Cheap Seats: My Experiences with Bootlegging by Gabriel Ricard

I was saddened to find recently that a monstrous, completely free, seemingly endless archive of Bruce Springsteen concerts had been taken off the internet. We won’t debate the morality of listening to concerts a person would be otherwise unable to enjoy. It was a resource available to those who wanted it, and it provided an extraordinary chronological history of one of the most enduring figures in rock history. At twenty-six years old, my options for experiencing shows from the 1975 tour are pretty slim. Any opportunity to experience these shows or others from Springsteen’s considerable career was a welcome one.

To see that the site had been shut down for copyright infringement was unfortunate. The fact that a different website is selling these same concerts is even more unfortunate. I have no idea if that site is successful. I suppose they would have to be. Audio and video concerts are available at supposed optimal quality, with track listing and nice packaging.  If someone wants to go that route (and for those who still actually collect CDs—I’m guessing there’s still a few of them about), then the option is available to them.

PJ Harvey

PJ Harvey

I’ve bought exactly one bootleg in my life. It was the first one I ever owned, and it was the last time I ever did that. This would have been around 2003 or 2004. I don’t remember specifically what it was that made me want to find a PJ Harvey concert (I was probably listening to her phenomenal Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea), but I went to the first site I imagined could help me out. I wasn’t really aware that there were communities of music fans trading and even giving shows away. I just went to eBay, looked it up, found what seemed like a good show from a reputable seller and bought it.

The show was comprised mostly of tracks from Stories. That was fine by me. I didn’t even know the rest of PJ Harvey’s work very well (that came later). The audio was a good quality. Polly’s vocal intensity made me wish I could see her live for myself and I didn’t have to spend very much on it. There wasn’t anything extraordinary about the show. My experiences with PJ Harvey shows have been about the same as an album. It’s fantastic, and I would still love to see her in concert sometime, but she’s never been on that top-five must-see list.

Still, she was a good place to start with for live versions of songs I had exhausted. I began to consider other artists I wanted to hear live. It was hard to get to concerts at that point in my life. I went to shows, but I was interested in a concerts on a slightly larger scale. I didn’t have the means to go to those concerts by myself, and bootlegs presented me with an easy way to at least get halfway there. A CD or even DVD of a show wasn’t going to recreate the experience flawlessly, but it was better than nothing.

It was around this time that I had begun getting into Tori Amos. At the time there was only one live album commercially available, the second disc of the two-disc To Venus and Back. I already owned that, and it was good, but I wanted a complete concert, and not just excerpts from her ’98 Unplugged Tour. eBay didn’t give me much to go on. There weren’t a lot of shows to choose from, and the sellers offering them wanted thirty, forty dollars for a single concert. I couldn’t justify spending that kind of money, and it turned out I didn’t have to.

Forums are not quite as populated as they once were, but at the time I joined one for Tori Amos, it was still quite popular (and remains so as of this writing). It was there I found people nice enough to get me started with some of the more essential shows from a touring career of what was at the time around fourteen years. It didn’t take long to become completely hooked, and it helped that Amos is a performer of considerable versatility, especially when you work through the different stages of her career as expressed by tone and setlist of each tour. Collecting Tori Amos enabled me to see that versatility, and in seeing that I was even more impressed with her range as a writer, performer and musician. Different tours emphasized different things, and it was fascinating to see the setlists completely change from one show to the next. Just as it was interesting to see certain songs evolve (songs like “Take to The Sky”, which became a completely different animal from its beginnings), change with Amos’ mood and style, or be completely different with a band than it might be with Amos flying solo. Amos has covered a number of wildly differing artists over the years (she released an entire album of covers, Strange Little Girls, in 2001), and some of her most challenging, compelling covers have appeared in her live shows.

Tori Amos

Tori Amos

I was never a bigger fan of Tori Amos than I was in this period between 2004 and 2006, and this is reflected in how many shows I acquired (I never did a copy of the show I attended in the summer of 2005). The obsessive side of my personality comes to life most often when it comes to my habit of collecting. I don’t pick up new shows with quite the same vengeance as I once did, and I probably don’t need to. The last count for Tori Amos alone was nearly two hundred, and that includes audio and video shows. If you were to tell me that I have not listened to them all, I would say you’re probably right. If you were to tell me that almost two hundred shows is kind of ridiculous, I would most likely agree with that, too. I can only shrug, and point to that obsessive collector’s personality trait. It’s not as bad as it used to be, but even if it was, I’d rather it be put towards books, films, music and the like, than some of the other distractions I’ve found over the years.

