Das bootleg 

When I was a kid, rock ’n’ roll bootlegs quelled a kind of obsession. The boots created another avenue for study of my heroes. They gave me the sheer joy of discovery that the stars of my pantheon were fallible — raw, even. Bootlegs gave me hope then. It was like reading an early draft of a favorite author. My childhood icons proved to be human.

The Ramones’ Live at the Roxy was the first boot I ever owned. It was a gnarly cassette recording taken straight from the mixing board during the band’s U.S. tour in support of its first album, Ramones. The record had magic; the hand-scrawled Ramones logo cover was a lovely one-of-a-kind gem, and the fact that the thing was illegal gave it certain necessity. More importantly, the live recording — complete with crowd coos and intermittent banter — showed me the inside of a rock ’n’ roll club when I was still years too young to even sneak into one.

I could never have spent dishwashing earnings better than on outtakes from Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks and the Beatles’ White Album or the Pistols’ Live at Winterland and so on.

At school I got beaten up on the playground for obsessing over music. The bootlegs abetted my escape and my sanity. Boots were a boon of insight into those who had already bestowed upon me the need to attach myself to a world greater than my own.

Bootlegs are, for the most part, strictly geek culture. Your average music-listening Joe is too busy downloading free shit off the Internet to care about authenticity. And your average record buyer couldn’t give two shits about bootlegs.

Still, it’s one thing to seek out and purchase bootlegs when you know that what you’re getting is a bootleg. It’s another to get cheated on a record passing itself off as the real thing.

Nobody seems to care about songwriter’s royalties except the Recording Industry Association of America. The much-maligned RIAA is the trade group charged with protecting intellectual property rights worldwide and “the First Amendment rights of artists.”

Not to sound like grumpy grandpa Lou Reed, but artists should be paid for their work. Any moron can see that bootlegs are the bane of songwriter-publisher royalty checks.

A songwriter’s major source of income is the mechanical royalties from sales (CD, tape, record, whatever). Royalties are also generated from songs getting airtime on TV, film and radio, or performed in concert or broadcast in a foreign country, and from the sale of sheet music.

Here’s how bootlegs (and free downloaded music) hurt the songwriter: Currently, the U.S. mechanical royalty rate is a little over 7 cents per song, which means a single that sells a million copies would be worth about $70,000 — $75,000 in combined royalties. If 10 songs were included on a CD and each received a 7.5-cent royalty, a total of 75 cents in mechanical royalties would be generated from the sale of each album. If the album goes platinum (1 million copies), the album’s combined writer and publisher royalties would be roughly $750,000.

A songwriter doesn’t have to be a pop kid in a sea of lawyerly froth to see he’s getting sodomized — managers, labels, lawyers and band members who don’t write songs all get their share too. Even if you luck out and score a platinum record, once the expenses and fees are paid, it doesn’t really mean jack shit in economic terms.

If a band such as the Get Up Kids generates a healthy buzz worthy of a career but for whatever reason only manages to sell, say, 150,000 copies over five years, then what? Once the band’s shelf life is up, the songwriters head back to their day jobs with dashed hopes. The guys writing the songs have got to shift shitloads of records to carve a niche large enough to sustain them in their autumn years.

As Harry Crews once said, “Make no mistake about it, by the time an artist masters any art form, it is almost too late to do anything else.”

When a recent story I wrote about the Rockets was pimped out on local radio, the DJ said specifically that Rockets CDs are available at Memories and Melodies record store on Gratiot. That sounded funny. Funny ’cause I know for a fact that only one Rockets CD is in print at the moment (Love Transfusion, on Euro import imprint Line records).

A friend of mine heard the DJ plug the discs and went immediately to said store. He purchased a Rockets CD thinking it was the real deal. When he got home and opened the package, he realized he’d been duped for $17. The Rockets disc was a CD-R recorded from a vinyl copy, and packaged — with cover art and all — to resemble a legitimate CD release.

I went to Memories and Melodies and found all the Rockets records on CD, neatly placed in the “R” bin, alongside the Rolling Stones and Henry Rollins, to resemble actual reissues. The store had the Rockets CD-Rs retailing for $15.99. A manager on duty fretfully conceded that the Rockets CDs were bootlegs, “Yeah, they [Rockets CDs] come and go,” he said. “We carry ’em ’cause they are currently unavailable.”

But the discs can’t just come and go because they are not used. Each disc in question carries a new list price of $15.99, and none (except for the one legit release) show the Universal Product Codebar of a legal, over-the-counter CD. When I asked to speak with the store owner I was told that he’s “out until Tuesday.”

When President Clinton signed of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) in 1994, a federal anti-bootleg statute was created. Until then, all we really had were the state anti-boot statutes and the RIAA’s anti-piracy unit to protect artists’ rights against bootleggers. Boots are now subject to seizure. Maximum penalties for violating the law are up to 10 years in jail and/or a fine of $250,000. Federal law mandates the actual name and address of the manufacturer of a recording be displayed on the packaging. All recordings are covered under this statute.

For me, there’s ambivalence here. On one hand, bootlegs are necessary. I mean, how else can one find something like the Rockets which is out of print and hasn’t been reissued on CD or vinyl? But as somebody who has survived on nothing but songwriter’s royalties for a few years, I have empathy for anyone who gets robbed of royalties.

Nothing wrong with making tapes or burning CDs and shooting them out to your friends. Shit, who can afford to pay list price for a new record these days? Still, to offer up a CD as a legit release, and charge full price, is dubious at best.

Brian Smith is Metro Times’ music editor. E-mail him at bsmith@metrotimes.com

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