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The Rise of Bootlegged Content

Neatorama is proud to bring you a guest post from Ernie Smith, the editor of Tedium, a twice-weekly newsletter that hunts for the end of the long tail. In another life, he ran ShortFormBlog.

Bootlegged movies and music are fairly common online these days, but it was a guy who worked at an opera who got things going.

Last year, a director named Joseph Kahn released the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers film that nobody was asking for—but despite that low ceiling, he more than topped it. The 14-minute short film starred people who have actually been cast in real movies and TV shows (James Van Der Beek and Katee Sackhoff), and took the franchise in a dark, gritty new direction that definitely has nothing in common with the Saved By the Bell-in-costume motif that the franchise was known for in the U.S. Kahn, who is mostly known as a music-video director (albeit perhaps the best-known one of the past decade) reached a new level of quality for an unlicensed product. And Saban, which owns the franchise, was pissed, requiring YouTube to take it down. (It’s back up now.) So, what makes bootleg media so appealing? Let’s analyze.  

Meet the first music bootlegger

DJ Spooky once called Lionel Mapleson ”one of America’s first bootleggers" of music, but that’s something of a misnomer.

First off, Mapleson was riffing tracks from his employer, the New York Metropolitan Opera, in an official role as the opera’s librarian. (It’d be like Suge Knight stealing from Dr. Dre. … which, let’s admit it, probably happened.) Second, he technically wasn’t doing anything illegal at the time—because at the time, copyright law didn’t cover recordings at all.

And while it eventually did, Mapleson quit while he was ahead—stopping his recording efforts around 1904. The Copyright Act of 1909 came around five years later.

Mapleson was putting music to wax in the most literal way possible: He was making wax cylinders of portions of operas, using a machine handmade by Italian audiophile Gianni Bettini. His recordings came at a time when audio recordings were a brand new phenomenon. The rules hadn’t been written yet.

But they were about to be—because player pianos were making the whole sound-can’t-be-copyrighted thing a problem. When the Supreme Court decided in the 1908 case White-Smith Music Publishing Co. v. Apollo Co. that mechanical reproductions of sound recordings—both those by folks like Mapleson and player-piano recordings—couldn’t be copyrighted, it directly led to the Copyright Act of 1909, which created the chain of events we know today.

Thanks to player pianos, we have bootlegs.

The Grateful Dead

There have been approximatly 2,200 Grateful Dead shows that have been recorded in some way, shape, or form. (The band played around 2,350 shows in total.) The Dead’s efforts to allow fans to record whatever the band did—and share it, so long as there’s no commercial gain—have become something of legend. The Internet Archive has so many Dead recordings that they take up an entire section of that website.

Five notable moments in bootlegging history

If the first example of bootlegged music sounds crazy, what does that make the possibility that Shakespeare’s own sonnets were published in a bootleg format? The 2009 book So Long as Men Can Breathe: The Untold Story of Shakespeare’s Sonnets suggests that one of Shakespeare’s greatest works was never actually meant to see the light of day.

The 1950 film musical Annie Get Your Gun was famous for its troubled production—including the departure of its main star, Judy Garland, who was fired about a month into filming and replaced with Betty Hutton. However, she had already recorded an album’s worth of songs. Those songs showed up in a series of bootleg releases, the first of which appeared in the 1960s.

In the late 1960s, a bootleg “record label” sprang up around the Los Angeles area, and the records they were throwing out were pretty crazy. The label, Trade Mark of Quality, first made its mark with what’s widely believed to be the first widely bootlegged recording, Bob Dylan’s Great White Wonder. The release became so well-known that Dylan had to release his own version, 1975′s The Basement Tapes.

Album leaks are pretty common in the digital age, but the first album leak of this nature is surprising simply because of how early in the game it was. The 1993 Depeche Mode album Songs of Faith and Devotion showed up online somehow, despite the leak literally predating the MP3 format—and also ensuring the file sizes were likely massive.

In 1994, a Famicom game that was likely produced in Asia called Somari took the two most popular video game mascots of the era—Mario and Sonic—and combined their key elements into a single game. In other words, it’s a Sonic game starring Mario.

