Illegally made recordings are as old as recorded music itself. In 1901, Lionel Mapleson, the librarian at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, had a spot in the building where he secretly recorded performances without anyone’s permission.
Using a device known as a Bettini micro-recorder, he cut hundreds of wax cylinders over the years. Most sounded horrible–hey, what did you expect–but they did preserve performances that would have otherwise been lost forever. And it earned Mapleson the distinction of being the world’s first (documented) music bootlegger.
As recording technology improved, so did the quality of bootleg recordings. Most were of classical music performances and operas, but plenty of jazz aficionados got into the business, too.
A big jump was made in the 1950s when magnetic tape came into use. By the time we got to the 1960s, some enterprising rock fans began capturing gigs on their reel-to-reel machines.
Then came Bob Dylan’s Great White Wonder, a “lost” album that a couple of hippies pressed up and started selling out of the trunk of their car in 1968. That opened the floodgates for the modern bootleg industry. And it also caused many a freakout within the industry and with certain performers.
Here’s a clip from a BBC program called 24 Hours that aired in 1971.