Feds are Leaning on Bootleggers - Rolling Stone
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Feds are Leaning on Bootleggers

The thrill is gone

Led Zeppelin

Led Zeppelin, performing live onstage at the Honolulu Civic, September 1st, 1971.

Robert Knight Archive/Redferns/Getty

At press time we learned that federal marshals made four raids in six days on locations used by Rubber Dubber and seized more than 2,000 Led Zeppelin albums, 53 additional boxes of albums, 52 stampers, 25 boxes of cover slicks, and negatives used to produce album covers.

The seizures were ordered by a clerk of the Los Angeles federal district court after the federal suits described in the story below were filed in the district court. The raids were made possible after attorneys for the plaintiff record companies gave the clerk an affidavit from an anonymous tipster who knew where the alleged bootleg materials were being stored.—Ed.

Los Angeles—Recent lawsuits against record stores, bootleggers and recording companies on the part of Ode, Warner Bros. and Atlantic Records may spell the end for the already failing bootlegging industry. If the record industry has its way, bootlegging will be a felony, subject to FBI enforcement, by the end of this year.

In an unprecedented move, Ode Records recently sued Emanuel Aron of Aron’s Records in Los Angeles for selling a bootleg album of a Carole King performance. The small record store owner was sued for $1.5 million for damages and punitive payments.

Following Ode’s precedent, Warner Bros. Records and Atlantic Recording sued Rubber Dubber, Filmtronics, Third World Enterprises, Audio Educational Systems, Auditory Odyssey, Reflections and Location Recording Service Company, for a total of $1 million dollars. The record companies claim unfair competition for the sale of recordings by Neil Young, Jimi Hendrix, Van Morrison, Led Zeppelin, Jethro Tull and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.

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Emanuel Aron was unwilling to comment about his lawsuit with Ode Records other than to state that he doubts very much will come from it. Aron will no longer sell bootleg records at his store, a condition which will probably persuade Ode to drop the suit. Trade stories about this litigation scared many local record stores out of the bootleg business, which was apparently more important to Ode than trying to collect the $1.5 million from Aron.

This new tactic by record companies is having a greater effect in stifling bootleg sales than a number of other tactics which have already been tried. Steve Gabor, owner of the Music Odyssey stores in Los Angeles and San Francisco, reported, “I was specifically instructed by Columbia that if I got caught selling a single bootleg, that they would not give me one cent in promotional advertising money. I was also instructed by the Warner-Elektra-Atlantic group that if I carried a single bootleg, they wouldn’t sell me any more records. They were unwilling to put this in writing.”

Joe Smith, executive vice-president of Warner Bros. Records, admitted the truth of this statement. “We have told the branches who sell our records, the Kinney group, that should stores be selling bootleg products and illegally duplicated product, then they should not have the advantage of selling our legitimate product. That we feel they are representing a direct threat to us. I don’t think that’s an unreasonable demand to make on a store.”

Rubber Dubber, one of the larger and more colorful bootleggers in Los Angeles, stated in a telephone interview that “a lot of the stores that we deal with were getting this ‘We’re going to put you in jail.’ The latest big threat by the majors is that we’re not going to sell you records anymore if you sell bootlegs. Now how fucking long can a major record company stay in business not selling records? Now where’s that at?

“The record stores can stay in business not selling records a lot longer than the majors can not selling them. Those record stores don’t have that big expense. And freaks run record stores. Freaks are that way. Freaks are standing up for a free market place.”

Emanuel Aron and Steve Gabor may not be freaks, but they aren’t the straightest people in the world either. Yet neither of them will continue to sell bootlegs. Gabor says that he’s concerned for himself. “From my point of view, I can’t exchange a defective bootleg. Bootlegs are a cash business. If I get a defective I eat it. I throw it away. Economically it turned out not to be profitable. Most of the guys who come through a store with bootlegs only come through once.

“Any squeeze on me is a direct financial squeeze. Twenty-five percent of my bread and butter comes from Warner-Elektra-Atlantic.”

One problem with the record companies’ tactics for dealing with illegal bootleggers is that the tactics themselves are often illegal. Refusal to sell records or cancelling of advertising funds to a store dealing in bootlegs would violate federal antitrust laws. Many record store owners are forced to simply comply with the majors not only on the issue of bootlegging but also on price fixing and other marginally legal activities.

