Rolling on Stealth Mode: Meet the Crafty Motherfuckers Bootlegging Music Festivals

From Coachella to Glastonbury, a sprawling subculture remains devoted to the trading and archiving of unauthorized recordings of your favorite sets.

by Peter Holslin
Apr 14 2016, 4:00pm

For the past week, Daryl has been busy preparing to attend his eleventh Coachella. His car is already jam-packed with camping gear. He's got wristbands for both weekends. And, of course, he's making sure to pack his trusty Sony PCM-M10—the handheld digital recorder that he'll use to make bootleg recordings of his favorite sets at the Southern California music festival, which he'll then upload online as free downloads in the days that follow.

Daryl—not his real name—has been taping shows at Coachella since 2012, and in that time he's developed a reputation as perhaps the festival's most dependable concert taper. He's captured over 100 artist performances at Coachella and other venues over the past four years. On message boards and online recording hubs, fellow fans refer to him a "hero," rejoicing over links to free downloads of his high quality FLAC files capturing memorable sets like Pulp's 2012 reunion and Grinderman's final performances in 2013.

Daryl knows he's breaking the rules by bringing his recording device into the Empire Polo Field; Coachella's "wristband terms of use" explicitly call for no recording without permission. But he believes he's working for the greater good.

"I view it definitely as an archival, historical document," Daryl tells me over the phone in the weeks ahead of this year's festival, which happens April 15-17 and April 22-24.

Bootlegs have been a part of music history, especially rock music history, for more than 40 years. Throughout the 70s, 80s, and 90s—that is, before the internet and large-scale piracy—rare and unauthorized releases fed into rock 'n' roll lore, while fly-by-night record labels made a killing off of their unofficial live LPs and CDs.

In more recent years, the economics have shifted, and some of the outlaw romance has dissipated as this specialized market has been overshadowed by crappy cameraphone recordings, BitTorrent album leaks, and popular (and legal) web series like La Blogothèque and NPR's Tiny Desk Concerts. Despite this, a sprawling subculture remains devoted to the trading and archiving of what concert tapers call "stealth" (a.k.a. unauthorized) recordings.

Daryl is but one member of this elusive underground. He can't share too many details about himself, lest he attract the attention of festival authorities. But he lives in the LA area, not a long drive from the Mojave desert where Coachella is held, and he's a devoted festival attendee. Over the years, it's become an annual pilgrimage.

Among the approx 90,000 attendees that annually make their way to Indio, Daryl is an inconspicuous presence, and he likes to keep it that way. For the dozen or more sets he plans to record, he'll show up early, stand quietly at strategic locations near the stage, and avoid conversation as he takes it all in with the help of some James Bond-style microphones clipped inconspicuously to his sunglasses or hat.

"Think about photographs, right? Photographs are historical items. Photographing the Civil War, right? People look at that as history," he says, emphasizing the value of his handiwork. "Even video—the video of the man landing on the moon. So why can't audio recordings be considered the same thing? Obviously they are. Just because it's an audio recording of a live concert doesn't mean that it's not an archive or a capture of that moment of history."

The studious 31-year-old, who works in web design and programming by day, first got into bootlegs back in the late 90s. As a teenager growing up in Northern California, he was obsessed with Nirvana, and the file-sharing service Napster opened him up to a whole realm of live and rare recordings that went beyond the band's relatively small discography. By the time he graduated high school, Daryl's Nirvana collection was so massive that he started consulting detailed online databases managed by fellow Nirvana nerds to keep track of it all. Meanwhile his voracious appetite extended to bootleg recordings of bands like Metallica, New Order, and Godspeed You! Black Emperor.

Daryl attended his first Coachella in 2005, and soon he was hitting up the festival's official message board to gather up links to recordings of his favorite bands. He was especially blown away by the recordings of a user named BoldCaptain; back then the taper (who hasn't been active in more recent years) was known for making pristine recordings of performances like Daft Punk's iconic 2006 pyramid set. Eventually, inspired by what he was hearing, Daryl decided to make some recordings himself.

He spent months researching different gear options before finally settling on the Sony PCM-M10. The device, paired with Sonic Studios DSM mics, offers solid sound quality, and it's not too cumbersome either—only about the size of a first-generation iPod. It's a marked improvement on the MiniDisc and DAT recorders of 10 years ago, to say nothing of the clunky reel-to-reel tape recorders from the 60s and 70s that bootleggers used to capture bands along with mics held aloft by their hands or at the ends of broomsticks.

Despite technological advances, the hustle is increasingly demanding as venues and festivals up searches and pat-downs. Sometimes recording can feel like a job in and of itself.

"You bought all the equipment. You go to the festival, you're out there under the hot sun, you're recording a band. You can't move, you can't really talk," he says, noting that quality equipment runs him upwards of $500. "You gotta take that file, you gotta take it off the SD card, you gotta put it into the audio program. You gotta track it—so you gotta cut the songs yourself, so where the song ends and the next one begins. You gotta write up an info file, find the setlist, name the setlist, name all the files, then convert the files over to whatever format you're going to do it in, and then share it.

"There's so much work that goes into it that it's actually kinda tiring," he adds. "That's why, I'll be honest—I still have certain recordings from Coachella this past year and the year before, 2014, that I haven't actually put online yet."

