Music History

Want to Know What It’s Like to Be a Concert Bootlegger?

There was a time not that long ago that mobile phones were banned from concerts. You may remember seeing signs at the venue doors saying that such devices were prohibited because record labels, promoters, managers and bands knew that we’d use them to make illicit recordings of the gig.

That ban didn’t last very long, of course, because there was no way security could stop all of us from bringing our phones in. (Less than two years ago, though, I was almost tossed out of a show when my briefcase was found to contain an iPad. Even though I was at the show to host an event in a private box–hence the reason for me bringing my briefcase in the first place–I was almost denied entry. Weird.)

The reasons for these suspicions go back more than a hundred years when a resourceful employee if the Metropolitan Opera in New York made clandestine recordings from a hidden spot in the rafters using an Edison Talking Machine. He captured performances similar to this.

Later, in the 30s, 40s and 50s, jazz aficionados opening recorded gigs at clubs, something that was tolerated–nay, encouraged–because everyone associated with the scene knew that this was the only way this music was going to be documented.

By the time we got to the late 60s, Grateful Dead fans were trading tapes with the full consent of the band, creating a real-world version of file trading. Meanwhile, resourceful types were sneaking recording gear into gigs to make secret (and illegal) recordings either for themselves or for fun and profit.

Narratively takes a look at this last example of the breed.

“At least my apartment now has an elevator,” Scott Bernstein puffs as he hoists a suitcase containing roughly $10,000 worth of audio recording equipment up the subway stairs at Bedford Avenue. “This was way worse when I had a fifth floor walkup.”

Bernstein rolls his luggage into Brooklyn Bowl, the massive music venue in Williamsburg, an hour before the first set of the night. Tuesday is show four of Bowlive, an eight-night residency by three-piece funky favorite Soulive, who invite a slew of special guests to jam with them over the sound of pins toppling a few feet away.

Coworkers at The New York Times, where the forty-two-year-old Bernstein spends weekdays in content management system development, often see his bulky baggage and mistakenly assume he’s heading out of town on concert days. He shrugs. “Then some people want to know more about it, and I’ll tell them if they’re interested.”

“It” is Bernstein’s obsession with taping live music, a hobby he describes like a religion. Bernstein ventured into taping (“every taper remembers their first show!”) in February of 1988 at a Sting concert in Madison Square Garden with a small cassette recorder. Fast forward twenty-five years: he has a tape collection in the thousands, has transitioned from cassettes to DATs (digital audio tapes) to digital files, and is one of the most prolific, well-connected tapers in New York City.

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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.

Alan Cross has 38156 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

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