Collector’s Corner: Some Thoughts on Bootlegged Vinyl

Before getting back into vinyl collecting in the last 5 years, I was an avid collector of digital music. In the world of digital music, there are few barriers to getting what you want. Digital music is either very inexpensive or free and even the most obscure tracks can be found and downloaded/streamed in seconds. That, of course, is not the case for vinyl.

In collecting vinyl, there can be many barriers to getting the piece you want including cost,  distribution, rarity, year of release, etc. In most cases, music produced in the 90’s until the 2010’s were never produced on vinyl at all making the task impossible — or is it? Increasingly there is a supply of vinyl bootlegs making it on to the market to meet the market demand driven, in part, by the expectations set by the MP3 boom. We want what we want and we want it now. And we want it on vinyl! A quick look around eBay, Discogs, and other online merchants shows a wide assortment of bootleg albums of normally impossible to find vinyl albums at greatly reduced prices.

As bootlegging does not appear to be legal, it’s very difficult to come by details on the products and/or those who produce them. Here are some answers to frequently asked questions about bootlegs:

How can I tell from a listing if an album is a bootleg?

There are a number of clues to look for including:

  • The LP is called “Limited Release” or “Unofficial”.
  • The album is rated as “Mint” or “Near Mint” despite the title being many years old
  • The price of a particular copy is much lower than the other listings
  • You see a lot of this rare album available at this low price
  • You can’t find any official release info

I was going to say to check if it is also available through Amazon as a test. But with its Marketplace approach, a bootleg can easily find its way to your house (happened to me).

Once I get the record, how can I tell if it’s a bootleg by its appearance?

This will be pretty obvious to you:

The Sleeve: Typically the cardboard in the sleeve is much flimsier than an official record. The graphics tend to be a little duller in colour and not nearly as crisp. Often double albums that would have been gatefold in official form are presented as a single sleeve with two generic, white inner sleeves shoved in together. No liner notes are typically included.

Label on Official Release
Label on Official Release
Label on Unofficial Release
Label on Unofficial Release

The Record: The record will typically be quite thick and the hole in the centre will be very tight when you place it on your turntable the first dozen times. The colour of the vinyl can vary but can sometimes have a marble effect or just standard black. The labels are often generic or a poor reproduction of the original.

How do they sound?

The answer to that depends entirely on the quality of individual bootleg. Mine sound passable but pretty indistinguishable in fidelity from the MP3 versions apart from the crackles.

A Case Study: The Stone Roses Debut LP

Considered one of the best debut albums of all time, the Stone Roses LP is much in demand amongst vinyl collectors. On Discogs, despite reissues and bootlegs being available, the median price on an original copy is $69. Before the recent reissue (2014 on 180 gram vinyl), the prices were much higher. Even a 2010 reissue didn’t meet the market demand. But a mass bootleg effort was made in recent years that really changed the market. See this Discogs listing below:

A listing of bootleg copies of the Stone Roses' debut LP on Discogs
A listing of bootleg copies of the Stone Roses’ debut LP on Discogs

I was curious about these releases and spent the $19 to get a copy. Here is a comparison of that bootleg vs the 2014 reissue to help illustrate some of the earlier points.

The outer sleeve of the official and unofficial versions. Can you tell the difference?
The outer sleeve of the official and unofficial versions. Can you tell the difference?

Outer Sleeve: There is an obvious difference in colour in the two images. The one on the left is the unofficial (bootleg) copy. The colours are the wrong tint and lack the contrast and depth of the official copy. In addition, the cardboard on the bootleg version is extremely flimsy.

Stone Roses Inner Sleeve Comparison

Inner Sleeve: There really isn’t anything to talk about here. The bootleg has a generic white inner sleeve while the official release has full colour piece of artwork with graphics on one side and photos on the other. Very durable cardboard is used for the official release.

Stone Roses LP comparison - Vinyl Comparison

The Vinyl: Here we see the marbled vinyl so common in bootleg releases versus the jet black vinyl of the official copy. The labels on the bootleg were obviously scanned from the original, but are faded and blurry in comparison. The sound quality isn’t bad on the bootleg, but very good on the official version.

The Price Difference: You can go on Amazon.ca and get the reissue for $21 or you can go on eBay and buy the bootleg for…$19 or $20. To be clear, the reissue only came out earlier this year, so anybody that really wanted a vinyl copy prior to that didn’t have an inexpensive option other than a bootleg. But given the number of reissues coming out on a monthly basis, patience is suggested as opposed to making the impulse purchase of a bootleg. I wish I had waited.

There is always an exception

The only cases where I would buy a bootleg are if (1) the recording is of something that has never been released in any other format (eg. live sessions, etc.) or (2) if I really wanted a replica of cult release that will never be reissued due to its obscurity. There is a long history of obsessives releasing/collecting live recordings, alternate versions, special artwork etc. on vinyl. But these clearly aren’t being offered as alternatives to the real thing — they are supplemental to official releases and are aimed at super-collectors.

Additional Reading:

Unlicensed to Ill: By Leor Galil, Chicago Reader

Vinyl Revival Brings Back The Bootleg: By Clive Young, Prosound News

Unauthorized At Any Speed: By Richard Brophy, Resident Advisor

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