This summer, a new category of record release has been created: the official bootleg. That’s because major artists like Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, and Frank Zappa have decided to fight back against record piracy, the illegal sale of LPs and CDs of live concerts and unreleased studio material. These three pop giants have released albums specifically intended to steal sales away from under-the-counter boots. Zappa, in particular, has a personal, visceral dislike of the rip-offs: ”They make me sick when I hear them,” he says.
For those readers who haven’t kept up with the topsy-turvy world of music piracy, here’s a brief update. While the biggest bootleggers operate in Europe, where legal loopholes allow them to package and release music almost at will, there’s still plenty of action in the U.S. Here, bootlegs are sold either through the mail, at street fairs, or under the counter at small independent record stores. The price for illegal CDs averages $25; LPs cost $15-20 a disk. (There aren’t many bootlegs on tape.) No one knows exactly how many bootlegs are sold in the U.S. each year, but nearly every major act has been pirated, the most frequent targets being Bruce Springsteen, the Rolling Stones, Dylan, Led Zeppelin, and the Grateful Dead.
While artists have complained about musical theft in the past, they’re now taking on bootleggers directly. McCartney recently put out Unplugged (The Official Bootleg), from his live performance on MTV Unplugged, to preempt sales by pirates. Much of Dylan’s The Bootleg Series Vols. 1-3, released by Columbia in March, had earlier been out on poor-sounding bootlegs. Zappa has taken the strongest action yet. He remastered eight bootlegs of his music now in circulation and released them himself. Zappa’s Beat the Boots has just come out as a eight-LP (or -cassette) boxed set or as separate CDs. Why has Zappa, in effect, ripped off the rip-off artists? ”Besides being an annoyance,” he says, ”bootlegging’s been a big cash loss for me.”
Authorized versions may cut into bootlegging profits, but they can’t kill the black market. In fact, sonic theft has recently gone to a new level: In an unprecedented development, rough versions of songs recorded for the next U2 album, not scheduled for release in the United States until the fall, are already available on bootleg LPs.