Retromodo: My Bootleg CD Addiction

When I was a kid growing up in New Hampshire, my cousin used to bring me bootleg concert CDs from NYC, and they were like my secret treasures.

Remember bootleg concert CDs? Record stores in major cities would sell them for insane prices, like $30 for a single disc, and they were always imported from places like Italy. The labels often looked like they were printed on someone's inkjet (which they probably were) and the song titles were usually wrong. But this was before the internet and before CD burners, so getting to hear a concert on a CD that the band hadn't sanctioned was incredible. The quality might not have always been great, but that added an air of authenticity to the recordings. You felt like you were there in the back of the room.

Since it was before the internet, all I knew is that these discs were incredibly rare and I was the only person I knew who had them. They felt like secret glimpses into worlds I wasn't supposed to know about, being too young to go to, say, a Pearl Jam concert (yes, I was a huge Pearl Jam fan when I was younger). These CDs clicked on something inside me that made me want to collect. I wanted to hear more, I wanted to hear every song that hadn't been released and hear every concert. It's a trait I've managed to get under control as I've gotten older, but it's still evident in my 250GB MP3 collection.

I was too young to really see why it was such BS for them to charge so much for an audience recording I could have gotten for free. I later discovered tape trading, which allowed me to fill my urge for new concert recordings on fresh Maxell XLIIs. That helped save me money that was before eagerly handed over to my cousin every time he returned from the city.

And yeah, it's so much better now that you can download shows for free on the internet at places like Archive.org, but I have fond memories of the preciousness that such scarcity gave to those first few discs I had. It's much more convenient now, but through my lens of nostalgia I actually appreciate only having those one or two concerts to listen to over and over again. They carried a weight and a value that no set of .flacs could have delivered. They made me really appreciate every nuance and every note, where I think if I got those same discs today I would find fault with them much faster. There's something about an item being rare and unique that allows you to look over most of its flaws, and for me at age 11, that wasn't a bad thing.


Listening Test: It's music tech week at Gizmodo.