Although bootleg recordings date back more than a hundred years, they first appeared as wax cylinders, acetate recorders and magentic tape. Nothing started showing up on vinyl until 1969 when two hippies pressed up some unreleased Bob Dylan recordings and sold copies of an illegal record called Great White Wonder and started selling it out of the truck of a car. When that turned into a success, other–ahem–enterprising music fans set about manufacturing and distributing unauthorized vinyl records for the next decade or so. When CDs came along in the 80s, they became the preferred medium and the vinyl bootleg disappeared.
But guess what’s back? With the resurgence in legitimate vinyl, the old-old-school boot is back. Pitchfork reports.
At first glance, the sticker on the LP might not seem weird. “Rediscover the sound of vinyl,” it beckons, promising music pressed on a “serious 180g” disc, as if part of some coordinated reissue campaign. In some sense, it is. Keyhole Records is one of many companies finding a niche in the ongoing vinyl boom, and the label’s albums can be purchased in record stores across the United States, ready to fill collectors’ shelves with classic recordings. But Keyhole—who launched in 2012 with a Velvet Underground double LP—isn’t in the reissue business, exactly. With a legal home on the half-Greek/half-Turkish island of Cyprus, Keyhole is one of a number of new labels that deal in unofficial product only—live tapes, radio sessions, outtakes—part of a new bootleg explosion that has taken several distinctly 21st century turns, stretching from record shop bins to the iTunes Store.
While bootlegs were mostly an American sport in the ’60s and ’70s, starting with the infamous Great White Wonder LP of basement tapes by Bob Dylan and the Band, and notorious labels like Trade Mark of Quality, Rubber Dubber, and more, they mostly became purview of Europeans in the ’80s and ’90s. Overseas, a series of legal loopholes (first in the Rome Convention of 1966) put unreleased music into the public domain so long as it was recorded abroad and labels paid all the proper mechanical royalties. Tested in the German Supreme Court, the practice grew more prevalent during the CD era. Despite a series of high-profile music industry crackdowns on American record stores (and a widespread non-commercial cassette-trading network), the import business only seemed to die a natural death in the United States with the arrival of file-sharing. “Once the Internet started offering downloads, mp3s, YouTube, etc., the market kind of fell apart,” observes Joe Schwab, who opened St. Louis’s Euclid Records in 1983 and has dabbled in “imports” only sparingly.
But the legal loopholes remain and, when the market for vinyl returned, so did the bootlegs.