The ethics of bootlegging

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Bootleg –1. (verb) Make, distribute, or sell (illicit goods, esp. liquor, computer software, or recordings) illegally 2. (noun) An illegal musical recording, esp. one made at a concert.

When cowboys roamed the land, most of them wore tall boots that, as the name suggests, came equipped with ample bootlegs. Because cowboys were generally a resourceful and/or nefarious lot, they needed to stash important items (read: weapons, alcohol) somewhere safe and hidden, on their person. Enter: the bootleg. From the late 19th century onwards, the word “bootleg” was slapped onto anything that was purposely kept out of sight – Primer Magazine

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For the record, as a one-time store owner in downtown Newark, NJ, I want to affirm that I never sold bootlegs. I didn’t sell bootleg movies, CDs or merchandise. Yet, I’m not totally against them. We all know bootlegs are illegal, but I still think that as a producer, bootlegs serve a bigger purpose on some levels. Bootlegs come in several categories, of which two are the most prevalent. There are ‘knock-offs’, which are merchandise crafted to look like name brand products, sometimes made with counterfeit logos and all. These are usually clothing, perfume, handbags and leather goods or fashion accessories. I’m not referring to those kinds of counterfeits but the other main category of bootlegged items; music and movies.

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My perspective is a bit more unique than the average, since I was able to witness the evolution of the modern bootleg art piece throughout the 1990s from behind the scenes. In the early to mid-90s, technology was available that allowed individuals to be able to copy VHS tapes or CDs singularly or in mass with little degradation in quality. Back then, copying anything on audio or video would lead to distinct drop in quality on the second generation copy. If in turn, you made a copy of that copy the quality would be even worse, as the duplication always lost some resolution. However, as technology got better, clearer and clearer reproductions were able to be made. These copies were so good that in the so-called “hood” areas of the city, you could find a clear copy of a movie that was still in theaters at the time. This was not as widespread before the 1990s when smaller and smaller, quality cameras were being developed. Some say the first bootleg movies of this type were done by Chinese immigrants who had a corner on the market for counterfeit clothing and fashion accessories in New York City.

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The knowledge of this technology quickly spread to street entrepreneurs who made a nice amount of money off of selling duplicated movies and CDs in the parking lots of established brick and mortar locations. Thus, the idea of selling records out of the trunk of a car, like Master P was cultivated. People who first began selling copies of the latest mixtape CDs, began to sell movies as well. These items were in high demand because this was before the internet, when people didn’t have the ease of communication that they do now. This market provided the platform for independent producers to place their products in amongst the name brand bootlegs. So, because there was this market for bootlegs, independent music and movie producers like Master P were able to drop CDs and VHS tapes to an already developing marketing channel. By the late 1990s and early 2000s, name brand movies and CDs were only half the product stock compared to independent productions, if not less.

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So in all reality, the bootleg market helped pave the way for people like me, who had my own series of independently produced video mixtapes called Shades of Hip Hop. When I first began in 1996, my notion was to make available the uncensored parts of my local cable show, to friends and others so they would stop asking me to borrow copies of material I had just recorded. Because there was no market for VHS tapes like mine at the time, I got them placed on video store rental shelves in the documentary section and sold by bootleg movie vendors. The popularity of my videos sold by bootleggers, allowed me to move my products to states where stores didn’t have the retail space for new products such as mine yet. Record stores were also a bit skittish at first, because Shades of Hip Hop video mixtapes featured only underground, uncensored interviews and live freestyle sessions (cyphers), instead of studio-produced expensive music videos. In that sense, the bootleg movie circuit is what spawned the growth of the independent market during the 90s.

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Soon, with the popularity of my videos came the bootlegging of my own tapes. Sometimes I would spot a new location to sell videos and they would already have the bootleg version of my videos in stock. Each of these situations would be handled differently. I might take all the bootlegs and dare the store owner to stop me, or if it was an old tape I wasn’t currently pushing, I would let him keep the bootlegs if he bought copies of the new tape too, informing him that he would be seeing me again. I wasn’t completely mad though, because those bootlegs served as promotion for anything new I would be putting out. By the time I got to a new location they had already heard of my product. The bootlegs were like free word-of-mouth promotion and it didn’t cost me anything to produce it. That is the divide many people have with bootlegs of this nature. With digital or even analog copies, the producer of the content doesn’t have a hefty duplication or distribution fee even though he doesn’t get compensated for it. However, the promotion they may get in return could be priceless. In fact, I saw Master P’s first movie, ‘Bout it, Bout it’ on bootleg like most other people did. That fame helped propel him to where he is now on the Forbes list with over 300 million in net worth.

bootleg-dvdsStill, the major negative about bootlegs to me, is that vendors have no discipline. Not only will they try to bootleg and sell anything of any quality, they will also race to the bottom to do it. The problem with bootleggers is that since they have no pride in their product, they will sell it cheaper and cheaper to attract a sale over the competition. Therefore, the worth of bootlegs or independent movies and CDs in general, fell through the floor. At its apex in the 1990s, copies, original or bootleg, could sell for $20 each. Now, you can get first run movies at 2 for $5.

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The growth of streaming technology and YouTube hasn’t helped the independent market either. I often find independent uploads of my material on-line with many more times the hits on their page than mine, even though I’m the producer. It doesn’t bother me though, because that just means more people have seen my material in places where I can’t afford to promote at this time. Later, when I produce my 20 year anniversary deluxe editions, I will already have an audience who is familiar with my work, even if they don’t know it right now. So it’s kind of a win-win situation for me, as long as I plan on making new material or keeping my video production legacy alive.

SOHH-The-Cypher

Bootleg –1. (verb) Make, distribute, or sell (illicit goods, esp. liquor, computer software, or recordings) illegally 2. (noun) An illegal musical recording, esp. one made at a concert.

Kurt Nice

Kurt Nice aka Kurtiss Jackson is a behind the scenes pioneer in the Hip Hop Kulture, creating the first nationally distributed video mix tape series, Shades of Hip Hop, in the late 1990s. Since touring the country with the Stop the Violence Movement and the Temple of Hip Hop as KRS-ONE’s National Marketing Director, Kurt Nice has been a constant commentator on conscious Hip Hop and its relevance to the new rap music of today, through radio and cable appearances. contact Kurt at info@hiphoplives.net

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