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Bootleg: The Rock & Roll Liberation Front?

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Considering what these albums cost to produce, the new capitalists are doing pretty good for themselves.

Talking with salesmen at record pressing plants in Los Angeles — where there are more than 50, probably more than anywhere else — a clear picture is formed. In a run of anything over, say, 3500 records, cost per record shouldn't top 35 cents, and that could include blank labels and record sleeves, if the "capitalist" is charming and persuasive enough. The price they get for their albums also depends on how charming and persuasive they are.

"It's a bargaining thing," said Emanuel Aron of Aron Records in L.A. "I'm dealing with five or six different people now, and they ask whatever they think they can get. It's always a cash and carry thing anyway. They don't leave a phone number. If I ask them what if I run out, they say they'll be stopping by occasionally, they'll keep me supplied, not to worry. The hell of it is, some of them are juggling tapes; they're taking the same tapes and mixing them up, including some songs on one album, some of the same but some different on others, and selling them as different LP's. They are different, of course, but only slightly. The odd thing is, it doesn't seem to matter. They all sell. I've sold hundreds of everything I can get."

Making bootlegging even more attractive is the anonymity that seems to accompany it. (So long as you don't make any enemies, as Beckman and Goldman apparently did.) It is, for example, extremely difficult to trace product back to a pressing plant. Many believe the catalog or matrix numbers etched into the wax near the center of the record tell an educated observer which pressing plant was involved, but this isn't true. The numbers normally are used only for internal record-keeping and besides that, on most of the bootleg records issued thus far, there are no identification numbers present at all.

Nor is it difficult for a bootlegger to find someone who will press his records for him. Competition is stiff in most cities, and it often seems merely to be a matter of working one's way through the yellow pages under Phonograph Records — Whlse & Mfrs to find a promising pressing plant.

Besides that, the laws which supposedly protect an artist from this fate are archaic. According to Brian Rohan, a San Francisco attorney who handles several rock groups, the worst that can happen is that the bootleggers, and record stores, will be enjoined by the courts from continuing their trade. If they refuse to cease and desist, they can be held for contempt of court. The plaintiff can also sue, as Columbia has done, for the amount of money they think they lost. This figure, Rohan said, is usually "just picked out of the air," since the companies can't really set a precise figure. And to sue each record store for their sales would only amount to a couple hundred dollars per store, which probably wouldn't cover court costs. To prevent any store from bootlegging at all, each store has to be enjoined separately.

"It's like trying to stamp out a bunch of ants," Rohan stated. "It's worth more to the companies and artists in publicity and glamour than they could get back in money. Anyhow, it's not widespread enough to make a dent."

Hence, Columbia's, and now London's, problems in stopping the bootleggers. Columbia spokesmen take the position that bootlegging doesn't hurt the company at all in terms of sales (which seems to be true, at least at Leopold's), but does hurt the performers and composers because they lose out on royalties. Also because they have a right to determine what material is fit for release. It's all a matter of the audience's respect for the artist, they say. London, the Stones' label, won't even say that much, referring all inquiries to Klein and Abkco, who likewise refuse comment.

Several record store managers, however, say that they've been told by Columbia sales representatives that sales are hurt by the bootleg albums. And in light of Rohan's statement, it becomes more than just a question of the audience's respect for the artist, but also a question of to what lengths the record companies are willing to go to protect their artists. It seems fairly obvious that outside of Dylan, the Stones, and the Beatles, this type of bootlegging would be unprofitable, due to lower demand for the product.

In Los Angeles at the moment, things are "hot," and most pressing plants are asking callers to come in for a chat and then checking tapes and credentials if it seems there is anything dodgy about one's motivation and "company." Many bootleggers are, as a result, turning to the East Coast, where they are finding companies perhaps less profitable, but certainly less inquisitive. Some say this is the beginning of the end — that New York and New Jersey have always been headquarters for the counterfeit-Mafia-bootleg business, and that the kids are being sucked into it. Others say this is bullshit.

The fact that the records themselves may be defective may take the record companies off the hook, for if it costs too much to get a durable product, bootlegging of even the big three groups may be unprofitable. No one would be in on it then except the burn artists, and record-buyers would get hip to them pretty quick. That would solve everything. Meanwhile, record stores on the West Coast have been promised Dylan's Isle of Wight performance around mid-January, some unreleased Beatles material shortly thereafter . . . and that, bootleggers say, is just the beginning.

This is a story from the February 7, 1970 issue of Rolling Stone.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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