anything their favorite artist releases, then buy the remastered version a few years later.
It’s well known that the Grateful Dead supported the taping and trading of their live performances. Perhaps less well known is the fact that so many contemporary artists have taken a similar stance in recent years. The Live Music Archive features thousands of recordings from hundreds of bands that support the recording of their concerts.
I’m not sure you can technically call these bootlegs since the bands have authorized the recording, but they certainly fit the spirit of what bootlegs have always been about. Obviously more and more musicians are realizing the benefit of encouraging their fans to share and promote their music through the trading of live recordings. The result is that both the artists and their fans benefit from this enlightened approach.