The Golden Age of Music Piracy
Jul 31 2010
ILLUSTRATION BY JIM KREWSON
In 1969, two young hippies named Ken Douglas and Dub Taylor heard some unreleased Dylan material on one of the edgier LA radio stations. The station had acquired a copy of the illicit The Basement Tapes, which were, at that time, circulating around the underground. Being Dylan superfans, Douglas and Taylor decided that they wanted their own copies of the tapes. But also being somewhat crafty and ambitious, they decided that they wanted the tapes pressed to vinyl for clearer sound, longer life span, and heftier physical presence. So they pressed up a bunch. They kept their own copies of the initial run of 100 and put the other 96 out for sale at a hippie-friendly LA record store to cover their costs. The record sold out almost immediately despite the fact that it had only a plain white sleeve and labels recycled from leftover jobs at the pressing plant. So Douglas and Taylor pressed more, as did other people who had caught on to the idea. Great White Wonder, as the untitled, unofficial Dylan record came to be known, had accidentally given birth to the bootleg-record industry.
At their best, bootleg labels were a weird amalgamation of fan club, DIY project, and guerrilla capitalist endeavor. They were run by people who were genuinely obsessed with the artists, whose shows they taped and whose tape libraries they raided. But the bootleggers also possessed a hustler’s mentality when it came to business and ducking the law. Clinton Heylin’s definitive Bootleg: The Secret History of the Other Recording Industry reads like that Johnny Depp movie Blow remade as a vehicle for total music geeks, with characters named things like the Rubber Dubber and John Wizardo coming up with a constant series of ideas to evade the authorities and supply the people with all the Who live albums and unreleased Beatles sessions they desired.
Douglas and Taylor went on to start the Trademark of Quality label, which released an amazing string of records including the very first live concert bootleg, the Rolling Stones’ Live’r Than You’ll Ever Be. The label split up and reunited and split up again before Douglas decided to get out of the game in the mid-70s to move to New Zealand and become a writer. Recently he’s been blogging about his experiences in the bootleg business, which is how I found him.
Vice: You grew up in California, right?
Ken Douglas: Yeah.
Tell me how you got involved in the record business to begin with. You came from a more legit side of things, right?
I was born into it. My dad owned Saturn Records, which, at the time, was the largest buyer of phonographic records west of the Mississippi. At least that’s what somebody told me.
So you just sort of fell into that as the family business?
How did you distribute your first bootlegs?
Dub had a friend who had deserted from the army just as he was to be shipped out to Vietnam, and then he sold them for us. However, he made a mistake. He went to the very first place to sell them, a place called Vogue Records on Hollywood Boulevard, and the guy who owned the store, a guy named Bill Bowers, bought them all. So we figured out that maybe we had a hit on our hands.
And you guys immediately started repressing it?
Well, yeah. We pressed another 300 copies and sold them, and then another couple 300.
You knew pretty much right away that this was potentially something that could make you some money?
No. Because, see, we were kids. I think I was like 20 or 21? And Dub was the same age, maybe a year younger. We thought what we were doing was, like, against the law. We thought we’d get in a lot of trouble and the stores knew us, so we had someone else go around to the stores. Meanwhile, the guys who made the big money, guys who started a bootleg label after ours, they had lawyers. They found out that it wasn’t against the law because it had never been done before. And so they made a living off these things.
It seems like at the time there was a combination of a lot of artists like Dylan, the Beatles, and the Stones that people were really, really obsessive over, and also these kinds of laws that were open enough that you could feasibly get away with something like bootlegging.
Yeah. But we didn’t know that at the time. I’m trying to remember what it was like when I was 21 years old. We initially didn’t do it for the money. We initially did it so that we could have copies of the records, and then the Stones came and Dub wanted to record them. So we bought a Uher tape recorder and a Sennheiser mic. We didn’t make a gang of money on the Dylan boot Great White Wonder. But we did a gang of money on the Stones’ Live’r Than You’ll Ever Be.
Was that when things started taking off for you?
I don’t know. I don’t know what taking off is. Taking off compared to what? I mean, it was good for us. We did OK because, remember, we were still kids. So you know, the records were taking off. We weren’t making millions of dollars or even tens of thousands of dollars. But we were doing OK. We were making rent. We weren’t buying property or anything.
I saw something in one of your blog posts about how Dub was living pretty large...
OK, yeah. I’m older now and I know what large really is. So we thought we were living large. We had new cars. I had a motorcycle. But I still worked. I never quit my job for years. I worked at Saturn and I worked as a social worker all the time I was doing bootlegs. I was working right up until, I don’t know, ’75 or ’76. I don’t want you to get confused. I don’t want you to think we made a million dollars.
I didn’t think you made a million dollars, but it seemed you were living all right for some younger dudes.
Yeah. We were able to go to Europe a couple times. We were doing all right.
You’ve said earlier that you guys didn’t get into it for the money, that it was a labor of love.
