Last year, a new Beatles set went up onto iTunes, a 59-track set called The Bootleg Recordings 1963. A mix of live cuts, demos, and outtakes. The set is a thorough look at the band right as they started exploding. It’s an interesting, if uneven listen, but quality isn’t why it was released either: it’s more a matter of timing, of keeping these songs in their possession. I’ll try and explain.
Copyright laws differ from country to country, but generally they all agree once something is published, an artist or their label own that material. Eventually, it’ll fall into the public domain, like what’s happened with Robert Johnson or Louie Armstrong, but that’s a process that’ll take place many decades after release. Until file-sharing popped up, it wasn’t really a problem for most artists. Sure, one could tape an album and trade it with their friends, but large-scale counterfeiting was a different matter, involving pressing plants and commercial printers, not to mention means to distribute and sell the pressed records. Generally, it was the kind of thing most people wouldn’t have had access to.
But in the late 1960’s, an underground market for unreleased music started emerging: the bootleg record industry. There’d been a small market for grey-label LPs of Broadway musicals, but Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes exploded that market wide open.
After crashing his motorcycle in 1966, Dylan went to upstate New York and started working with The Band on new, more roots-oriented material. These new songs were taped and pressed to acetate discs. Only intended for industry use, these were demos for songs he hoped to sell to other artists. He was pretty successful: The Byrds, The Band, Manfred Mann, even Elvis Presley all recorded versions of songs first recorded during those basement sessions. And Dylan? His first post-crash LP contained country music.
When Dylan’s name showed up on record, for songs they’d never heard him sing, fans started searching for his versions of these songs. Soon, a trading community sprung up and those demos were circulating. So was stuff most people couldn’t have known about: the so-called Minnesota Hotel Tape, a lo-fi and raw recording of a young Bob Dylan, outtakes from his last few records and an exciting live set from England, climaxing with Dylan shouting at a heckler and exploding into “Like A Rolling Stone.”
Soon, someone realized they could make money off their collection and put out a little record called Great White Wonder. It was the first bootleg LP, a nearly anonymous record in a plain white sleeve that spawned lawsuits, FBI investigations, and changed the way record labels looked at their product.
While Dylan was the first artist to get bootlegged, he was far from the only one. The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and Frank Zappa were all quickly bootlegged. Enterprising souls snuck shotgun microphones into live concerts, quickly releasing their results before a band could put together a live album. Others simply repackaged other label’s bootlegs. Some labels quickly gained prominence for their records: Rubber Dubber, Trademark of Quality, The Swingin’ Pig. An industry was born.
Eventually, labels and artists saw the potential value in this industry. Generally speaking, people buying bootlegs are huge fans of those artists, looking for something beyond the official canon. There was suddenly value in those scrapped tracks, those unused live recordings.
One of the first bands to capitalize on this trend was The Who: they released Live at Leeds with a bootleg-inspired sleeve, but the 1974 collection Odds and Sods contained unused outtakes, early singles, and even a song meant for The American Cancer Society: the kind of material bootleggers thrived on. It peaked at 15 on the Billboard charts.
The next year, Columbia finally released Bob Dylan’s The Basement Tapes, finally giving the songs that started it all an official release (although with some overdubs and stuff from later, Bob Dylan-free sessions).
A little less than two decades later, Columbia released a three-CD set of Bob Dylan’s outtakes, a career-spanning best-of-but-never-was. The Bootleg Series, as it’s now called, is now up to ten releases. Miles Davis, The Velvet Underground, and Todd Rundgren all have their own Bootleg Series, too. Like the first bootlegs, these generally take the form of a complete concert, usually recorded by the label or a radio station, but sometimes from an audience recording.
One band in particular has been especially generous in this regard. The Grateful Dead have released dozens of their concerts over the years as part of the Dick’s Picks and Road Trips series’. Their Spring 1990: The Other One box set comprises nearly half of an entire tour; they released the other half in 2012. And almost nobody has released a box as ambitious as their 73-CD set of their entire Europe 1972 tour. For those keeping track, that’s nearly four whole days of consecutive music, all in a box shaped like a steamer trunk. We’ve come a long way from those hand-stamped LPs.
Which brings me back to copyright laws and The Beatles. Once a recording is released, it’s protected for the life of the artist, plus some time after their death. But the stuff that isn’t released is only protected for a short time, relatively speaking: 50 years, give or take. Hence, the Beatles outtakes: they were soon to enter the public domain. Now they’re under the same protection as Let It Be.
