Recently, the techno-oriented site Resident Advisor ran a detailed, well-reported piece by UK writer Richard Brophy on the state of the bootleg 12-inch in dance music. To be clear, since “bootleg” has a few different musical connotations, Brophy isn’t talking about mash-up pop Frankensteins or unauthorized recordings of live shows, but about pirated versions of actual releases–small-edition replicas of classic, long-out-of-print house and techno 12-inches. These are, he suggests, far more legion in the dance world than we might think, an open secret that few retailers try to do anything about even if they know what they’re selling is technically illegal:
When asked where Piccadilly Records in Manchester sourced the bootlegs, Philippa Jarman, one of the shop’s directors, makes an oblique reference to them “arriving in a box with the other records,” an indication that they were supplied by one of the distributors. Asked if she had a moral issue with stocking records released without the artists’ permission, she says: “It is an awkward situation with sales falling: I can’t say either way whether we should stock bootlegs—we’d have to make that decision if and when it arose,” she says. Would she feel as ambiguous if the situation was reversed and she was the artist and her work was being bootlegged? “I don’t know, I’d probably press it myself, but I’m not sure,” Philippa says. Then she asks me whom I work for. I tell her and ask her if she can tell me her surname for the purposes of the piece I’m writing. She replies: “No, I can’t. I have to go now, I’m on my lunch, bye,” and hangs up.
Ouch. Still, what fascinated me about the piece isn’t that this seems like an especially new problem but that it’s as old as the biz. Not even in the sense that labels have been ripping off artists since the beginnings of the recording industry (Brophy pinpoints Chicago’s house-music pioneer Trax Records as a primary touchstone within dance music, which seems right given its importance in the timeframe RA is dealing with), but in the sense that this sort of piracy defines the recording industry in many other places, particularly in Asia and Africa.
Take this February report about Hong Kong’s chaotic music industry, where pirating was prevalent even before illegal downloading helped make it just about impossible to make a living strictly on record sales. Africa’s music industry was beset by cassette pirating beginning in the ’70s; eight years ago, between 15 and 25 percent of South Africa’s music market was dealing in pirated goods, a percentage that’s likely increased with the spread of downloading. In Kenya, according to this piece, “[F]or more than a decade now, international record labels and music companies have abandoned Kenya as a non-viable market for their product,” thanks to piracy’s rampancy. In a way, the kind of dubious enterprise Brophy investigates seems less like an aberration in the U.S. and Europe than a hint at the state of things to come.