Friday, December 21, 2012

Calling Off the Bootleg Hunt

Why Wolfgang's Vault is an Affront to Collectors

It seems that every day I get an email from Wolfgang’s Vault advertising classic live concert recordings that have newly been made available for streaming on their site.  They inform me of newly offered recordings by classic rockers like the Kinks, Bruce Springsteen, and Traffic, adding that they threw in some old jazz, and uploaded shows by a couple of artists who have recently died. It would be easy to refer to these emails as spam, but the volume of material that keeps coming out is impressive. The Vault, which focuses mostly on music of the sixties and seventies and also sells collectibles from these shows and artists, is a treasure trove, one-stop shopping  for nostalgic baby boomers.

Established in 2003 when businessman Bill Sagan bought the archives of the late, legendary impresario  Bill Graham, Wolfgang’s Vault (named for Graham’s childhood nickname when he was growing up in Germany) began as a site for selling the rock memorabilia obtained in the purchase. Finding that much of what was in the vaults were privately made concert recordings, the site began allowing the free streaming of old concerts, making some available for paid download. As recordings became more and more the focal point of the website, Sagan and his organization obtained more collections (such as the tapes from the King Biscuit Flower Hour, the legendary radio concert series), making more and more high quality recordings available.

Years before, most of these recordings have been sold as bootleg albums and CDs and have also circulated freely in trading circles. However, distancing themselves from the “bootleg” stigma, Wolfgang’s Vault has projected an image of respectability. A 2005 article in the Wall Street Journal, portrayed Sagan as equal parts businessman and fanatic, meticulously combing through the catalog of live recordings, obtaining permissions and creating revenue-sharing deals. However, the site and his efforts have not been free of controversy, and he was sued in 2006 by a number of the bands whose material he was streaming on the site.

I have not been able to find details about the subsequent settlements, but I can only speculate that Wolfgang’s Vault ultimately offered more favorable terms to the copyright owners on the songs who ultimately found it best to join Sagan rather than fight him. And who can blame them? In a time when record company earnings had plummeted due to peer-to-peer file sharing, it makes perfect sense to open up new revenue streams based on “previously unavailable” material.

As a music fan who is quite simpatico with the boomers in terms of musical taste, one might think that I would be enthralled every time I receive one of these missives from Wolfgang’s Vault. In fact, I’m just annoyed (and not just because it fills up my inbox).

This is not so say that many of the recordings they have aren’t great. They are. In fact, many recordings featured on that website have been in my collection for years, and they definitely are worth listening to. That’s the thing though: Why should I get excited about the ability to listen in shoddy quality streaming audio to recordings that I already have in better sounding formats?

I am aware that a lot of these are new to more casual music listeners who haven’t spent years hunting down bootleg recordings. I also admit that I probably sound like a jerk for even the vaguest insinuation that only an elite set of hardcore geeks should have access to them, or that the poor sound quality on the website would never be acceptable to people who truly care about music.

I don’t mean to say these things. On the other hand, I don’t mean not to say them either. I don’t mean to sound elitist, and I acknowledge that this sort of pretentiousness is hard to swallow particularly when coming from someone who sits alone in darkened rooms listening to records, but given the amount of time and money that I and so many other have spent obtaining these recordings throughout the years, can you blame me for feeling, at the very least, a little bit ambivalent about these recordings these being made a little too easily available?

My first boot. A cheap cassette dub of this CD.
I remember buying my first bootleg when I was 17. On an early summer day in Northampton, Massachusetts, I stumbled across a guy selling cassettes out of the back of his car. Not elegantly packaged, there was no cover art except for a handwritten cassette insert (actually, a xeroxed copy) with the most basic information about the recording (who, where, when) and a track listing. Little attention was paid to quality. They were dubbed onto normal bias Maxell UR 90s (as opposed to the high bias XLII-S cassettes that I used myself and were held in high esteem in bootleg trading circles), but they were documents that I would not be able to get a regular record store.