Well, for Dub it was a labor of love. For Andrew, who came later, it was a labor of love. I don’t think it was a labor of love for some of the other bootleggers like Rubber Dubber or Norty and Ben. I think they were doing it for the money. Although Scott seemed to really like music so maybe I shouldn’t include him in there. He was a Rubber Dubber guy. And then eventually for me it was not a labor of love, it was about money.
Do you remember what point it was that it became a money thing for you?
Yeah, in ’72 and ’73. But I always knew, unlike most of the other people who were doing it, and I’ve written this in a couple blogs, I always knew it was stealing. I never thought for a second that we had the right to give the music away for free to the people.
On the other hand, there’s sort of an outlaw aura to the whole bootlegging thing. It’s not letting the companies, or even the musicians themselves, determine what gets released. It’s like if the fans want a live record or if the fans want Dylan’s The Basement Tapes, bootleggers are sort of liberating the music for the fans. Is that over-romanticizing the situation, or was there an element of that?
You’re spot-on as far as Dub and a lot of the other people are concerned. You’re spot-on. Dub was really into Bob Dylan.
You mentioned you were working at Saturn while you were still doing some of the bootlegging. How was it having that double life, working both sides of the industry, like the legit and the underground, at the same time?
Well, in the beginning it was really strange because, for example, they kept saying they were trying to catch us, but our Capitol salesman knew who we were and what we were doing and he never said anything. A good percentage of the customers who came in who owned record stores knew who we were and didn’t say anything. I guess you would call them the cool ones—the ones who had the $2.99-record stores. At the time, records were going for like $4.98 and there was a lot of, like—I don’t want to say hippies, but young people… hippies, I guess—who had record stores and sold records for $2.99. They sold our kind of records. They knew who Dub and I were and they never told. More and more people knew and they never told. It wasn’t like we were really leading double lives.
Do you feel like you were able to take some of the skills and knowledge and contacts that you had from the straight business that you were doing and apply it to bootlegs?
It didn’t feed into it?
No. After the second record, after Live’r, we just walked into recording studios. When we did Stealin’ [their second Dylan boot], we just walked into a recording studio and the guy put it on and he was crying, “This is Bob Dylan!” Everybody, all the producers and everybody in the studio, just stopped and came in and listened to the record we had mastered, you know? And everybody thought it was really cool. Everybody in there knew that we didn’t work for Bob Dylan.
It seems like there was, in terms of pressing, a sort of hit-or-miss element in terms of figuring out how and where you could get records pressed.
Not really. It was pretty easy. In those days, people who owned record distributorships said, if the guy doesn’t steal more from me than he makes me, I can’t afford to fire him. I don’t want to say everybody was a crook… but just about everybody was a crook. We would just walk into a pressing plant and say this is what we have, and they would make it and we would pay them—in cash.
That seems like an incredibly gutsy thing to do.
Well, the first pressing plant we approached was a place called Wadell’s. They pressed Verve and Disney stuff. We had a friend go in to meet them because we were just frightened kids. Our guy who talked to them wasn’t involved in the record business at all. He figured, what did he have to lose. So he went in there and he said that they made the mold, put it on, listened to it, and—this was the Stones live record—they pressed it right alongside Let It Bleed. They would have to have been not very bright to not know that it was the Rolling Stones on our record. That’s when we figured we could be doing this ourselves.
Wow. You guys were going in and pressing stuff right—totally legit.
Live’r was literally pressed right next to Let It Bleed. But the only plants we didn’t use, obviously, were Capitol and Columbia.
Were there a lot of independent pressing plants back then?
There were. Are there any now? We used Wadell, Jack Brown, Louis, Korelich… we used one on Hollywood Boulevard whose name I can’t remember right now.
I know there was some time where there were some authorities interested in your operation, right?
Yeah. There was a guy named Pete somebody-or-other, whose name I can’t remember. He was a process server who worked for Columbia Records, and he was after us. The first thing Columbia did is that they issued a statement to Billboard magazine saying that it wasn’t Bob Dylan, it was someone who sounded like Bob Dylan. Well, obviously no one believed that. They said that about a bunch of people. Then they hired this Pete guy to get on our trail and find us, so that they could sue us. And he did actually serve me, but he served me a subpoena with Dub’s name on it. It wasn’t valid. Other than that, in those days, we were just, like, really careful.
Well… that’s a lie. We were not really careful. Some of us weren’t really careful. Dub went and gave an interview to Rolling Stone magazine.
That was either brave or stupid.
We were kids. We didn’t know better. I think it was with Greil Marcus—but he gave Dub’s name as Vladimir.
That’s a really deep cover. Just giving a different name.
Well, yeah, because the next month they got his real name and we figured that that would be a problem if there were process servers looking for Dub. So I told Ben Goldman, who owned a store called Ben’s Records and who was Norty Beckman, our biggest competition’s, brother-in-law, that Dub and his girlfriend still lived in Vancouver and had just opened a gas station there. Lo and behold, there it was next month in Rolling Stone: Dub Taylor moved to Vancouver and opened a gas station, and that was the only guy I told.
That’s pretty sneaky. You guys were total hippies at the time?
Yeah, we were. We were actually like, “Fuck the man!”
