Words / Richard Brophy
Bootlegs have always been a part of dance music culture, but in an age where online documentation should hypothetically render the practice impossible to pull off, some stores still sell them. RA's Richard Brophy tracks down the how and why of bootlegging in the 21st century.
A few months ago, a friend told me that Phonica Records in London was selling represses of old house and early techno records. Keen to fill some of the gaps in my record collection, I went to the shop's website, where timeless house records by Lil' Louis, K Alexi Shelby, Mike Perras and deceased Chicago producer Armando were for sale, alongside New Beat classics like Zsa Zsa La Boum's "Something Scary." Impressed by the quality of the represses and pleased to have finally tracked down the records, I made my order and eagerly awaited the package. Soon after it arrived, I blogged about the purchases—and that's when the trouble began.
A commenter on my site quickly replied that the represses were actually bootlegs, pressed from high-quality digital files and even the artwork, which to my eyes looked convincing enough to be authentic was forged. He also pointed me to a discussion on a Discogs forum that appeared to back up his claim. Wary of accepting anything discussed on the internet as the truth—in this case that a reputable shop like Phonica Records (Piccadilly Records was also selling the same products) would sell unauthorised releases—I decided to contact some of the artists involved. Lil' Louis and K Alexi Shelby didn't reply to my e-mails, but Canadian producer Mike Perras, who released the proto-deep house track "Beginning of Life" back in 1991, was quick to confirm my worst suspicions.
"I really appreciate you getting in touch," he told me. "Unfortunately, I or Bassic Records (the label that "Beginning" was originally released on and the label the "repress" is on) did not authorise that repress. However, I'm touched about people who want to keep my music alive…I will try to get in contact with these record stores and try to get a deal." Perras, who is still making music and has this year released some of his classics digitally on the Mikrobe label, says that his work has been bootlegged before. He also feels that this practice is just one way that artists are ripped off—and that it's just part of a greater tendency in electronic music not to pay artists. "Oh yeah, this is not the first time my work been bootlegged and, yes, these shops know it's a bootleg," Perras claims. "Even when 'Beginnings of Life' was licensed over the past 17 years by important labels like BBE, Defected, International Deejay Gigolos, Azuli, Outland, Accelerator and Logic just to name a few—even with a licensing agreement and promises of money advances—none of them ever paid me a penny. Sometimes they were telling me to send them an invoice and I did with hundreds of emails, I got nothing, so bootleg or not, you get fucked anyway."
"Most customers really don't care as long as they can play the record."
The dilemma facing producers like Perras, who have been bootlegged or not paid for licensing, is that the amounts of money involved aren't enough to warrant legal action. "The problem is that I have to prosecute each label in their own country, and they (the labels) know that. That means a lawyer for each country and for what, a few hundred dollars? We have to be honest too, my EP is 17 years old and I don't think they make that much money with the repress and all that," he believes. "However, I'm still positive about that situation. My name and my music is still the talk with people who know music and as long as it can benefit my new music, I'm happy!"
It's not just producers who have been off the radar for a while who are victims of bootlegging. Morgan Geist says that his Metro Area project has been targeted on a number of occasions: "'Miura' and 'Caught Up' have been bootlegged several times. Usually, it was adulterated in some way—an edit or so-called mash-up." Geist also points out that his work has been bootlegged digitally, e.g. sold as a download on a bogus website. Does he feel that digital bootlegging has become more common as vinyl becomes a less popular format? "If you consider a bootleg to be an unauthorised release of an artist's copyrighted work, you could say that MP3 blogs are in many ways the bootlegs of the digital world."
Geist also feels that there is an unspoken collusion in the industry, a willingness among shops and distributors to turn a blind eye in a bid to boost the bottom line. "All aspects of the music industry have been short-sighted and that's why we're here," he says. He claims that distributors are complicit in bootlegging—"of course: how else to they get into the stores?"—and that the culture of shafting the artist, which goes back to labels like Trax in Chicago ripping off emerging house music producers in the late '80s, has not just persisted, it's spread. "Labels used to be the main culprits in shafting artists. Now 'artists' and consumers can screw artists too," he says.
Can you spot the fake?
That's not to suggest that Phonica deliberately set out to deceive its customers or to defraud the artists in question. When contacted, the shop's manager, Simon Rigg, claimed that he was unaware that he was stocking bogus releases. "I didn't know until I saw that email from you and since then, we have removed all of the records from our shops."
It's a story that Serge Verschuur, AKA DJ Serge, who runs Dutch electro label and distribution operation Clone, has heard on many occasions and one that appears to stack up: A store is offered represses of hard-to-find releases and by the time they find out it's not legitimate, it's already on the shelves. "Most customers really don't care as long as they can play the record and I am sometimes a customer myself, who really wants to have a certain track on vinyl," he points out.
While Rigg says that most shops will stock disco edits because "there is an assumption that there is something new or original being done to the music," he says that he draws the line at bootlegging, but admits that it is still quite common. "We were approached before about some B12 represses, but they turned out to be bootlegs too, so we removed them from our shop. I don't really want to say where the bootlegs we're talking about now are coming from—but we got ours from one of the main distributors."
Rigg feels that stocking bootlegs has become more and more tempting for record stores in more recent years, especially when confronted with falling sales figures and rising overheads. "That's why you see bootlegs for sale more and more now: with sales dwindling, a lot of places are getting less and less scrupulous about what they stock," he explains. "Ten years ago, shops were shifting enough units and the only 'unofficial' records they sold were white labels." He agrees that bootlegs rip off artists, but points out that nowadays, they are sold in limited editions, a far cry from the start of the decade when Bushwacka's bootleg version of Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" shifted over 40,000 copies and, ironically, was itself bootlegged in the process. "Vinyl is so limited in volume that each release is just a few hundred copies: we got about 20 copies of the Perras and Lil' Louis records that turned out to be bootlegs."
