The Good Listener: Is It OK To Bootleg Concerts?

We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and alongside the two quart-size tubs of barbecue sauce is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, thoughts on recording and trading live shows for our private enjoyment.

Wesley Warren writes via Facebook: I have a question about trading (not buying or selling) audio recordings of concerts — sometimes from a handheld mic, sometimes directly from the soundboard. Is it good for music and/or bands, or does it detract from sales? Is it ethical? Does it minimize the exclusivity and uniqueness of the concert-going experience? Does it detract from the time, attention and craftsmanship a band puts into recording those songs for an album?

In 2014, most bands will tell you that concert bootlegs have slid pretty far down the list of factors that threaten their livelihood; that they rank well below piracy, minuscule royalties for online streaming, the din of thousands of other bands, short and fickle audience attention spans and so on. Besides, with the rise of YouTube, most artists have had to come to terms with their shows being recorded in one way or another, and are frequently willing to (at the very least) look the other way. Compared to the number of people who circulate low-grade cell-phone recordings on the Internet, audiophile bootleggers who plug into the soundboard aren't plentiful, and are widely seen to have a negligible impact on sales either way.

But you're also wise to consider some caveats, too — starting with the fact that it's up to the taper to ask permission rather than request forgiveness. Among other things, there are factors and third-party players to consider that go beyond financial concerns. Many artists, past and present, have been horrified by the proliferation of muffled, badly mixed, amateurishly recorded representations of performances that were never meant to be heard outside the rooms in which they took place. Some artists record and sell their own soundboard recordings, and don't need competition from their fans. Many venues have strict policies about recordings made on their premises — they get a say in whether it's OK, too. When done in a boorish, thoughtless way, recording shows can intrude on the concert-going experiences of others. And why, many ask, do so many people focus on documenting shows instead of simply enjoying them?

Still, for many artists — not all, mind you, but many — it's easy to imagine that it might be viewed as a privilege that someone would go to the trouble of documenting and circulating a single random concert, especially given how often today's musicians are expected to perform sessions and concerts for free public consumption. Taken together, it all adds up to a simple piece of advice: You have to take this stuff on a case-by-case basis, and the central question you ask — "Is it ethical?" — can only be answered through the pursuit of permission. Ask the sound engineer onsite if you can plug into his or her board. Check the FAQ on the band's website to see if it has a policy on concert recordings. If you don't see your question answered, ask it via social media. As with so many ethical questions, you should always be willing to take no for an answer.

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