Rock and Roll Unlimited

Welcome to the Web, where formerly impossible-to-find bootlegs are a click away.

I’ve probably heard more John Bonham drum solos than anyone besides John Bonham,” says Ronnie Fritz, an obsessive Led Zeppelin fan. Bonham’s solos sometimes ran 20 minutes—even Zep-heads tend to skip them, and so did the rest of the band (who usually took backstage sex-and-drug breaks while he had the spotlight). But Fritz, who works as a graphic designer for Comedy Central, spent a year listening to every single Zeppelin recording in circulation—all 294 of them—which is a whole lotta tub-thumping. Fritz chronicled the project on a blog called The Year of Led Zeppelin. He labeled more than 50 shows “must hear”; his favorite is the group’s September 19, 1970, concert at Madison Square Garden, which his father happened to attend.

A decade ago it would have been hard to imagine anyone without serious money or music business connections amassing such a large collection of unauthorized live recordings. But the Internet has made live shows, studio leaks, hip-hop mixes, and other gray-market recordings as accessible as last night’s sports scores. “If you know where to look, you can find almost anything,” Fritz says. He has more than half the shows Zeppelin performed in its 12-year history, including every single one after June 3, 1977. And since decent recording equipment is now small enough to use surreptitiously—mikes can be clipped to baseball caps and connected to pocket-size hard drives—newer shows are even easier to find. “I saw My Morning Jacket at Radio City Music Hall,” he says, “and I had the recording two days later.”

We’re rapidly coming to the point when almost every bit of music performed in front of a reasonably sized audience is available online soon after: last night’s Coldplay show, a 50 Cent freestyle, the song Jack White sang with Bob Dylan in Nashville. While bootlegs were once sold only at small stores and out-of-the-way swap meets, they are now available at the click of a mouse—often right beside legitimate ¿recordings. Some are recorded in formats like FLAC (pronounced “flack”) and SHN (“shin”), which sound better than MP3s. And although most acts still object to the bootleg trade, several music executives admitted that labels are too busy trying to stop the illegal spread of studio albums to deal with another problem.

For music fans it’s like finding a whole extra floor of Tower Records (assuming Tower Records still existed in the first place). Lil Wayne fans can download the rapper’s hundreds of mix-tape tracks. Springsteen junkies can fill whole hard drives with the Boss’ epic shows. And while most Beatles fans have been waiting two decades for the band to release better-sounding versions of their albums on CD, ¿superior remasters full of bonus tracks have been circulating on the Internet for years. (Search “Purple Chick” and “White Album” for a 12-disc set of outtakes.)

The bootleg world isn’t just for guitar rock anymore, as rappers use the Internet to release the kind of freestyle and battle-rhyme tracks they once put out on mix tapes. This shift has only accelerated since 2007, when DJ Drama was arrested for selling mixes out of his trunk. “The mix-tape circuit boomed because artists tired of the politics with their labels,” says Elliott Wilson, founder of the Web site Rap-Radar. “Now the underground has shifted to the Internet, and they just send out an MP3.”

Like mix tapes, “leaked” tracks often seem to generate rather than suppress demand for legit music. Lil Wayne, who put out several ¿albums’ worth of material before releasing Tha Carter III, had the best-selling album of 2008. And while the chaotic world of BitTorrent is nearly impossible for a casual fan to negotiate, the online bootleg scene is curated by fans who devote themselves to tracking down and posting high-quality concert recordings. Rock blogs post links to full-length concerts by acts like ¿Radiohead, Kings of Leon, Death Cab for Cutie, and Amy Winehouse. Hip-hop sites post entire mix tapes, as well as the kind of songs that used to end up on them.

“The primary effect of digitization isn’t on mainstream music but on obscure music and obscure recordings of mainstream bands,” says Jim Griffin, president of Chorus LLC. “In a digital world, you don’t have to worry about shelf space.” Eventually, he believes, Internet access providers will charge their customers a fee that covers all the music on their networks.

The first modern bootleg was Great White Wonder, a 1969 double album set that had a plain white cover and 23 unreleased Bob Dylan songs (many eventually becoming The Basement Tapes). For decades bootlegs have presented an alternate history of rock—one in which Prince put out several more albums during his mid-’80s creative peak, the Stones released a great live album, and Lil Wayne dropped one album a week instead of every few years.

“It’s good for the art as a whole,” says Jeff Jampol, who manages the Doors and represents the estates of Janis Joplin, Gram Parsons, and Peter Tosh. Jampol would prefer that his clients make money from all their recordings, so he’s taken steps to release them legally. The Doors formed a partnership with Rhino Entertainment, the catalog division of Warner Music ¿Group, to release bootleg-style recordings directly to fans, and last year he approved a previously unheard Gram Parsons live album. “These recordings are documents,” he says.

The question is, whose documents are they? The online Beatles remasters were cleaned up and released by Purple Chick, a mysterious label for the fan or fans who presumably put them out online as a hobby. The current Beatles ¿CDs date back to the first-generation of CD remasters, and some fans have already expressed frustration that the new digital remasters due in September don’t include any unreleased material. Purple Chick’s do. In addition to better sound—most likely sourced from high-quality LPs and tweaked with technology that didn’t exist two decades ago—the Purple Chick Beatles reissues include all kinds of extras—stereo and mono versions, plus four discs’ worth of outtakes in the case of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. A decade ago such a package might have cost $100—if you could find it. Now the bootleg White Album isn’t all that much harder to find than the real things.

Although few have the expertise of Purple Chick, the online bootleg scene is full of fans who recontextualize their material. Recently some fans put online the version of Metallica’s Death Magnetic used in Guitar Hero, which many believe sounds better. Others create virtual CDs of highlights from a particular tour.

As the amount of material from some artists expands, so do attempts to organize it. Reid, an IT professional who runs a blog devoted to Dylan bootlegs as well as the more eclectic blog Resurrecting the Otter’s Cheese, has about 500 gigabytes of Dylan concerts and 400 gigs of other shows—so much music that he’s listened to only about 10 percent of it. The blogs are his attempt to share his best stuff with others.

Regardless of the legal status of these bootlegs, they’re going to be available ever more easily. That means fans will probably play a larger role—seeking out new recordings, sifting through them for favorites, and organizing the material into forms we can only guess at.

“I started the blog to go through everything I had and develop an information database,” says Fritz, adding that so many Zep recordings have come out over the past few years that other bootleg guides are out of date. “The big surprise was that people were interested.”