The Beatles aren’t the only musicians to quickly release scraps from their vaults on the eve of their copyright expiring. Columbia released a bunch of Bob Dylan outtakes last year, too. Don’t feel bad if you didn’t hear about it: this was a vinyl-only, European release in a very limited edition. It’s packaged exactly like the first bootleg: white label, a little stamp in the corner. And like The Beatles’ digital release, it extends copyright of everything therein.
It feels like a label protecting its assets. If these songs were really hot shit, they would’ve been released as a Bootleg Series or even on their own. While a release keeps them out of the public domain and grey-market releases, it’s very release format – no notes, no CD or digital versions – all but ensures people will try to find pirated copies online. All for a bunch of live material from 1963! When a label issues something like this, in such a way, it’s hard not to be cynical.
Bootlegs and deluxe reissues basically serve the same purpose, even if they’re often at odds. Casual fans aren’t likely to drop $40 or more on an album they’ve never heard or don’t feel strongly about. They’re not likely to chase down live recordings or outtakes over the Internet, too. But big fans are, and labels target high-end releases for them. You can drop $20 on a two-CD edition of Bob Dylan’s latest Bootleg Series release or you can drop $120 for a six-CD version. With pricing like that, it seems more and more about the returns. A hardcore Dylan fan is going to want to hear everything him and The Band recorded in that basement. But to do that, you’ll have to pay over $20 a CD, twice the ratio of the standard release. I suppose if someone’s going to buy them and the label (and the artist, too) might as well reap the profit. Although I’ll admit, the book-length liner notes are a nice touch.
I’m reminded of a section in Neil Young’s autobiography, Waging Heavy Peace, in which he rails against the shuffle function of CD players and iTunes. As an artist, Young labours over the finished product, putting thought into everything from the cover to the track listing. He wants his music presented in a certain way and in a certain order. His three-LP set Decade is a great example of this. Covering the first ten years of his career, it has a little of everything: acoustic folk, twangy country, hard-driving guitar jams, and even a couple of piano ballads. But what sets it apart is the presentation: it mixes his popular tunes with deep cuts and outtakes, showing growth as an artist and giving the idea that all of his albums are great. Hell, even the outtakes sound great in this context! It’s the gold standard of compilation records, a set exceeding the sum of its parts.
Likewise, a finished album represents the end result of an artistic inspiration.. Generally speaking, there’s a flow to things, a reason why one song follows another: it could be a story they’re trying to tell or simply a change of pace. Sometimes it’s as simple as quality control: Bob James put “Nautilus” on the part of the record with the thinnest grooves because he didn’t think it was very good and wanted to save fidelity for the songs he liked.
The same logic applies to the outtakes from a record. A song gets re-recorded or gets dropped because it doesn’t fit into their idea of the record. These outtakes don’t represent the artist’s vision for that album. And as much as a fan might want to hear them, the artist is under no obligation to release them. It’s a tricky situation since the artist didn’t want these songs to see release. Bob Dylan has allegedly spiked versions of the Bootleg Series he didn’t like; Neil Young has a firm grip over his archives.
The big question isn’t if officially un-released music can sell – it will and has for decades – but where it falls in the artist/label divide: if Bob Dylan didn’t think a song was good enough to get released, does his label have the right to overrule him? Does he still have the right to keep that song under his copyright, even if he doesn’t intend on ever releasing it? And if so, does it go against the spirit of things for him to release these songs in a way that ensures a minimum of people will ever get to hear them – and in a way, all but ensuring it’ll be bootlegged?
Music’s a tricky thing sometimes. It’s art, but it’s also a business. If someone can make money off their music, who are we to tell them they can’t? But if they’re okay with people trading their music, I don’t see any reason why I should be opposed.
Some artists are lenient with their fans: The Grateful Dead, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Warren Zevon, and hundreds of other musicians have thousands of their concerts on the Internet Archive. Phish includes a free mp3 download with every concert ticket, a digital souvenir of your show and it’d be silly to think those downloads don’t ever get traded with other fans. Then again, Frank Zappa re-released two sets of bootleg records himself, figuring he could beat the bootleggers at their own game. It’s not like they could sue him.
And Bob Dylan? Just about every time a blog posts a bootleg of his, it’s quickly followed by a takedown request. Some things never change: you can listen to his outtakes, but be prepared to shell out for the privilege.
More writing from M. Milner here.