The tape I bought that day was a concert by The Who from Amsterdam in 1969 featuring a (more or less) complete performance of Tommy. I had never heard this before (a complete live performance of Tommy by the original band was not made officially available until the Live at the Isle of Wight album was released a couple of years later.) It was imperfect, to say the least. The sound quality, while a soundboard recording, was not that of an official release, but for the first time, I realized that I was not limited to official releases to satisfy my obsessive collecting urges. Moreover, I liked the idea that these were complete shows, not recordings culled from several dates, then edited and overdubbed in the studio to ensure that the product was consistent with the image and sound that the band wanted to put across. These were what the band sounded like onstage at that time, on that night, warts and all. At the same time, part of the appeal of bootleg collecting was finding something that was rarified, something not available through normal channels.

In college, I bought my first bootleg CD, Tales from the Who, a less than complete but otherwise excellent document of The Who’s concert in Philadelphia on their 1973 Quadrophenia tour. Going to school in Boston, I found several places where I could get my fixes, mostly in places around Harvard Square: Mystery Train, Second Coming Records. Sometimes pickings were slim. At Mystery Train, they just had a little box at the counter in which they kept the bootlegs, and they weren’t cheap either. Still, I made some nice acquisitions during my undergraduate years.

After moving to New York, I used to cruise through shops in the Village like Subterranean, Generation Records, Rockit Scientist Records, and Bleecker Street Records, looking through their bins for a bunch of little holy grails: The complete Beach Boys’ Smile Sessions, rough session tapes of the Traveling Wilburys, outtakes and live material from the short-lived supergroup, Blind Faith. I got used to getting home and finding out that I paid $25 for a stinker, but separating the wheat from the chaff was part of it. It was all about finding the rare gem. I also got used to occasionally seeing the stores almost completely emptied of stock after being raided by the Feds.

I will not lie and try to say that bragging rights were not at least a small part of the joy of acquisition, however, I will defend myself in saying that I never hoarded. I was always willing and eager to make copies for friends, particularly after I got my first CD burner. In fact, turning people onto to recordings that they would otherwise never hear was as much fun for me as was hearing them myself, almost.
Another thing that happened when I got my first burner was that I began trading.

When I started trading, it was still mostly being done by mail, but with contacts being made online. At first I had my list of recordings (along with ratings of quality, and my personal rules of trading) which I would send to prospects via email. Eventually, I had my list hosted online and found that I was being approached by traders who had found items on my list that they coveted.

I found that every trader had different rules, with some being more stringent than others.  Many rules were technical, such as what kind of discs to use (I had a problem with Memorex discs at that time), what kind of mailers to use (fiber cushioned mailers were generally frowned upon since they would explode with lint and dust when opened), and ensuring that files were “lossless” (meaning having ever been encoded to MP3 or any other source that resulted in signal loss after being decompressed).  Mainly, though, at the core of it was being honest with one another and supportive of the artists, being sure not to do any trading of officially released material. Furthermore, we always supported the artists by purchasing their official releases and going to their concerts. When I started trading, it was nice to no longer be dependent on bootleggers for my live music fixes, and to know that I was no longer putting money into the wrong people’s pockets. I would occasionally still buy bootlegs, but was comforted in the knowledge that I was taking the hit for my fellow traders, and I would be able to provide the material to other real fans free of charge. In trading lingo, this would be referred to as a “liberated bootleg.” Perhaps it was an “honor amongst thieves” mentality, but we argued that what we were doing was not unethical (Illegal is a whole other thing) and that we engaged in trading because we were true fans.

Memorex discs did not work with my players.
They would usually end up being used as coasters
Trading was almost as much fun as cruising through dusty record store in the Village or Harvard Square. True, there was less effort put into the search, and looking through someone’s list online provided a less tactile type of thrill, but I was blown away by the sheer amount of material that was available. The thrill of getting a padded envelope filled with 6, 8, or sometimes even 12 discs (almost invariably even numbers , as the CD sleeves were double sided) almost made up for the decrease of the joy of the search. I would spend the next week or so listening through to all of the discs, checking them for glitches, rating the performances, and yes, actually enjoying them. I would create artwork for the jewelcases (spending extra time to make particularly elegant packages for exceptional recordings that I knew I would give to friends), put them on the shelf, and move on, revisiting favorites from time to time.

When I got a high-speed internet connection, I found a number of torrent sites (sites which use Bittorrent software to make downloading faster by having a group of hosts upload and download from one another simultaneously)  from which I could obtain lossless. Most of these sites arose out of the old snail-mail trading communities.

