Now is a bad time to be a giant music corporation, but ethically challenged music fans couldn't ask for better days. Bootlegging has always been about catering directly to the fans, and the internet breeds the best bootleggers yet: bigger, stronger, and faster than ever before. It's 10 million filesharers trading a billion and a half songs daily.
In retrospect, CD-Rs bent the CD down the middle, and MP3 players snapped it in two. And although the industry is still in shock, smaller and more agile labels are already accepting the inevitable and locking into a vinyl/digital-only production schedule in order to plug their revenue gaps.
Since filesharing is permanent enough now that you can buy $19-per-year lawsuit insurance, it's time to acknowledge the bright side. "Out of print" doesn't mean anything anymore. If you can learn about it, you can listen to it. And if the record company doesn't want to reissue it, you can probably find it without even having to stand up. The romance of the hunt is long gone, but the music is cheap, accessible, and instant; that's the music industry of the future -- brought to you now by Russian MP3 pirates, obsessive genre bloggers, and criminals selling albums off a blanket on the street.
Here are this year's highlights in unfair shares:
AllOfMP3.com: In June, the U.S. government threatened to obstruct Russia's entry into the World Trade Organization if the country didn't shut down this site selling copyrighted MP3s at pennies on the dollar. And indeed, near the end of 2006, Mother Russia agreed to punish its naughty child. But AllOfMP3 -- which charges by volume, not by song, like a record store with a butcher's scale at the register -- isn't down yet. As a bootleg site, AllOfMP3's success is baffling; it probably takes less effort to get these songs for free. But it's a nice nostalgic nod to the foreign pressing plants of the '60s and '70s: music beyond the reach of international law.
Street Meat: If you live in one of the Recording Industry Association of America's 12 priority piracy cities (Cleveland didn't make the cut), you can buy bootlegs on the sidewalk, out of a trunk, or on the bus. "A disturbing trend," says RIAA executive VP Brad Buckles. "As the pirate music trade continues to evolve, criminals are enhancing their products." Thanks for the tip, Brad! Now on the menu are knockoffs of chart hits bulked up with bonus tracks, chopped & screwed remixes, and the RIAA's dreaded "dream compilations" -- albums mixing tracks from competing labels.
Zune: Microsoft's Zune (a.k.a. the BetaPod) seems destined to be a thrift-store staple -- which is too bad, because wireless file transfer without Microsoft's copyright restrictions is a seductive idea. Imagine the record conventions of 2016: a bunch of geeks pointing blinking black boxes at one another and going home with a billion and a half new songs. But the fact remains that instant player-to-player wireless transfer would (and probably eventually will) be the most efficient reiteration of the old going-over-to-your-friend's-house-with-a-bag-of-blank-tapes ritual.
MySpaceGopher: Everyone with electricity and an instrument has a MySpace Music site, but the songs are still downloadable only with artist approval. Inevitably, though, hackers created a gopher application, which bypasses that approval. And while it's disrespectful, they have effectively ransacked exclusive pre-release streaming content.
Sharity Blogs: These entities resurrect full albums, long lost or forgotten, and post them in their entirety on overseas hosting sites. It'd be almost obscenely exploitative, except for the obvious love and research put into the selections. This is a scholarly crowd on an admirable mission: rescuing suppressed Japanese terror-folk, Brazilian psych nuggets, and buried golden-age hip-hop from graves where reissue labels fear to dig.
Premix Leaks: These are quickly becoming routine. TV on the Radio's Cookie Mountain came out months prematurely, the Shins' Wincing the Night Away (due in January) has leaked at least twice in different versions, and Bloc Party's A Weekend in the City (due in February) hit the networks in November. The solution now belongs to the PR people: A correctly leveraged premix can garner a spike of welcome publicity -- just ask Lupe Fiasco. The MC was crowned the future of hip-hop months before Atlantic officially released his Food & Liquor.
Virtual Release: If legendary 78 collector Joe Bussard could plug an iBook directly into his Victrola, he'd be making these. This is real ghostly stuff sourced from unreleased sessions, radio broadcasts, or repo'd master tapes. Sure, that's all time-honored bootleg chow, but virtual releases go straight from the source to the fileshares, skipping physical media entirely. For instance: New Jersey's WFMU recently popularized a Faust album that never made it past a few Virgin Records promo tapes until someone copied it up to MP3. Companion to this are homemade virtual compilations issued direct from the collector's originals -- a stack of rare funk 45s, say -- to the fileshares. These albums are aimed at audiences so microscopic, there's almost no profit in pressing up hard copies, and as such, they're usually pretty great.
Give It Away Now: Nobody can steal what you give away. A California band called Wooden Shjips put out its EP for free this year; all you had to do was ask, and there was a real record in your actual hands. And it was really good too: blown-out psych-rock with vocals echoplexed to infinity. In fact, it was so good that I bought a copy with my own actual money, just for old times' sake.