Smith reported that Warner Bros. attorneys are consulted before any directives are made to distributors or retail stores. “We certainly have not gone indiscriminately into writing threatening letters to dealers or stores,” he said.

All the recent threats and lawsuits amount to very little more than a stalling procedure by the record companies until a federal law against bootlegging is passed. Smith has visited Washington numerous times to lobby on anti-bootlegging legislation. Pet charities of senators working for the anti-bootlegging bill have received large donations from record companies.

According to Smith, bootlegging is the single largest threat ever to the record industry: “If bootlegging were to continue indefinitely the entire structure of the music business as we know it would be absolutely destroyed. There would be a chaotic period of nobody willing to pay for anything because you couldn’t reap the benefits of it. If you can’t realize the full potential of your investment, you’re going to make fewer investments.”

Gabor says that he personally doesn’t care too much about how much money the record companies make or don’t make. His concern is that bootlegging has gotten out of hand. “Bootlegging has become a business on its own without the proper means for it. People that don’t want to get a business license and people that don’t want to pay rent on a store go out and get themselves a tape recorder and think that they’re in business. The other thing is that the artist doesn’t get anything from a bootleg.”

Artist royalties have been a sore point of the bootlegging business from the beginning. Some bootleggers are proud of being ripoff artists, claiming that recording artists have enough money already. Rubber Dubber, on the other hand, claims to have set up trust funds for artist and publishing royalties.

Rubber Dubber’s trust funds were reportedly set up by Los Angeles attorney Jack R. Willis. Willis indicated that he did indeed represent “the person who calls himself Rubber Dubber,” although in a letter he stated that “my contacts with the Rubber Dubber are sporadic, but usually occur on a once a week basis by telephone. I have never met the person who calls himself Rubber Dubber on the phone personally.”

Willie declined to furnish any detailed financial information, writing that “any further information would be privileged.”

Gabor too felt that bootleggers had never paid artist royalties, adding that “they don’t even pay their income tax, which is basically what they can get hurt for. They haven’t paid income tax on huge amounts of money.”

Money, of course, is the central issue in bootlegging. Gabor reports that he heard of sales crews at concerts bringing in a couple of thousand dollars a week on bootleg sales. Rubber Dubber claims to sell no more than 6,000 copies of an album, and stated that his taxable income last year was only $2,267.

Exact costs for production of bootleg albums are hard to determine. A major record company’s cost per pressing may average about 12 to 14 cents, with at least an equal amount spent on labels, jackets and shrink wrapping. It has been estimated that the cost of a bootleg pressing shouldn’t top 35 cents on a minimum run of 3,500 records.

Retail prices for bootlegs vary from record to record and from store to store. Rare bootlegs, such as a recent two-album Looking Back set by Dylan, may sell for as much as $10. Inferior recordings, such as a recent Live Band album, will sell for cost or be given away.

Because of the low overhead and nonpayment of royalties involved with bootlegging, any price over the cost of pressing is profit. Rubber Dubber prices his records at three dollars a disk, with the price printed on the cover. The reason?

“The price is on the album because we still unfortunately have some capitalists who run some record shops, who try to charge $12 for double albums. So we make sure only an idiot would pay more than the price tag on an album.”

Rubber Dubber’s overhead is lower than many bootleggers because he owns his own mastering equipment and record presses. This also makes it almost impossible to trace the manufacturing of his records. The Dubber’s newest press was reportedly made in 1955. The press part of it used to mold rubber swim fins. Rubber Dubber estimates the worth of his equipment at $200.

Steve Gabor recalls an acquaintance (possibly the notorious Dub Michael Taylor) who was one of the pioneers of the Great White Wonder, the classic Dylan double bootleg. Gabor has followed this bootlegger’s adventures since the GWW days.

“I know what he did with his original money. He took all the money he made off of the Great White Wonder and bought phenomenal recording equipment. With the new equipment he recorded LIVEr Than You’ll Ever Be. He did real well with that. It was Music Odyssey’s single best selling record for two weeks at both stores. It sold over a thousand copies at each.

