How Are Bootleg Labels Still a ‘Thing’ in the Digital Era?

In 1969 ‘Dub’ Taylor and Ken Douglas obtained a selection of recordings from Bob Dylan and took them to their local vinyl pressing plant in Los Angeles, California. They managed to convince the plant to press around 2,000 copies, paying in cash and using fake names to keep anonymity. The record sleeve was plain white with the phrase ‘Great White Wonder’ stamped on the front. The duo would later go on to form the famous bootleg label Trademark of Quality (TMQ), releasing numerous bootleg recordings throughout their lifetime. The actions taken by those two bootlegging pioneers in the late 1960s left a legacy that still lives on today. Bootlegging has become an accepted element of music culture and in particular electronic music. But how do these labels operate when issues of legality and morality are at play? Today there are more bootlegs being produced than ever before. In this article, DJBroadcast takes a look at some of the questions being asked of the bootleg industry today.

Aside from rock bands being recorded and distributed illegally, the bootleg became popular within dance music in the form of mash-ups and edits. Taking the vocal of one song and layering it over the instrumental of another became hugely popular in the early naughties with 2ManyDJs historical album ‘As Heard on Radio Soulwax Pt. 2’ acting as a catalyst for many other bedroom producers to attempt some ‘bastard pop’. For their seminal album, the Dewaele brothers attempted to clear all the samples for commercial release and as a result, only 114 of the 187 samples they used appeared on the final release of the record. An interesting side note is that the artists who wouldn’t allow the use of their work -the Beastie Boys, Beck, Missy Elliott and The Chemical Brothers- all refused to give clearance for one reason or another, yet most of those artists have used endless samples in their own productions. The Beastie Boys second studio album Paul’s Boutique for example was composed entirely of samples, however the relaxed copyright laws in 1989 made the release process a lot easier for the New York group.

“Don't let us catch you playing or selling this, we can be quite ghetto, and so can our friends”

The increased volume of bootlegs available on the Internet can be linked to the growth of computer software programs such as Ableton and Logic and the ease in which new music can be created. The slightly punk attitude of ‘anyone can make music’ is an obvious advantage and most boundaries to music production have been deconstructed by the ability to create music anywhere, but is there an element of laziness or a lack of creativity involved in bootleg production?

Detractors of sampling would make the same argument and there is no doubt that some recordings should ever see the light of day. A bootleg can give new life to an old track or surprise you with the strangest of combinations that somehow work. Take Erol Alkan’s mash up of New Order’s ‘Blue Monday’ and Kylie Minogue’s ‘Can’t Get You Out Of My Head’. The recording became so popular that Kylie performed it live at the Brit awards in 2002. There’s also Girl Talk’s 2010 album ‘All Day’ which consisted of over 372 samples mixing the likes of U2, Twista and Aphex Twin to popular effect. Illegal Art released the album under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial license meaning anyone could copy and redistribute the material or even remix it and shape it some more.

Not everyone gets clearance however and there are numerous labels selling bootleg tracks online without permission from the original artist. In 2011, Carl Craig responded to ‘The Climax’, his production as Paperclip People being utilised in a mash-up on a mysterious three track vinyl release by re-editing the track and posting it as a free download on his Soundcloud, inviting fans to try their hand at an edit also. We Play House Recordings had a somewhat different reaction in 2013 when a bootleg of San Soda’s infamous ‘Panorama Bar Acca Version' of FCL’s ‘It’s You’ appeared on Boomkat. A press release at the time stated “don't let us catch you playing or selling this, we can be quite ghetto, and so can our friends”.

Take a quick glance at a label like Italiano Recordings, or the subtly named Bootleg Beats label on Beaport that sell acapellas, lead lines and other parts from popular songs and you wonder how they can operate legally? With the amount of content uploaded to Beatport each day, it would be impossible for labels and artists to hunt down every edit, sample or bootleg but should online stores be taking some responsibility for this? Oddly enough, after approaching Beatport for a statement regarding Italiano Recordings, the label suddenly disappeared from the platform, so this point could very well be argued. DJBroadcast also reached to other online stores such as WhatPeoplePlay and Juno to find out how they tackled these issues but unfortunately we received no response.

"If you are adding nothing to the conversation then what’s the point?"

Numerous other labels operate on the fringes of legality such as Chopshop, Alpaca Edits, Butcher Music and Get Down Edits, all of them taking old soul, funk or disco records and giving them a new feel. There is perhaps a grey area in terms of labeling a track an ‘edit’ or a ‘bootleg’. There seems to be a more frowned upon consensus towards bootleg labels rather than the ever-popular re-edit labels when essentially aren’t they are doing the same thing? Any distribution without the permission of the original artist, label or owner is illegal after all. It doesn’t matter if you are a vinyl-only hand stamped Berlin label using rare Turkish recordings or an all-digital EDM label throwing out endless Motown remakes, you are still breaking the law – to a certain extent. Boiler Room published an excellent piece on the unwritten rules of sampling last month and the same principles can be applied here. If you are doing something new and original then go ahead, if you are adding nothing to the conversation then what’s the point?

The bootleg culture and the modern infatuation with constantly reworking and regurgitating material will always remain. People love hearing something they already know perceived in a new way (Cyril Hahn anyone?). We live in a remix culture where any piece of art can be interpreted differently by an infinite amount of people and that’s the beauty. The big labels may try and curtail it but it’s an untamable beast, important for underground culture and an outlet for creativity.