Live bootlegs used to be rare items in the rock 'n' roll canon—the only way you could get a copy of, say, the renowned Bob Dylan vinyl bootleg Great White Wonder, or a CD of that live show where Jimi Hendrix jams with a horribly drunken Jim Morrison, was by paying top dollar at a local record store or, later, hitting up eBay. That, or you'd have to use snail mail to trade cassettes with fellow tapers, advertising your goods in the back pages of Goldmine magazine.

But since the taper community moved online in the early 00s, it's become ridiculously easy to gobble up as many concerts as you could possibly want. Assisting are archival sites like Coachella Recordings and torrent trackers like, in addition to Coachella's own message boards, Tumblr, and Reddit. Not all host downloads themselves, but they'lll point you in the right direction.

At a time when just about any music fan can, and does, whip out a smartphone to record a set—or simply search for it later on YouTube—going to all the trouble of making these unauthorized recordings seems a bit much. But Daryl relishes his archives. To him they're not just historical documents; they're also intimate mementoes. One of his favorite recordings is of Arcade Fire's headlining performance from Coachella's weekend one in 2014. "Alright guys, we're going to fucking give you every ounce of everything we have!" Win Butler yells as the Canadian outfit grooves through a 20-song set that ends with a glorious, 14-minute rendition of "Wake Up" where the audience chants in unison while the Preservation Hall Jazz Band does a funky acoustic outro.

Daryl has listened to the recording again and again, and it always reminds him of the joy he felt as his weekend came to a storybook ending: His phone was dead and he'd lost track of his friends, but minutes before the band kicked into gear, a fellow camper friend spotted him from across a stage barrier and soon he was back hanging with his whole crew.

"They knew I was recording it so they actually were pretty good at kind of being quiet and not, like, yelling or talking into the mic during the show," he recalls. "It was just good times."

Other tapers also feel a personal connection to the shows they record.

"Primarily, I tape for myself," says Reggie, a veteran taper and moderator for concert recordings hub The Traders' Den. "I enjoy being able to listen to my recordings and relive the experience. A well-done audience recording can put you at the show. Yes, it's not as clean and pristine as an official live album, but that is the beauty of it. You hear the crowd. There are no overdubs—any mistakes still exist. It's real. There are fantastic moments of music that will only ever be heard by a limited number of people, because they happened on a stage. Taping helps bring those moments to those who choose to find them."

As rosy as this sounds, not everyone is stoked about the idea of stealth tapers lurking in the audience. In 1994, as part of international negotiations that helped establish the World Trade Organization, Congress passed two federal anti-bootlegging statutes—one civil and one criminal—that outlawed the creation, distribution and sale of unauthorized live music recordings.

The federal government had already banned unauthorized recordings, but these new laws, which proved controversial in legal circles and have faced multiple legal challenges, expanded authorities' reach to cover international trade, giving authorities and the Recording Industry Association of America the power to crack down on labels importing bootlegs from overseas. Of course, that's beyond the purview of a humble taper like Daryl, who isn't selling anything or making any money off what he's doing. But according to Larry Zerner, an LA-based entertainment lawyer, even posting up concert recordings for free put recorders at legal risk because the copyright owner holds exclusive rights to distribute their work. (A PR rep at Goldenvoice, the company that organizes Coachella, declined to comment for this article.)

The reality on the ground is a bit more complex. Though some artists take a hardline stance against recording—like Don Henley and Glen Frey of the Eagles, who last year settled a lawsuit they filed against a concert footage archivist in Long Island who was planning to screen one of their concerts to the public—others have long adopted a recording-friendly stance (Phish even designates "taper sections" at their shows). And amid the rise of camera-phones and YouTube, many artists have softened their positions amid the deluge of zillions of grainy live clips circulating online every day.

"In theory you could sue, but what, you're going to sue some kid who's 16? You're not going to get any money," Zerner says.

The legal issues have prompted some soul-searching among tapers. Many make a point of sharing their concerts for free, bristling at the term "bootleg" because of its associations with the profit-driven releases of yore that they believe leech off an artist's work and give their community a bad name. Online taper hubs and torrent trackers like The Traders' Den and have cooperated with rights holders, refused to post links by anti-taping artists, removing links when asked, and even helping artists' management teams track down for-profit bootleggers.

Dan Lynch, founder of the website, has abandoned stealth tactics altogether, only recording bands who give him permission ahead of time. He thinks bootleggers are the "bottom of the barrel," but he's not cool with people who sneak in recording devices just to share sounds for free.

"I just don't agree with it and I don't think people should be doing it," he says. "It's not good for anyone. It opens up tapers to being accused of being dishonest, and we're trying to change that opinion."

Daryl, for his part, seems unperturbed by the ethical issues. He keeps a low-profile, and says he's never gotten any guff from Coachella organizers. Over the next couple weekends, as he makes his way to the Indio polo field to see the likes of LCD Soundsystem and Guns N' Roses, his sort of contraband will be the least of festival authorities' concerns. He has his methods of getting his recording gear inside, but he doesn't want to share too many trade secrets.

"Where there's a will, there's a way," he says.

Peter Holslin listens to dirty boots. Follow him on Twitter.