At first glance, the sticker on the LP might not seem weird. “Rediscover the sound of vinyl,” it beckons, promising music pressed on a “serious 180g” disc, as if part of some coordinated reissue campaign. In some sense, it is. Keyhole Records is one of many companies finding a niche in the ongoing vinyl boom, and the label’s albums can be purchased in record stores across the United States, ready to fill collectors’ shelves with classic recordings. But Keyhole—who launched in 2012 with a Velvet Underground double LP—isn’t in the reissue business, exactly. With a legal home on the half-Greek/half-Turkish island of Cyprus, Keyhole is one of a number of new labels that deal in unofficial product only—live tapes, radio sessions, outtakes—part of a new bootleg explosion that has taken several distinctly 21st century turns, stretching from record shop bins to the iTunes Store.
-=-=-=-While bootlegs were mostly an American sport in the ’60s and ’70s, starting with the infamous Great White Wonder LP of basement tapes by Bob Dylan and the Band, and notorious labels like Trade Mark of Quality, Rubber Dubber, and more, they mostly became purview of Europeans in the ’80s and ’90s. Overseas, a series of legal loopholes (first in the Rome Convention of 1966) put unreleased music into the public domain so long as it was recorded abroad and labels paid all the proper mechanical royalties. Tested in the German Supreme Court, the practice grew more prevalent during the CD era. Despite a series of high-profile music industry crackdowns on American record stores (and a widespread non-commercial cassette-trading network), the import business only seemed to die a natural death in the United States with the arrival of file-sharing. “Once the Internet started offering downloads, mp3s, YouTube, etc., the market kind of fell apart,” observes Joe Schwab, who opened St. Louis’s Euclid Records in 1983 and has dabbled in “imports” only sparingly.
But the legal loopholes remain and, when the market for vinyl returned, so did the bootlegs. “They’ve never really gone away fully,” contends Fabio Roberti, co-owner of Earwax Records in Williamsburg, Brooklyn since 1991, citing an older Nick Cave LP that passed through the store’s used bin recently. But while Discogs reveals numerous one-off LPs and scattered CDs and CD-Rs in the “dead” period between the early ’90s and the vinyl revival of the past half-decade or so, not even Radiohead seems to have warranted a bootleg LP until 2009. Checking “unofficial releases” sections of Discogs, one can see the shape of the illicit vinyl disappearance and return through the bootleg perennials who went away last and came back first: Pink Floyd (1990 to 2006), Bob Dylan (1992 to 2007), and the Beatles (1997 to 2007).
Even as official bootleg series swell by the season, the past three years has seen a mushrooming of the new vinyl grey market. During the past nine months alone, the European jazz and blues label Dolchess has shifted into more popular turf, launching a new imprint to issue nearly 20 titles (and counting) by Tom Waits, Talking Heads, Joy Division, Iggy Pop, Nirvana, and many more. Keyhole caters to slightly more alt-driven tastes, including titles by John Fahey, Captain Beefheart, Moby Grape, the Ramones, and others. Even artists who continue to fight bootleggers with their own live CDs and LPs—such as Pearl Jam, the Grateful Dead, and Frank Zappa—find themselves turning up on fresh illicit vinyl for the first time in decades. For Dylan fanatics, there are lavish box sets of the Europe ’66 tour (five LPs plus a DVD) and the Supper Club ’93 (six LPs). Following the marketplace, there is naturally even now a bootleg cassette label, with the appropriate name Das Boots, committed to the finest unauthorized small-batch jams by Richard Hell, Flipper, The Cramps, and other canonical punks. As always, some of the new bootlegs are by fans, made from love and perhaps even analog sources, and sound excellent. Many more don’t.