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Sometimes, I think I was born a generation or two too late–almost all of the music I love is from before I was born, let alone cognizant of music. If there’s one advantage to the modern era, it’s having almost the world’s entire media catalog only a few clicks away, 1 Now I can explore and cultivate a taste for this stuff in a way I never would have in the dark days of Real Physical Media, and it’s distribution-related quirks. You were limited by what your local record store kept in stock, and heaven help you if your local record store was a big chain–it’s mainstream, big sellers and Top 40 for you, son. The independent stores were where the action was. Now, the Internet is the world’s biggest independent record store.
Beyond access to the obscurities of a time long past, the Internet also gives you access to something that was even more interesting, and harder to find. Some call them RoIOs: Records/Recordings of Illegitimate/Indeterminate Origin, an euphemism chosen to avoid the stigma of the term we’d most likely use: bootlegs. The acronym makes sense. The term “bootleg” carries an image of some schlub with a tape recorder sitting in the cheap seats and recording mostly echoes and feedback. There’s no shortage of bootlegs like that around, but the good ones are the ones that took a little more effort to make. Soundboards, high-quality audience recordings, FM Radio recordings–a good bootleg can sound as good as a professional and legit live recording. 2 But the bootleg recording isn’t always a concert. The first commercially sold bootlegs: Bob Dylan’s The Great White Wonder and The Beatles’s Kum Back were demo recordings–the latter consisting of recordings of what would become the album Let it Be.
To me, the appeal of bootlegs is twofold. First, it gives me a chance to experience a piece of musical history that I was simply born too late to be there for. Whether it’s DEVO’s first show at Max’s Kansas City in 1977, The Beatles at The Hollywood Bowl, or even just a lucky recording of a show on Yes’s 1980 tour, listening to a bootleg is stepping through time to experience the past. Second, it’s a chance to explore the history of my favorite artists, hear where they came from, the roots of songs I know, and the abandoned experiments that littered the road behind them. 3 Demo recordings of some of my favorite bands circulate, and provide a remarkable historical document, ranging from the psychedelia of the 1968 Halfnelson–later known as Sparks–demo tape, A Woofer in Tweeter’s Clothing, the nervous Proto-New Wave of Star Kids–later known as XTC–, and the jittery, almost country music sounds of Talking Heads as a trio in 1975.
Technology has wielded a double-edged sword in the world of bootlegs. YouTube lets us take recordings of concerts, in particular, for granted–often in a form that makes the most questionable video recordings of the past look good. On the other hand, a dedicated group of bootleg traders and collectors have been sharing the wealth of the past, digitizing and sharing bootleg recordings online, for free. What was once a difficult task of sourcing bootlegs has become an all-you-can-eat buffet. This pleases me to no end. As much as I enjoy scrounging through stacks in a record store, my infinite laziness prefers to point, click, and download the rarest of the rare. Now is the best time to get into bootleg collecting. Find your favorite artist, hop on your favorite search engine, and start poking around. The best place to start is Dime a Dozen, which is one of the largest bootleg torrent trackers. Happy searching, and happy listening.
Though access to some of it is of dubious legality… If that bothers you, you may not want to read on. ?
A number of officially released live albums actually began life as bootlegs, and a number of bootlegs also began life as recordings for live albums. The cache of bootleg recordings and their popularity has also lead to official live albums making themselves look like bootlegs (cf. The Who – Live at Leeds). ?
Now-a-days, this sort of archaeology is being legitimized by the inclusion of demos and alternate takes as bonus material on albums, often in higher fidelity than the nth generation copies often found circulating as bootlegs. I’m not sure if this is a good thing or not–it often serves as an excuse to charge more for material that isn’t always compelling to listen to. ?