That time Brian Wilson rapped for his therapist

Most people familiar with Brian Wilson’s descent into mental illness and drug addiction got their basic details from the classic 1991 Barenaked Ladies song “Brian Wilson.”

BNL’s early hit, which is arguably as classic as many Beach Boys hits, was a catchy number that offers a knowing but appreciative look at a man who inspired some of the best, most ambitious pop music ever put to tape—but by 1992 had become shorthand for mental illness. But the tune only really scratches the surface of the tale.

To give you an idea of how bad things had gotten, you have to get your hands on a copy of Sweet Insanity, the recording Wilson made with Eugene Landy. Now, Landy was his therapist, but like a Marvin Gaye song that was lifted by Robin Thicke, the lines were blurred, and eventually Landy became his business manager, started producing his records, and even held control over a Wilson autobiography that was largely plagiarized from other biographies.

Landy got so close to his primary patient that he was eventually stripped of his medical license and was slapped with a restraining order.

Anyway, back to Sweet Insanity. This album was rejected by Wilson’s label, Sire Records, in 1990. Part of the reason for that might be the tune “Smart Girls,” in which Brian Wilson raps.

When we say Brian Wilson raps, we don’t mean like Ed Robertson of the Barenaked Ladies dropped goofy rhymes in “One Week.” We mean he raps like you would imagine a guy 49-year-old man might if his life was being controlled by a sketchy therapist. It samples some Beach Boy songs, poorly, and includes unfortunate/sexist lyrics like this:

All the songs I used to write
Talked about girls who weren’t too bright
Round round get around I got around
What I was lookin’ for I never found
As time goes on I’ve seen the light
Intelligent chicks are dynamite

It had interesting collaborators, including Bob Dylan and Weird Al Yankovic, but it’s likely that the rejection was the right decision—because those songs were rough, too.

The album was, of course, later bootlegged, and Wilson has gone on to create much better albums since. But it’s evidence that perhaps some bootlegs are meant to stay forgotten.

If you can't beat 'em, join 'em

Apologies to Deadheads, but there’s a band that’s even better at winning the bootleg game than Garcia and company were. Fifteen years ago, the grunge band Pearl Jam decided to release official bootlegs of all of its live shows on its most recent tour. The goal was to ensure the quality of what fans were getting—while preventing ripoffs in the process.

Over a six-month period, the band released 72 (!) separate live albums, one for every shop on the tour. At the time, Pearl Jam’s studio albums were flagging sales-wise, but the band’s ability to turn fan club efforts into commercial success was solid: Earlier that year, the band’s live recording of “Last Kiss” became the biggest hit of its career. It was a brilliant, effective strategy.

Same deal with the official bootlegs—14 of which charted on the Billboard 200 in the U.S. (Best part? They’re still doing it today.)

If you can’t beat the bootleggers, make them redundant by giving them what they want.

A version of this post by Ernie Smith originally appeared in the Tedium newsletter, which tries in vain to make dull topics slightly more interesting. You can follow along on Twitter or Facebook.

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I agree MP3 wasn't yet popular at all (but it certainly did exist) so the leak was unlikely to have been released in that format. However, it doesn't follow that: "the file sizes were likely massive." They could have been compressed with other methods, down sampled, etc, etc.
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Per an NPR piece from 2011 that featured an interview with the format's key creator, Karlheinz Brandenburg, the codec's format was well in production in 1993, but the format was not common by that point. On top of this, Brandenburg himself specifically dates the birth of the MP3 file—as in files with the ".mp3" extension—as 1995:

"We had a time in 1994 – 1995 where we really identified the Internet as a big application area for Layer III. We needed a file extension, so we have some birthday — on 14th of July in '95 — we decided in Erlangen to use the file extension "dot m-p-3" for all our software encoding or decoding: .MP3. It really has a birthday in July."

There's a degree of splitting hairs here, but when it comes down to it, that Depeche Mode album was most likely not encoded in MP3 format, and the date of its leak predates the MP3 naming convention closely associated with the format.
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The MP3 format was completed September 1990... LONG before the 1993 internet release of Depeche Mode's album. QuickTime (with audio and video compression) was first released in 1991. The proprietary predecessor codecs that later became MP2 and MP3 date back to the mid 80s. And audio compression was around even earlier, with phone companies wanting to squeeze more calls in.
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