Protecting the Franchise: The Beatles and the Future of Bootleg Music
Ron Seifried | On 31, Dec 2013
The year 2013 may be remembered as a turning point for the availability of unreleased music and the future of distribution. In November 2013, International Copyright Law was changed to extend the term of copyright released material from 50 years from the initial release to 70 years. This law only affects music recorded since 1963. Music available before 1963 is in the public domain.
What turned on alarm bells with artists and copyright holders is that unreleased material can now enter the public domain from recording date. This is why there was a mad rush from Bob Dylan, The Beach Boys, Motown and The Beatles to make available unreleased tracks recorded in 1963 on a limited basis to protect their intellectual properties for another 70 years. Since this unreleased material becomes available for the first time in 2013, the copyright is protected until 2083.
Unreleased material can be an acoustic demo, alternate studio takes, live performances, television recordings or any other audio recordings that was never available from the artist and/or record label. Hard core fans have been fueling an underground business since the late 1960’s. Bootleg “describes the trading and distribution of songs that were recorded from various sources and made available to savvy collectors, basement historians and motivated fans to obtain every known piece of aural recording of their favorite artist.
A Very Brief History of Bootlegs
In January 1969, weeks after completing the marathon sessions for The White Album, The Beatles gathered together at the unfamiliar Twickenham Film Studio in London to record and film new material and covers for a proposed documentary and album. Not fully embracing the early morning call times to accommodate the film crew and the slow disintegration of the group to the point where George Harrison decided not to return after lunch one day, The Beatles slogged through endless jamming without any clear direction. At the end of the month, no one in the group had the energy or interest to review the hours of the session tapes. They gave producer Glyn Johns the unenviable task to compile an album for possible future release. Johns managed to put together two versions of an album tentatively titled “Get Back” and gave an acetate to each member of the group for review. Both versions were unanimously rejected and the project was shelved for the foreseeable future. Only two songs made it out from the session in 1969 on one single, “Get Back” & “Don’t Let Me Down.”
Later that same year, John Lennon’s copy ended up in the hands of a deejay, possibly in trade for some other gear. The deejay played the album on the radio months before the final official LP (now titled “Let it Be”) was completed by producer Phil Spector. The unheard tracks produced a vinyl album with a plain white sleeve with the title “Kum Back” and the bootleg was born. Available in only a few record shops and only by asking the clerk who kept the illegal LP’s under the counter, the fascination for fans to be a fly on the wall during sessions and hear alternate takes started to trend and soon more bootlegs became available.
In the 1970’s, acts like Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen and others started to see their unreleased music available in underground record shops and trade shows with very little power to stop the availability. The trend got so big, that fans would blatantly walk into a concert with a cassette player hidden under a long coat and within days, bootleg tapes would become available. Who can forget when Rerun was caught illegally recording a Doobie Brothers concert on “What’s Happening?” But I digress…
The Bootleg market has only grown since. With the availability of superior sounding CD’s in the 80s & 90s to Bit Torrent sites and YouTube’s poor policing of unreleased music, bootlegs have become a popular way to exchange illegal music. The practice has become so widespread that artists now rerelease old albums with several “new” bonus tracks of early demos and outtakes to not only combat the bootleggers, but to drive up sales for older material in an age when free downloading has become the norm. Twenty years ago, the Italian label Great Dane released a nine CD box set of complete BBC recordings. Italy’s copyright law protected music for only 25 years at the time, so Great Dane’s box set was legal, if only in Italy. The set was soon available in the import market prompting The Beatles release in1994 of “Live at the BBC.”
The New Availability of Unreleased Material
The new E.U. rules is a seismic game changer for the music industry. What has quietly started as small, unpublicized official releases from artists, has now taken an unexpected turn with the new release from The Beatles. Titled, “The Bootleg Recordings 1963,” no promotion or announcements came from the group or Universal, owner of the master tapes. Word leaked out from a blogger in Norway just weeks before the December 17 release and slowly some mainstream news organizations picked up on the story.
With no fanfare, the new compilation of 59 tracks was available on iTunes, but only in certain parts of the world at various price points and limited availability. For instance, the collection was reported to be on iTunes New Zealand for $14.99, but then mysteriously pulled off only hours later. Then as time zone progressed throughout the day, different parts of the world had the tracks, but once again for a short period of time. It wasn’t until the U.S. release when things started to settle down. At one point, the collection was resting comfortably in the top ten of iTunes album chart without any official confirmation from The Beatles or Universal.
The cynic in some of us might think that this is a marketing ploy to sell old music with a sublime marketing campaign run solely by some bloggers. That does not appear to be the case, and these are my reasons:
1. No official announcement from The Beatles or Universal. Even when reached by the New York Times about this story, both groups have issued a “no comment” response.
2. This compilations availability is available only 5 weeks after the release of “On Air…The Beatles Live at the BBC Vol.2,” the groups big stocking stuffer for the holidays. Why come out with similar material and compete with the mass marketed campaign of a packaged CD produced with extensive liner notes and available at most retailers? Indeed, the bootleg edition has an addition of 30+ BBC songs that would surely saturate the market for the official “On Air” package. Plus the BBC, co-owners of the CD, would not want more music out to compete with.
3. The track listing: Despite the superior sound quality to the bootleg versions (and they are better!), the order in which the tracks were placed looks as though they were slapped together for a quick release. The album opens up with three versions of “There’s a Place,” some with spoken dialog and background noise. The set list looks like three different project managers putting in their recommendations.
The future will witness an abundance of unreleased material “officially” becoming available on a yearly basis through several avenues. Some may go the online route with little fanfare, scraping the bottom of the barrel for iTunes, Amazon or other legitimate download service. Others may go the Bob Dylan route and press and distribute a small number of albums for European customers. Finally, some acts may decide to package deluxe (and expensive) collections and release as Anthology’s. What is certain, starting in 2014, unreleased music from 1964 that has been available in the bootleg market will be officially released by the artists.
Look for “new” 1964-era tracks from not only The Beatles, Bob Dylan, The Beach Boys and Motown, but also from The Rolling Stones, The Dave Clark Five, Johnny Cash, Stevie Wonder, The Animals, The Kinks, Simon & Garfunkel, Joan Baez, The Yardbirds and more. The following year will see music dug out from 1965, and so on.
Strong arguments have been made for and against this new practice of copyright protection. Some have complained that artists are milking their loyal fan base with the “forced” availability of unheard tracks for additional revenue. Others have come out vocally against the new copyright laws extension that protects acts from 1963 onward, while anything before ’63 ends up in the public domain. It does look suspicious that the E.U law starts with music from 1963, a turning point in recorded music with fierce copyright protections from big acts. Conglomerates like The Beatles and Bob Dylan have powerful political allies and high priced attorneys that possibly lobbied the European Union for the immediate copyright extension. Both acts saw their 1962 records end up in the public domain and did not want to see the best of their material ending up the same way.
The moral argument is that for years bootleggers have been stealing the music and profiting without any compensation for the artists. Bootleggers counter that they are liberating unheard music for the loyal fans hungry for more material. In reality, bootleggers have not been making any money since most unreleased music is available on download sites and the loyal fans will still purchase every official release, no matter what the price. The message from the artist and record companies is that now they want to profit from all the unreleased material and the new E.U. law defends this practice. After fifty years of underground trading, 2013 is the beginning of the new bootleg era.