It’s pretty common knowledge that the major-label record industry has always been really corrupt and kind of devious.
Well, I know lots of stories where they screwed over artists. I’m not going to go into those, but I have lots of stories. I never really liked the labels. I thought they were all just crooks. But then again, that meant that we were crooks.
Yeah. But at least you guys were kind of up-front about being crooks.
The difference is they wore suits and had short hair and we had really long hair and wore Levi’s and cowboy boots.
The labels weren’t above taking hints from the bootleg industry.
The Stones never would have released Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out if it weren’t for Live’r. [The Who’s] Live at Leeds looks just like a bootleg. Look at Bob Dylan. Are you familiar with the The Bootleg Series? My dad sent me copies of the first volume, and he checked off all the ones he thought they copied from us.
There are also things like B-sides and rarities collections, and even box sets, that started off as bootleg formats and have been adopted by the legit labels. It seems, in the end, bootleggers helped the record industry as much as they hurt it.
Scott Johnson, a Rubber Dubber guy, once told me that he had a friend who worked at Warner Bros. who said that he considered Rubber Dubber an unpaid advertising arm of Elektra/Atlantic.
What about artist reactions to your bootlegs?
Neil Young said something derogatory about a bootleg we did of his stuff, and so we stopped making it. We figured, fuck him. He doesn’t get to get bootlegged by us.
You guys had some balls on you.
Keith Richards was going into stores in Berkeley to buy up the bootlegs, and a lot of bootlegs were signed by Mick Jagger. I’ve got a photograph of a signed Mick Jagger Live’r. So, a lot of the artists seemed to like it. They realized they’d make a lot of money on concerts, and bootlegs are not costing them very much, and it’s good publicity.
Were there any times when things got really dicey or scary?
My dad had financed a good percentage of black record stores in Los Angeles. Since I knew pretty much everybody who owned those stores, and I knew what was selling, we got the idea that we would just pick the No. 1 and No. 2 single, which I think were “The Onion Song” by Marvin Gaye and something else, and put them back to back. Then we would hire a guy, because Dub and I didn’t want to go around to the black stores, because they knew us, and we didn’t want them to know it was us. So we hired a guy to go to those stores to sell these records. We figured we’d make a bunch of money really fast because it only cost 15 or 16 cents to press these things up. So we pressed up 300 and had someone run them to all the stores. No one would buy any. They all knew it was a bad thing. And then these gangster guys, they figured out immediately who did it and they came to my dad’s house within three or four days. My dad was having dinner when these gangsters came in. They hit him in the stomach with an ax handle when he tried to protest, and they told him they wanted his son and they wanted him now. My dad set up an appointment and we were going to have a meeting and they wanted all the money we made—but we didn’t make any ’cause none of those black stores bought these records, because they were smart. And in those days, black people didn’t have the same rights as white people did, and they didn’t have the same recourse with the law. So they had to take matters into their own hands. And that’s exactly what they did. They told my dad they wanted all of the stampers, all of the records, and all of the money we made. Dub and I figured we should throw in a thousand bucks so they’d think we made something and were giving it to them.
What was that meeting like?
It was in the back of my dad’s house. Myself and my two brothers, we cut little holes in the wall and we had guns pointed out at these guys when they came in. We were just dumb, scared kids.
Looking back on your bootlegging experience, what’s your overall feeling now about what you did?
Well, I moved to New Zealand and I wrote a book called Ragged Man. It’s a horror story, and in it, this monster guy kills all these bootleggers. That’s how I got it out of my system. I just spent six months killing them all. And when the book came out, it didn’t mean anything to anybody because people who read horror stories don’t care about bootleggers. I reissued it a while back.
It’s sort of a shame, at least in my opinion, that there’s not the same kind of bootlegging now as you were doing back then. New bootlegs tend to be exchanged on the internet, but there’s something about the feel of having the tactile sensation of bootlegged vinyl in your hands. I mean, the fact that you know you shouldn’t have it makes it that much cooler.
Yeah, but the guys who wanted to give away the music for free won. One taper goes to every single Dylan show anywhere in the world—so he’s got to have a lot of cash—and he does a really good job and he puts them online for free. How can you compete with that? Now you can just get whatever you want for free.
Unreleased material and live shows come out online all the time now. With that, on top of file sharing and how the record labels adopted so many formats from you guys, it seems like your quest has been legitimized by history.
You know, I never thought about it like that, but yes! Because, you know, when I see how poorly the record companies are doing, I sort of smile.
Getting Drunk Off a Humidifier Isn't All It's Cracked Up to Be
Kristin Cavallari Hosted Fashion Week’s Worst Party
My Father Was a Terrorist
Ryan McGinley's 'Yearbook' Show Shut Down an Entire City Block
I Worked for a Puppy Mill
John Waters's Cavalcade of Perversions
I Played Chess with GZA of the Wu-Tang Clan
‘Sunshine Superman’ Documents the Rise and Fall of BASE Jumping’s Creator
It’s Time to Start Boycotting the NFL
This Week in Teens: Teenagers Are Going to the Bathroom in All the Wrong Places