Asahi Evening News, December 15, 1996
By: Matthew Zuckerman

"The [Japanese] market we never knew existed," said the pseudonymous Mrs. Toad, "until we met the Byrdman..."

The Byrdman stretched his arms over the width of the coffee table and said, "If this is the world, everything is Japan except for this tiny corner and that's the rest of the world." What they are talking about is the market for bootleg CDs. There might be a slight exaggeration in the scale of what Byrdman (like Mrs. Toad, a pseudonym and a bootlegger) said, but there's no doubt that Japan is indeed the world capital of bootlegging.

What exactly is a bootleg? The word came into existence during the Prohibition Era in the United States (1920-33), when the production, sale and importation of alcoholic beverages was illegal, "bootleg" whisky being illegally distilled liquor that was often hidden in the top of a smuggler's boot to avoid detection. Later the term became used more widely for illicitly made goods, and now it usually refers to illegally made CDs.

Actually, there are three different kinds of illicit CDs - bootlegs, counterfeits and pirates. A 'counterfeit' is an unlicensed recording that is identical in appearance and contents to a legitimate release and is intended to pass itself off as such. The label might say "Sony," "Capitol" or "EMI," but no royalties will ever be seen by the company or artist. A 'pirate' will also contain material taken without permission from a legitimate release. However, it is not a straight copy of a standard release, but a compilation of tracks, usually entitled "Rolling Stones Golden Hits," "The Magic of Rod Stewart" or something even more original. Most of the CDs you see selling for 1,000 on the street or in train stations are pirates.

Bootleg recordings are something else again, and while they are also illegal, there is some kind of moral grey area involved. Most bootleg recordings are releases of live concerts, either taped by a member of the audience on a DAT recorder - often hidden in the top of his boot (in an interesting return to tradition) - or taken from a soundboard recording.

The moral case against pirates and counterfeits is clear: the recordings belong to the artists and companies, who will receive nothing at all from the sale of CDs - which will be bought in place of the legitimate ones. In short, it is theft. In contrast, most bootlegs are bought by fans who already possess all the legitimate releases of an artist, so there is no direct loss of income on the part of the artist or the recording company.

In Europe and the U.S., little distinction is made between the three types, and they are all hunted down by the police, aided by such organizations as the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and the British Phonograph Industry (BPI). The big illicit profits are realized by the pirates and the counterfeits, but these CDs are usually produced in China or South Korea, and organizations like the Mafia and Yakuza are often involved - by no means easy targets. Since the RIAA and the BPI both get their funding from the recording industry, visible proof of their effectiveness is necessary to assure future funds, and so periodic busts of the bootleg cottage industry is a godsend for them.

Of course, things are a bit different in Japan. Just as pirated (and occasionally counterfeit) CDs are readily available in the corridors of every large train station in Tokyo, stores specializing in bootlegs can be found without too much difficulty - many of them located in the back streets of Shinjuku. Unlike their European or North American counterparts, Japanese bootleggers don't seem to suffer from so many unfriendly visits from officials, and they can sell pretty much anything they like.

With one notable exception. No matter how extensively you forage through the bootleg world, you will not find one single bootleg CD of a Japanese musician.

Now this is not due to fear of reprisals from Japanese recording companies - Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen are both signed to Sony, but bootleg albums of theirs are readily available. It seems that breaking the law is not the only issue at stake here. While Dylan and Springsteen might be signed to a Japanese recording company, their management is American and therefore outside the control of certain shady forces that have fingers in every promotional pie concerning local artists in Japan. Fans of SMAP will just have to make do with official releases and TV appearances.

But what of the quality of bootleg recordings? The popular image of a bootleg is of an unlistenably scratchy piece of vinyl packaged in a plain, white sleeve with a murky, photocopied insert. Nowadays, this couldn't be further from the truth. Bootlegs are often a match for official recordings in both sound quality and appearance, and in a few notable instances, even superior.

Bob Dylan's recent "Unplugged" CD released by Sony had a strikingly dull cover, remixed sound that took away most of the live "feel" of the performance, and a pressing error which somehow looped the audience applause all the way through "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," giving us an irritating whistle from someone in the audience repeated every four seconds. (The mistake was belatedly corrected, but no recall was ever issued.) In contrast, the bootleg versions all boasted excellent covers, true performance sound, and no cock-ups. They also featured a number of songs left off the official releases that were the highlights of the show.

None of this changes the fact that bootlegging is against the law. It is interesting to note, however, that the first publication of Hamlet's immortal soliloquy ran thus:

To be, or not to be; ay, there's the point
To die, to sleep, is that all? Ay, all;
Not, to sleep, to dream. Ay, marry, there it goes,
For in that dream of death, when we awake
And bourne before an everlasting judge
From whence no passenger ever returned.
No, this is not an early draft, but a "bootleg," taken down in shorthand (without the aid of a DAT recorder and therefore somewhat mangled) during a performance and published in 1603 without Shakespeare's permission. It is thought that this is what prompted the Bard to agree to publication of a number of his scripts. So without the bootleggers, maybe Hamlet's soliloquy wouldn't have proved so immortal after all.

In this battle, the recording companies certainly have the law on their side, but the bootleggers have technology on theirs. Tape recorders are getting better and smaller all the time (thanks ironically to Sony's R&D department), and short of installing metal detectors at concert halls, it's hard to see how the tapers can be stopped. Who will win? We'll have to wait and see, but history would seem to favor the fellow with the bulge in the leg.

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