Fondly Remembering Bootleg CDs

A million years ago, I rhapsodized about the glories of bootleg CDs during one of my radio shows.  I gushed over how much I loved to hear unauthorized live recordings along with demos and alternate takes never destined to be heard by the general public.

It wasn’t that I was endorsing any kind of thievin’.  Because I already had all the authorized recordings from my favourite artists, this was the only way to get more before the next album and concert.  And I knew which independent record stores in my area would help me out with my needs.

A few days later, I received a scathing letter from the head of one of the recording industry associations. I believe the term he used when describing my “promotion of theft” was “immoral and repugnant.”  That didn’t stop me from collecting bootlegs.  I still do it today.  And I’m not talking about MP3 files; I mean real, honest-to-god CDs.

The first bootlegs were made a hundred years ago by a guy in the rafters of the Metropolitan Opera in New York.  Semi-authroized fan recordings helped spread the word on jazz in the 40s and 50s.  Rock bootlegs really took off in the late 60s and early 70s and were kept under the counters at record stores, reserved for their very best “special” special customers. Then there were bands like the Grateful Dead who actively encouraged bootlegging of their concerts.

After vinyl gave way to CDs, production took place in Germany (where copyright laws were then more, uh, lax), Italy (same thing) and the tiny principality San Marino.  Later, strict enforcement crackdowns in Europe moved the manufacture of bootlegs overseas to countries like Singapore, Malaysia and Brazil.

Some labels were better than others.  I’d always look for releases on the KTS (Kiss the Stone) label because of their superior audio quality.  If it was a live recording, chances are it was a pristine soundboard version.  If it was a collection of outtakes, alternative versions and demos, the audio was generally very good.  I have uncountable Nirvana KTS boots.

My collection also includes at least five dozen NIN boots, two dozen from Radiohead, some genuine Pearl Jam bootlegs (NOT their “official” boots) plus CDs featuring Soundgarden, Oasis, U2, Smashing Pumpkins, Blur, REM, Jane’s Addiction, Alice in Chains, Stone Temple Pilots–the list goes on and on.

You will notice, however, that every band on that list was big during the 90s.  This may mislead you into thinking that these were the only sorts of boots that I collected.  Not so.

When Napster hit in the summer of 1999, the need to search for these rare physical copies evaporated overnight.  Suddenly, all those unauthorized live tracks were just a quick search away.  The market for bootleg CDs collapsed.  Now the only thing I’m able to find are discs more than a decade old that are now being recirculated.

Today, bands and record labels have finally figured out how to monetize these tracks.  Instead of letting fans search for a dodgy bootleg, why not get them to pay major dollars for a limited-edition box set?

But hardcore collectors are still willing to hunt for the original illegal stuff.  

I’m still searching for a particular Clash boot.  Before they released their Combat Rock album in 1983, the record took shape under the title Rat Patrol From Fort Bragg.  Initially, it featured 15 songs and ran for more than an hour.  Mick Jones loved it.  Joe Strummer hated it.  So a producer was brought in to edit things down to a single album’s worth of material.  Songs were shortened or thrown out completely. 

Somewhere, though, there exists those unauthorized unedited versions of the original.  One day…



Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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