Somnambule - Writing About Music

On Trading

Ten years ago my enthusiasm for 1970s Miles Davis had not been sated by owning all the official releases (often available only via Japanese imports at the time) and so I occasionally flicked through record shop racks in a sort of nostalgic fugue for the period when there were still albums I hadn’t heard. While daydreaming in this manner in a small, now defunct store in Camden Town, London I encountered my first bootleg ‘What I Say? Volume 1’ which contained the first two thirds of a concert recorded in Vienna in 1971. By its pink and blue graphic I immediately knew this wasn’t an official release…

The word bootleg conjures the fear of a heavy arm gripping your shoulder accompanied by the metallic click of handcuffs closing round wrists the moment you try to pay for your ‘illegally made product’. I’m glad to say that I suffered no such fate and happily returned home with my coveted prize. A few years later it occurred to me to undertake some research on the internet about my find and I realised that my purchase was only the tip of a rather sizeable iceberg. Until his record company’s crackdown Miles had the reputation for being the world’s most bootlegged artist and the website I found listed the hundreds of recordings that were available. Of greatest fascination to me however was that the vast majority of these could not be purchased over the counter – or even under it.

And so began my discovery of a parallel, subterranean world. This world shares some of the traits of Borges’ ‘Tlon, Urqbar, Orbis Tertius’ encapsulating as it does the activity of thousands of people over many decades which has resulted in codified behaviours, morality, the establishment of meeting places and most importantly a seemingly infinite library of recordings. Like Borges’ story, music trading is a largely hidden universe which shadows the legally sanctioned transactions of the megastores and record companies while disavowing the corporate world’s constriction of supply in the name of return on investment. If you’re unaware of its geographies and principles, allow me to be your guide.

One of the keys to the fascination of live recordings is the ability to listen in on ideas as they are germinated, developed or rejected. Another is that concerts are where the white heat of expression is most frequently found, away from the artificial and sometimes inhibiting environment of the recording studio. The results are frequently messy, performances often below par, but to be able to bear witness to a great improvising artist on form is a privilege indeed. All of which also contributes to a greater understanding of how studio recordings are arrived at.

Morality is as key to this world as to any, and some of the fiercely contested arguments relating to digital piracy find their echo here. A number of responses may be made to the understandable fear that artists will not receive their rightful financial reward if the trading of live recordings is allowed to proliferate. First, trading’s overriding principle is that no financial benefit should accrue from transactions: the world of concert recordings is pure one-for-one barter. Second, those who are keen enough to go to the bother of listening to what are often murkily recorded, 10th generation tape recordings of concerts will first have paid on the nail to swim beatifically in the crystal clear waters of digitally remastered compact discs with professional artwork and studio outtakes – they’ll own the boxed set and the t-shirt already. Finally, I’ve traded for live recordings by a number of artists I’ve read of, but not been sufficiently tempted to risk the price of a cd upon. This has resulted in my purchasing legitimate releases by a list of artists longer than both my arms which would never have occurred without the opportunity to listen to them at length first. In general the legal situation is a murky one, but recommended conduct may best be summed up as don’t raise your head too high above the parapet in case it gets shot off. Examples of Napster/Audiogalaxy style lawsuits are extremely rare perhaps because the industry recognises the lack of threat from this quarter to its revenues.

I don’t know what the first recorded bootleg was, but there are some classics, now co-opted by record labels such as Dean Benedetti’s recordings of Charlie Parker’s solos and Robert Quine’s bootlegs of The Velvet Underground. The Grateful Dead’s welcoming of their fans’ recording of shows and the resulting tapetree distribution of recordings are another important part of the history. The internet has now inevitably become the conduit for bootlegs. is packed with Deadheads, Phishheads and associated jambands. There’s and newsnet and mailing lists. A whole world.

And next time you’re at a gig, glance around you – you may be able to spot somebody acting slightly furtively, making odd movements as they adjust a lapel microphone and glance nervously at the security: agents of a stealthy sect...
Colin Buttimer
September 2003
Published by Me