"We buy 99% of the records without seeing them and when we see a good title on the list, we order it."
However, while the volume per release may have decreased significantly, the number of incidences of bootlegging isn't showing any signs of falling. Fuelled by an increasing demand for classic records and aided by ease of access to high-quality digital copies of old releases and to the original artwork, the rising quality and frequency of bootlegging is making it difficult for distributors and shops to spot the difference between legitimate and illegal releases.
Serge says: "It's incredible how many old records we get offered at the moment from the States and from Europe. I am not talking about edits or white labels, but proper bootlegs with the same artwork and same tracklisting as the originals. In those cases, it's very difficult to tell if it's a bootleg or not: we buy 99% of the records without seeing them and when we see a good title on the list, we order it and only find out once it arrives that it's not an official release."
Of course, sometimes, Serge believes, it's blindingly obvious that the release is bogus: "If you buy an old Warehouse release by Armando or a super-rare Detroit record that was never available and now pops up for a regular import price, you know it's a bootleg," he says. "Sometimes we just ask, but often you know that it's impossible to repress a certain release with original artwork or that it's not possible to license a certain track or repress a record—several times, we've been offered a bootleg of a classic release when we had just licensed it for our Clone Classic Cuts label, and we had to cancel the official license because of that."
It’s a problem facing many labels that try to license older house or techno tracks. Quite often, it is difficult to contact an artist who has not been in the public domain for some time or a now-defunct label who may hold the copyright to a track. These difficulties are often cited as an argument in favour of bootlegging instead of legitimate represses. Unfortunately, it is the producers who are the hardest to track down who are also the neediest.
"Sometimes it's impossible to find the original owners of the work, but that really sucks for the artists who might be needing that cash very badly," says Serge. "Many of those old cats are having a difficult time...I know a couple who are homeless at the moment."
The practice also affects DJs and producers who still earn a living from music. Apart from Morgan Geist, bootlegs of releases by Larry Heard, Juan Atkins, Marshall Jefferson and Carl Craig have been in circulation recently. "These people still work hard to make a living with music and can be reached by a simple e-mail to request a license. If it's an exact copy of the original with exactly the same artwork and tracklisting as the original release it's just ripping off the original label and artist and is the same deal with illegal downloads and file sharing: you are stealing someone's work," Serge says. "You could say why bother about 500 bootleg records when people download everything for free. But of course the basic idea is that it's not good because the artists need to get what they deserve, their share of the royalties! There is no discussion about that," he says.
So, given the low volumes involved and the difficulties some labels face when trying to legitimately re-release older material, is bootlegging always a morally reprehensible act—or are there occasions when it is excusable or could even be viewed in a positive light? Simon Rigg shares the same view as Mike Perras, that in some instances, bootlegging can actually be beneficial, by bringing a long-forgotten artist’s work back into the spotlight. "I suppose it is good publicity. It can bring a forgotten producer back into the spotlight and if a new edit of a really obscure '70s disco record is released, it means that DJs only have to pay six or seven quid instead of the 100 quid they might be charged for the original on eBay," he says.
Unfortunately, not everyone is as concerned about artists getting their dues or even some recognition. When asked where Piccadilly Records in Manchester sourced the bootlegs, Philippa Jarman, one of the shop's directors, makes an oblique reference to them "arriving in a box with the other records," an indication that they were supplied by one of the distributors. Asked if she had a moral issue with stocking records released without the artists' permission, she says: "It is an awkward situation with sales falling: I can't say either way whether we should stock bootlegs—we'd have to make that decision if and when it arose," she says. Would she feel as ambiguous if the situation was reversed and she was the artist and her work was being bootlegged? "I don't know, I'd probably press it myself, but I'm not sure," Philippa says. Then she asks me whom I work for. I tell her and ask her if she can tell me her surname for the purposes of the piece I'm writing. She replies: "No, I can't. I have to go now, I'm on my lunch, bye," and hangs up.
"Unfortunately, not everyone is as concerned about artists getting their dues or even some recognition." Not everyone is as unconcerned about dealing with bootlegs. Vinyl Factory owns Phonica as well as the Portalspace pressing plant and this connection suggests that it could be feasible for the shop to get its own bootlegs pressed up, circumventing the need for a distributor. However, Keith McGregor, who runs Portalspace, explains that the company has a checking system in place to ensure that it can't press illegal releases. "I deal with many new clients on a daily basis and my first line on any quotation is 'you have to clear your catalogue number with MCPS (the UK's music royalty collection agency)'. I even give them their telephone number to ensure that we do not press any product that has not been properly licensed," he explains.
Peter Armster, who works for German distributor Word & Sound's vinyl and digital operations believes that the reputable businesses in this space operate transparently and adds that trust also plays a major role in most companies' dealings. "You have relationships with your suppliers and distributors mostly for years and of course we trust each other. You can never be 100% sure as a proper check on every release would just leave no more time for our daily work, but as we are all music lovers with a background we know about who owns the rights, especially with the big sellers," he explains.
Armster also points out that electronic music is still a small scene and therefore, word gets around quickly if a company is operating in an untoward manner. "It will get noticed and everybody running his business properly will have an opinion about your behaviour," he warns. Unfortunately, for every pressing plant that has a checking system in place and for every distributor and shop that try their best to weed out bogus releases, there are others who are simply looking to make a quick buck. With vinyl sales shrinking and digital failing to make up the shortfall, bootlegging hits the most vulnerable members of the electronic music community the hardest—the underground producers, many of whom live on frugal means anyway. The terrible irony is that most of the bootlegs on the market are satisfying demand for classic house and techno releases: it seems like 25 years after Trax Records started the practice of ripping off its artists, not much has changed.