Jeff Soldau always wonders what excuse he’ll offer if he gets caught: How will he explain the few hundred dollars worth of recording equipment concealed in his pants?
So far, though, he’s managed to sneak it in. Concert security guards don’t like to frisk intimate areas, he says.
Once he’s in, Soldau finds his seat, waits for the lights to dim and eases out the tape player from his pants. He takes the end of the microphone cord that runs under his shirt and plugs it into the tape recorder.
When the band starts playing, he starts recording.
“It’s an art, not a science,” says Soldau, a bootleg taper and editor of Taper’s Quarterly.
Soldau collects bootlegged live music. He tracks bands from the legendary to the obscure through tiny bars and off-the-beaten-path college auditoriums. He sees himself as an archivist, documenting music history for posterity.
There are jazz tapers, rock tapers, bluegrass tapers--every kind of music is covered. Some tapers are knee-deep into bootlegging, churning through 50, 60, 70 blank tapes in a month and compiling thousands of recordings.
They build their collections by trading copies of the music among themselves--tape for tape. Money transactions are shunned, they say.
The Recording Industry Assn. of America argues that even if no money changes hands, the tapes themselves become a form of currency.
“They have almost like a money machine, where they can keep duping the tapes that they had captured without authorization and exchanging them for other tapes that were captured without authorization,” says David Leibowitz, RIAA executive vice president and general counsel.
And, the tapers are depriving the record companies of “opportunities for profit,” he says.
It’s doubtful you’ll find recordings of Bruce Springsteen performing “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” U2 doing Neil Young’s “Southern Man” or Bob Dylan’s rendition of "(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay” at your local record store. But they do exist.
Since 1988, Dylan has done about 350 live shows. Each one has a different “set list” and there are probably 50 songs he has performed at only one site. Of the 350 shows staged from Australia to Jerusalem, only a few are not circulating among tapers.
Jerry (not his real name) is a taper who lives in the Pacific Northwest. His circle of taping friends extends across the United States and abroad and includes a postal worker, lawyers, accountants, doctors, teachers and aerospace engineers, as well as people who work in the music industry.
Jerry has a few thousand tapes in his collection. Like other tapers, he turned to bootlegging after buying out the commercial product available from his favorite bands.
“I pretty much tape anything I go to see. It never occurred to me not to,” says Jerry, who has a heavy concentration of music by the Who, Elvis Costello and Eric Clapton.
“If there is a Who tape around, chances are I have it,” says the 37-year-old X-ray technician.
Without access to unreleased music, record companies control what the public can and can’t hear, he says.
This credo is summed up in an editorial in the first issue of Taper’s Quarterly, an underground publication that provides advice and classified ads for tapers as well as reviews of bootlegged tapes:
“If we, as music fans, are only allowed access to the music recordings that the industry produces, then we can only consider the music from their (corporate) perspective.”
So tapers work around the industry to get nearer the source of the music.
Four months before U2’s 1991 “Achtung Baby” album was in the stores, tapers were listening to bootleg copies of the studio sessions.
Jerry has done his own sampling and says the outtakes from Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” are better than the album itself.
The studio tapes are usually leaked by someone close to the action--a studio engineer, a band assistant--who gives a copy to a friend. From there, word spreads fast.
There are an estimated 10,000 bootleg tapers worldwide--and their recordings have improved over the years. Their live tapes are no longer muffled and scratchy. With portable DAT--Digital Audio Tape--CD-quality dubs are possible.
Other hassles--the bulkiness of the equipment, the fear of getting caught--are also less worrisome than they used to be.
Portable Walkmans fit discreetly in the crotch of one’s pants and mini-microphones can be tacked onto the arms of one’s glasses. This frees up the taper to concentrate on the sound quality. The goal, they say, is to find the venue’s “sweet spot,” the place “where all the music comes together.” Not too close to the public address system, they say, but not too distant either.
Increasingly, tapers say, security guards at concerts are more concerned about alcohol, drugs and weapons than taping equipment. Even if caught, the penalties for tapers are usually mild--the tape may be confiscated or the equipment may be taken away until the end of the show.
Lawyers and prosecutors agree that the taping violates federal copyright laws and is a criminal act, but tapers contend the legal language is “fuzzy” and applies primarily to pirate bootleggers--those who duplicate already produced tapes and sell them.
“As long as someone is not making a lot of money off of them, they don’t care,” says Tim, a taper who lives in Southern California.
Ask musicians, music promoters and club owners about tapers, and the reaction ranges from disinterest to minor irritation.
“I think the effect is fairly minimal,” says REM’s manager Jefferson Holt.
At Grateful Dead and Metallica concerts, though, tapers have their own space, compliments of the band. And the Sex Pistols and Frank Zappa have gone so far as to use songs from previously bootlegged tapes for their own albums.
Bands should be appreciative, tapers argue. Long before Pearl Jam and REM and Springsteen began making hit records and selling out coliseums, they were, more than anything, bootleg bands.
Says Tim: Nirvana tapes were trading even before they struck a record deal.