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Instant Bootlegs 

by David Kushner

How many times have you left a concert wishing you had a recording of that night's show? While the rest of the music industry struggles to fight against the rise of the bootleg nation, a host of savvy bands and at least one giant corporation are cashing in. The Dead, Pearl Jam and Clear Channel Communications are among those that now enable concert-goers to buy live CDs of the shows they attend -- sometimes burned and distributed on the very night of the event. Why isn't every artist on the planet doing this? It's friggin' genius.

The Dead pioneered the kinder, gentler bootleg spirit. By letting fans tape their shows, they proved to be shrewd businesspeople: vesting their audience, nurturing a community and, ultimately, becoming one of the highest-grossing live acts of all time. If you go to a Dead show today, you'll be greeted by some wide-eyed Heads with clipboards, ready to sign you up to receive a CD of the show. It costs $22, and you get the disc in the mail a couple of weeks later. The Dead aren't stupid: They have you sign up before the show (no money back guarantee, alas, if Mickey Hart decides to rap "Fire on the Mountain").

Other bands such as Phish and Pearl Jam have made similar offerings to their audience. It makes sense. The diehard fans are going to get bootlegs anyway, so why shouldn't bands get a piece of the action and have some say in the quality of the live recordings being released? Or at least that's the theory.

As corporations muscle in on the plans, however, the situation gets a little stickier. Clear Channel -- rapidly becoming the Big Brother behind concerts, radio and you name it -- recently announced Instant Live, a business scheme that would sell live recordings of an evening's show to fans on their way out the door. The first roll-out is taking place in Boston at a variety of small nightclubs. The end product will be two discs costing $15.

Though bands, said to get 30 to 50 percent of the proceeds, stand to profit, they also stand to lose control. With a Clear Channel assembly line of CD burners in the works, there's no stopping the distribution of a recording that captures a really, really bad night. Would legendary perfectionists like Trent Reznor or Steely Dan consent to such a plan -- even for the money? I doubt it. But artists might not have a choice. The matter of who decides what's recorded is still wrought with questions of ownership: Who ultimately has the power to decide what is or is not sold? The band, the venue, the promoter?

If the kinks get worked out in the band's favor, there's one sure side effect: The record companies will yet again find themselves getting left out of the digital revolution. If the fans are going to buy an instant live CD (or DVD) at a show, bands could exploit the opportunity to distribute more of their own material. In addition to including the live music, for example, a disc could feature new studio tracks and/or video, too. The band will make money; the labels and the record stores will be left out. And the artists, for once, will

Publication date: 09/18/03
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