Friday, April 17, 2009

About bootlegs

From time to time in this blog I will be reviewing bootlegs. Initially, I wanted to stick with Zappa’s “official” catalog, but as devoted a fan as I am, I realized that I couldn’t ignore these “illegitimate” recordings. However, unlike other bloggers, I do not provide any direct download links to any of his recordings, bootlegs or not. Some of the links I do include provide access to downloads, but that is the decision of that Web site. If someone really wants a bootleg, they’re not hard to find.

Obviously, not everyone is interested in obtaining bootleg recordings. I’m a fan of a lot of musical artists, but I’m not terribly interested in getting bootleg recordings of every artist I like. Bootlegs, by virtue of the fact that they are often recorded with substandard equipment, often have terrible sound quality. Why would I want to listen to a shitty recording of the Grateful Dead, for example, even though that band had no qualms with audience members making their own bootlegs? (It’s worth pointing out here that the Grateful Dead’s benign attitude toward audience bootlegging played an integral role in the band’s marketing strategy, undoubtedly contributing to the fact that the Dead’s franchise was among the most profitable in rock-and-roll)

But Zappa is a different situation for me. And it’s not just the fact that with all the touring he had done, and the wide variety of musicians he performed with, there was a subsequent enormous variety in the performances of his music. Other rock musicians often shared the stage with other stars. In Tucson, Ariz., (in 1979 I think) I saw the Rolling Stones share the stage with Linda Ronstadt and Etta James. Zappa certainly shared the stage with others in legitimately released recordings, as he did with Captain Beefheart in “Bongo Fury,” or John Lennon and Yoko Ono on “Playground Psychotics.” And he also shared the stage in many bootleg recordings, such as that from the Amougies festival when he played with Pink Floyd and others, or as he did during a bootleg recording from one of the many Halloween shows in New York City, like the 1978 show at The Palladium when Lakshminarayana Shankar played some blistering violin with Zappa.

That performance with Shankar is reason enough for me to want to collect Zappa bootlegs, but it’s not my primary reason. The real reason is regardless of how shitty a bootleg recording may be, the opportunity to listen to as many of Zappa’s live guitar solos is thrilling. Hearing some of these solos, their variety of technique and pacing, more than makes up for the fact the recording was dirty, substandard or marred by crowd noise. For example, as I write this, I am listening to a bootleg recording of Captain Beefheart from Amougies. It’s a piece of crap recording, the sound is awful, and yet at the same time, it’s really quite thrilling for me to be listening to this little gem. Beefheart’s harmonica playing is just plain sizzling; you can feel its scintillating energy despite the lousy recording. It’s a snapshot from the past, albeit a very poor snapshot, that elicits a special emotional response in much the same way a prized photo from a memorable event or trip can instantly recall a past experience.

Clearly, the Zappa Family Trust saw an opportunity when it released “legitimate” bootlegs through the Beat the Boots series. This was truly an ironic move; releasing authorized bootlegs for sale. After all, is it still a bootleg if it’s legitimately released by the artist or his or her representatives for sale? And frankly, releasing the Beat the Boots series as is was quite lazy, in my opinion. No effort, as far as I can tell, was made to clean up and remaster the recordings. It seems that all the ZFT managed to do was acquire the original boots and press them into compact discs to sell for profit.

What harm do bootlegs pose to musicians? On the opening track of “As An Am” from Beat the Boots I, Zappa offers his thoughts about bootlegs: “As far as my material goes, it’s (bootlegging) a very big business. I don’t think it’s the work of a couple of individual guys who went out to make a record for fun. It’s one or two people who are releasing vast quantities of material…They’ve already got the stuff recorded live in concert before I can even release it on a record and that makes me mad.”

In this quote, Zappa is referring to the business of bootlegs, and that is a legitimate concern for any artist. Bootleggers who make unauthorized live recordings and then sell those recordings are stealing from the performer. And bootleggers who make pirated versions of authorized recordings to sell are also stealing from the artist. But what of the bootleg recording of a live show made by an audience member and which is made available for free? Where’s the harm there? If no official release of the material was made, the potential royalties and sales from the recording are not lost. And no one is passing off the material as their own, so how is any copyright violated?

I am continuing to look for more quotes by Zappa that have him commenting on bootlegs and what harm they present, but all I am presently aware of is the quote above from “As An Am.” And if that is the only representation on record of his opinion regarding bootlegs of his shows, then it is clear his primary concern was loss of income. If that is the case, free distribution of bootleg recordings from shows that Zappa showed no inclination of officially releasing should present no problem because such recordings lack any potential for leading to a loss of income. If it’s distributed for free, where’s the harm other than to someone’s ego?

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