Last week, we posted an item about the acetate of the first version of The Velvet Underground & Nico going on auction on eBay. (As I write this, the bidding is up to US $107,000.) This weekend, I got an email from a friend who said that he was downloading a digital copy of this album.
So here is my question: are either of these piracy? The auction of the physical artifact and the digital download of the music purportedly ripped from that physical artifact. Is the auction somehow not piracy, but the download piracy?
How is it possible that somebody is able to auction this off in the first place? Where is Verve Records? Or Lou Reed? Or the estate of Andy Warhol? Is it because this is 40 years old and there is no clear owner of this music? And the winner of the auction becomes the owner?
Or is there a clear owner of the music, and what is being auctioned off just the disc itself, and the winner can’t really do anything with it for their own profit?
There is no doubt that it has a ton of historical value: there is a ton of surface noise on these recordings, but if that can be removed, Velvet Underground fans the world over would be very interested in a cleaned up version. I know that I would: I’ve been buying legit versions of Velvets bootlegs that I’ve already owned ever since VU and Another View came out in the mid-1980s. I bought those despite the overlap with the The Velvet Underground etc. and The Velvet Underground (and so on) bootlegs that I’d owned for years.
That’s the nature of bootlegs: fans want more from their favorite artists, but there really is no way for any record company to satisfy that demand.
Or there wasn’t. In a weird way, it may have started with the Grateful Dead and Pearl Jam. Both bands had always knowing that there was an insatiable demand for bootlegs of their live shows, and being fans enough of other people’s music to understand why, they decided to do it themselves. For The Dead, it was the Dick’s Pick’s series — dozens of shows from their entire career — and for Pearl Jam, the Live Bootleg series. By understanding their fanbases, and taking advantage of relatively cheap means of distribution, both bands created their own Long Tails.
Other artists got this, and nowadays, you see all sorts of artists doing digital-only one-offs for eMusic or iTunes or their own websites. It’s cheap, it’s easy, and it’s the wave of the future. Noone has to sell a whole lot of anything for it to be a good deal for all involved: fans get more music; artists make their fans happy and keep their names out there; and the smarter record companies get a bit more income with minimal outlay.
And actually, The Velvet Underground themselves have been part of this: their live albums in the 1970s were essentially legitmate bootlegs; and they put out their own Bootleg Series CD a few years ago. Maybe whomever buys this will be able to do the same.