This post will probably be lost on anyone who’s not a huge music fan. FYI.
The bootleg has long been the bane of rock music. I imagine sneaking a tape recorder into a concert has probably been going on as long as portable recorders have been around.
Often the intent is to sell these surreptitious live recordings to hungry fans at record conventions (or now, online). (A different type of boot, which I am not addressing here, involves stealing tapes from a recording studio.)
The quality of these recordings is sometimes unintentionally hilarious. Like when the people nearby the recorder are talking louder than the musicians are playing.
You hear people who don’t actually know what group they’re seeing; they yell out song titles of other groups. You overhear men brag of specific acts they’ve undertaken with specific women. All this is immortalized on tape for the ages.
Boot track listings are typically quite a treat in themselves. They are rife with typos. When a bootlegger doesn’t know the title of a song he’ll simply resort to naming it what he thinks the lead singer is saying. (What the hell is a "Pumpkin Black Clash?")
Digital recorders have sweetened the bootlegging deal. The bootlegger can capture an entire show without flipping the tape over, and with superior sound quality. Meaning there’s no music lost to the eventual boot owner.
As a person who doesn’t typically buy or trade boots, nor ever recorded a show himself, but who has received a number of them over the years, I know the pitfalls and the virtues of boots.
People like myself, who are serious fans of a couple bands, would gladly shell out cash for the legitimate equivalent of these recordings, if such products existed. But, they typically don’t.
King Crimson have made an extensive backlog of concerts available through their website for a fee; Frank Zappa and Emerson, Lake & Palmer have taken boots of their shows and put them out on their own labels. They are in the minority.
I was too young to see many of my favorite bands in their heyday. I missed tour after tour of bands that I would eventually come to idolize. How do you catch up for missing a heyday?
Sure, there are live albums, but they offer select tunes from select shows. People like me enjoy complete shows, sometimes featuring those odd songs the bands never seem to play anymore. If they are even around anymore.
Groups have complained that they are denied profits from the sale of these illicit recordings (see "People like myself..." above). But the approach that most take – prohibiting recording devices from their concerts – actually helps the boot market. If you let people who want to record a show do so, they won’t be buying it from a bootlegger.
Even in that scenario, there may still be a market for boots, but with the market saturated by so many recordings (facilitated by permitting recording, as bands like the Grateful Dead have done), it will be small and struggling. With choices available to consumers, sellers would be forced to lower their prices, or may find the hassle not worthwhile for their return on investment.
Some groups also complain about their fans getting an inferior product. But it’s not the fans who are complaining. For me, getting to hear an entire concert that took place when I was probably already in bed for Kindergarten the next day is an incredible thrill.
Many boots that were initially made for vinyl and sold for ridiculous prices are now available for download on the Internet for free.
Technology may eventually make the whole boot thing moot. It’s easy for people to download things onto/off of private servers. It’s also easy to create a CD from that. And another. And another.
Further, cameras and recorders, historically banned from concerts, are now integrated right into cell phones. And no one seems to be saying “No cell phones allowed” at rock concerts.
It’s conceivable one of these devices will soon have the capacity to store a significant amount of audio and/or video information. Then the whole thing may be over.
Rock bands, do protect your interests. But also take delight in the knowledge that there are so many people keen to hear your music out there.