Artists, labels grab piece of action on previously underground recordings

When a plain white-covered vinyl record called “The Great White Wonder” started making its way through underground music circles in New York in 1969, no one had any idea it would lead to a movement that would initially plague, and eventually bolster the music industry. Known as bootlegs, these audio recordings (and later, videos) featured rare, live and unreleased studio performances released to fans and collectors without the permission or knowledge of the act or its record label.

Featuring a double-album’s worth of previously unreleased demo recordings by Bob Dylan and the Band (cut between June and October, 1967), “The Great White Wonder” was released on the Trademark of Quality label, and is generally regarded as the first widely circulated bootleg album. Had it received an official release, chances are it would have gone gold.

Now, four decades later, bootlegs have evolved into a highly profitable endeavor, with labels, publishers and artists now reaping the benefits.

“Now (artists) can participate in what is released, control the quality and see money from it,” says David Skye, consulting director of A&R for Get Back Live, a division of Shout Factory Records.

The range of artists jumping on the bandwagon is considerable: Peter Gabriel, Pearl Jam, the Who, Iggy Pop, Emerson Lake & Palmer, Tori Amos, Neil Young, Linkin Park and Todd Rundgren.

Dylan adopted the official bootleg strategy as early as 1991. Sony’s catalog division, Legacy, has released nine official Dylan bootlegs thus far and is currently developing a 40-CD “superfan” Dylan release featuring a wealth of previously bootlegged studio outtakes.

Official bootlegs provide an easy source of additional revenue to both legendary and new artists. Record companies and music publishers, who, like the artists, saw millions of dollars slip through their fingers with illegal bootlegs, are also happy to jump on board.

In addition to Shout Factory’s Get Back Live, several other major and established indies have launched authorized bootleg initiatives: Rhino Records, owned by Warner Music Group, has been releasing official bootlegs since 1991; Sony/ BMG’s Legacy division has been adding previously bootlegged content to its schedule for several years; and Universal Music Enterprises has issued a series of live recordings (mostly made up of King Biscuit Flower Hour radio broadcasts) in conjunction with the popular live music site, Wolfgang’s Vault.

From Muddy Waters’ historic three-night stand at the Fillmore West in 1966 to Sly & the Family Stone’s electrifying set at Woodstock, these recordings now boast state-of-the-art digital re-mastering, copious liner notes and easy accessibility to fans via retail stores and online download sites, such as iTunes and Amazon.

“About 80% of the population really doesn’t know how to find bootlegs,” says Skye, who has just completed successful bootleg box sets for both Todd Rundgren and ELP and is almost done with an Iggy Pop collection. “The other 20% are the hardcore fans and they know where the recordings are. It’s about the fan. They win; and so do the artists, because they finally see the financial rewards of their hard work. We focus on making the sound quality amazing.”

Many artists have issued authorized bootlegs, which are signed and sold at the merchandise table during their shows. Fans are happy to pay as much as $50 for a signed CD release in the lobby of a venue, which can cost an artist as little as $2 in hard costs. TheMusic.com website currently sells a 25 CD/27 DVD set of Who shows from its 2007 European tour, with a booklet signed by Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey. The price? A hefty $750.

And fans are buying.

“I imagine there are artists that have been around as long as I who don’t have a legacy of bootlegs,” says Rundgren, “but I can’t imagine my career without them. I’ve always had a hand in the ‘official’ collections and concerts, so I feel about the boot records pretty much the same as any other with my name on it. In the end, I think they bear testimony to the quality of the players I’ve been lucky enough to work with all these years.”

There are still thousands of bootleg recordings available for free on the Internet, which have provided much of the content for the authorized releases. “It legitimizes the release knowing the artists were involved,” says archival music consultant Steve Hammonds, a former A&R exec for Universal U.K. and Sanctuary Music. “Of course the band gets paid, which they don’t with physical and digital bootlegs on free sites. Having the artist’s backing is the key.”

The authorized bootleg movement began in 1991 when Frank Zappa launched an initiative with Rhino Records called Beat the Boots. “I’ve made 50 legitimate albums,” said Zappa in an interview given shortly before his death in 1993, “and there are over 400 bootlegs of mine out there. Now, that’s offensive. All I did was steal these recordings back that had been stolen from me; clean them up; and now I will make something off them.”

The majority of the authorized bootlegs on the market now feature content controlled by the artist. But in order for the flood gates to open, artist will need to include the labels. “Eventually that is what is going to happen,” says Skye. “We will need to compensate the labels that the artists were signed to at the time the recordings were made, if we expect the majority of these recordings to be issued.”

With more than 2,000 vinyl, CD and DVD titles available at last count, the Beatles and its members remain the most bootlegged artists in history, with 1969′s “Kum Back,” featuring “Let It Be” outtakes being the first. The success of many bootlegs have forced the legitimate release of several titles, including Paul McCartney’s “The Official Bootleg,” issued in 1991; the three double-CD set “Anthology” collection, made from previously bootlegged tracks in 1995; and “The 4 Complete Ed Sullivan Shows Starring the Beatles,” released this fall by Universal on DVD.

“Anthology 1″ sold 450,000 copies on its first day of release, the biggest single-day sales ever for an album. The three collections have sold a combined 15 million units, according to the RIAA.

Says McCartney: “I have no problem with bootlegs, although every time I say that, my lawyer says, ‘Oh yes you do.’”

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