Self-control? That’s cute.

What I did get out of owning entirely too many Tori Amos concerts, besides collecting shows from other artists, were the people I met through the bootleg music community. Some of them are still friends of mine, and I can actually say that I learned a lot about the music that drives me, the heart of the motivation behind trading and collecting shows and about people who are even more weird, anal-retentive and obsessive than I could ever hope to be.

And that’s even if I don’t take my anti-depressants.

I couldn’t tell you how many people I met through trading, and from how many different countries that would include. Visiting every single address I ever shipped to would make for the kind of tour around the world I’ve been dreaming of since I was a little kid. There are a million places on the internet to meet other music nerds. I’ve probably hit half of them in the last thirteen years. A lot of them are, to me, a monstrous waste of time. Some of the people I traded shows with during my peak years consisted of just that, a trade or a B/P (“Blanks and Postage”, in which someone sends you shows in exchange for covering the costs of blanks and postage). I was often just happy to get what I asked for with minimal hassle. Sometimes it would lead to an engaging correspondence between fans of one artists or another or just music in general. I loved that. It was great to meet people who might point me towards a particularly good show, or to have that common ground of music make way for other shared interests. There might be a million other places, and emailing someone out of the blue to trade old Bob Dylan (Dylan’s following in terms of bootleg concerts is one of the older, more dedicated fan bases out there) concerts is not one of the most straightforward, but some of the best conversations and interactions I’ve had in my life have been those that appear unexpectedly.

Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan

That’s common sense, sure, but it’s easier than ever to become insulated with Facebook, Twitter and the like. I try to continue avoiding that, and I’ll consider any avenue that might help me do so. Even the traders who drove me to moments of madness with their rules for trading had something to offer. It was the only way I was ever going to learn about things like disc-at-once, track-at-once (it’s generally preferred that a show be broken down by tracks, like any live album), the grading scale for a show’s technical quality, lossless audio formats or international postage rates. In dealing with the more fervent members of the bootleg community I better understood such elements of trading as the legalities involved, which artists were supportive, non-supportive, or indifferent, and the work some do to maintain the best possible version of a show. That’s why concerts from decades ago sound as good as they did when first recorded.

I came to understand and appreciate all of that. Even as I wanted to hop a plane, travel to wherever an infuriatingly specific trader lived, knock, wait patiently for them to answer and present them with their shows. I wouldn’t decide until I had already knocked whether or not the envelope with their shows would also be attached to a brick.

I don’t trade shows the way I used to. It’s not quite the scene it once was. A lot of stuff can be downloaded from torrent sites or elsewhere. Physical media is a pain in the ass to begin with, and serious collectors have been moving away from it for a long time. Rising postage costs probably don’t help either. I used to get two or three emails a week from traders. These days it’s once in a very great while. It doesn’t bother me. I have close to a thousand bootlegs that represent a seemingly endless array or moods and types of music. I’ve picked up a better appreciation of artists like Tom Waits, Warren Zevon, Smashing Pumpkins, Pearl Jam, R.E.M., The Ramones and countless others. I’ve even found new music, by being sent something I was told I might like. I really don’t need anything more.

That obsessive collector’s instinct still kicks in when one of my favorites is getting ready to go out on tour. I embraced my weird hobbies and minor fixations a long time ago. One of them is music, and an extension of that are bootlegs. It doesn’t bother me that some people find this kind of thing ridiculously boring. I’m just happy that I’ve been able so often to indulge the part of me that’s actually interested in the differences between Springsteen’s haunting “Atlantic City” from the mid-80’s to the 2000’s. My pleasures in life are few, so anything that still cheers me up, gets my own creative energies kicking around, is more than welcome to stay with me. Music continues to be part of my support system. An amazing live performance, even if I wasn’t lucky enough to be there, can save my spirits as well as anything. It can help even when my favorite albums have exhausted their potential for a little while.