“Then I ran into this guy a few months ago when the Faces played with Rod Stewart at the Santa Monica Civic. He had this little suitcase with him. He opened it up and there was a $5,000 microphone in it. His buddy had the tape recorder. So I guess he’s still in business. These people knew the law and were careful not to violate the law.”

Various bootleggers specialize in different types of bootleg albums. There are bootleggers like Rubber Dubber who will only release concerts “played into the free air to a paying audience.” Others use radio and television broadcasts.

Each of these specialties has in its time forced the release of various albums. CSN&Y’s 4 Way Street followed on the heels of a highly successful bootleg, which many argue was of better quality than the company released product. Dylan’s Self Portrait was reportedly rushed out following the discovery that copies of many of the tapes used on the album had been stolen from Columbia’s vaults. 11-17-70 by Elton John suffered heavily by bootlegs which preceded it by weeks.

A salesman for a bootlegger who refers to himself as the Great White Wonder and whose label is known as Immaculate Conception Records (IC Records) stated that his organization primarily releases bootlegs from tapes received from an accomplice in London. The London bootlegger receives tapes of American performances in exchange.

The process for making bootlegging illegal on a federal level is a difficult one. Joe Smith described a recent situation which indicated the need for a federal law as opposed to state or local laws: “We just had a case. Some people were knocking off illegal tapes in Tennessee. They were really ripping people off. So the state of Tennessee put through a really strict law. The whole operation moved into Alabama, right across the border. The Chamber of Commerce in the Alabama town had a welcoming party for the factory and the workers that it brought.”

The industry’s hope to stop bootlegging on a national level is the McClellan Bill, introduced into the Senate on January 26, 1971, and recently passed by that body. The McClellan Bill amends title 17 of the United States Code “to provide for the creation of a limited copyright in sound recordings for the purpose of protecting against unauthorized duplication and piracy of sound recordings, and for other purposes.”

Gabor concurred with Smith that most bootleggers will think twice about pressing records if it involved a felony. Gabor feels that federal legislation will completely wipe out the small time bootlegging market, which he feels is only a small business at the moment due to its widespread nature.

However, the bootleggers themselves seem unconcerned about the title of their crime. Rubber Dubber has been involved in bootlegs for 12 years, since the time he learned to make Glen Miller 33 1/3 composites from old 78s. His customers know his salesmen by sight and know his product. He is confident that the good karma of freak power will protect him. He compares bootleg record dealing to dope dealing.

“Go put a dope dealer out of business,” he said. “Lots of luck. There’s no economic or legal pressure you can bring to bear. No threats that the guy hasn’t heard already.”

Whether bootlegging continues or is stopped tomorrow, the bootleggers and their product have pointed out several weaknesses in the record industry:

• Major record companies have been trapped in the inflationary spiral which has caused the production costs of an album to soar. Bootlegs, occasionally almost as good as company mixed live albums, cost almost nothing in production.

• Bootleg albums of concerts reach the consumer in a matter of days after the event. Company live albums take from weeks to months to be mixed, packaged and released.

• According to bootleggers, profits from bootleg albums are more equally distributed to employees than are major company profits which are often funneled up to parent conglomerates.

Of course none of these arguments stands up past a preliminary reading. Bootlegging rips off not only the record company, but also the music publishing company, the concert promoters, the artists and the public who often buy misrepresented merchandise.

How does the consumer feel about bootlegs? The general opinion now is that they can take them or leave them. Dylan fans consider bootlegs of Dylan to be sacred. Neil Young fans clutch Wooden Nickel bootlegs as if they were long lost lovers.

But bootlegs may still be on the way out. Whether their demise is attributed to litigation, disappointment, finance or boredom, is a mute point.

“The excitement of bootlegging is gone,” says Steve Gabor, one time major retailer of GWW and LIVEr. “People used to buy bootlegs because they were exciting. The word bootleg is like prohibition. A lot of the excitement is gone with the disappointment of bad recording and scratched records. In San Francisco, bootlegs are dead. You can’t give them away. Some people in L.A. are still collectors. San Francisco people didn’t give a damn, they wanted a quality recording. They just got disgusted with bootlegs.

“The whole record business isn’t as much fun as it used to be.”

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