The wealth of material available was staggering, and the ease of downloading made me grab things that I would not have otherwise searched out. In fact, it was not long before I found that I was searching less and less for things. I found myself getting to a place where I would see what was newly uploaded and would grab whatever seemed relatively interesting. I became quickly overwhelmed. It was not long before I found myself compulsively downloading things and not listening to them. The idea of wading through my download folder was too exhausting, with the constant additions making it even more daunting a task.

Still, many of the recordings were still of great quality. Often times a show would be posted on a site, only to have other collectors posting their versions of the same concert but from different recording sources, allowing the best version to emerge at the top. Often a better quality recording would emerge of a show that I had obtained year prior and allow me to listen to it with a fresh set of ears. It was enough to get me back to chipping away at the download folder now and again.

That’s the way it’s gone for the last few years. I do feel like I’ve slacked off a bit. When I think back to a decade ago, I am amazed at the amount of work I used to put into finding and hearing music, combing Greenwich Village record stores that carried bootleg vinyl and CDs, usually paying around 25 dollars for a single disc. Even when I did more trading than buying, it was a time consuming process involving sending CDR copies of recordings by mail, fostering relationships with traders, keeping databases of what I had sent out and what I expected back, how long it took for someone to get back to me, who were good traders and who ended up fucking me in the end. Of course, this was my early twenties. This was still at a time when I was known to camp out on the street for concert tickets. I was young. I had time and money (I am not sure why I don’t seem to have either of those anymore). I was as committed a fan as any an artist could hope for.
I still collect. The only bootlegs I actually buy tend to be old vinyl discs of particular historical value.  But even when downloading them, I try not to let them merely languish on a hard drive like many people I know. I still burn them to CD, and though at some point along the way, I did cease to making jewel case art, I continue to make ornate labels printed on the discs to give to friends. Of course, I do this in spite of the fact that I know that when I give these away, the recipients are generally ripping the discs to iTunes and then burying them at the bottom of a drawer or simply throwing them away. Still, it’s a way for me to keeping up some level of effort and engagement while trying to keep it somewhat tactile.

I suppose the existence of something like Wolfgang’s Vault shouldn’t bother me. After all, with the torrent sites, it is almost just as easy to get lossless recordings of shows as it is to stream them on the Vault. Perhaps that’s the problem, that the days of the hunt are largely gone. As someone who used to search for these recordings, sometimes overpay for them, and sometimes cajole hoarding traders for them when they would rather sit on them, I cannot help but feel that they have been devalued. And this is admittedly a difficult feat, considering that many of them have been free for years. However, with a website that provides one-stop shopping, taking away all the work, and instantly delivers sonically inferior versions of these recordings, it not hard to see how the value has gone below merely “free” and is now merely “common.”

I understand that the same can, and will be said about recorded music in general. I am one of those people who have long argued that the shift from records, tapes, and CDs to digital downloads and ultimately streaming audio has had a hugely detrimental effect on music fandom and engagement. Legitimate releases have similarly suffered from that shift to intangible formats of decreased quality, which I believe has led, to a great extent, to less deep engagement with individual works being replaced by more superficial listening to a myriad of recordings (I am not arguing that the in depth listening experience has disappeared, particularly not within the group of people who identify themselves as rabid music fans, but I do assert that that kind of listening experience is not as much the norm as it was when tangible music formats dominated). Sites like Spotify allow listeners to stream official releases with the same ease as one can listen to boots on Wolfgang’s Vault.

The reason that Wolfgang’s Vault bothers me more than sites like Spotify, though, is that in the past the people that collected bootleg recordings were like a little club, a community of enthusiastic music fans. Sure, most of the people in the club were geeky, socially awkward fetishists, but we were also informed and engaged. We were constantly exploring, hunting for that holy grail, that unobtainable gem. We were unified by a view that what we got out of music was related to what we put into it. By streaming them, they take quality away from the recordings, but more, they take away half the fun, the joy of the search, the excitement of finding something rare.

Sure, we are still out there, still trying to find the best version of a given show, still trying to find the show that is still lurking in a private collection or warehouse, but for me there is a hint of bitterness that the most casual fan can stream that Who show from Philly in ’73 that I found in a little box in a dank little basement store on Newbury Street. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that music should be exclusive, but I still feel like someone kicked the clubhouse door open and started flooding the place with people who didn’t pay their dues.

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