EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — As soon as he was inside the hall, clear of the guards at the doors, Tapewyrm tended to his preparations with a burglar's stealth. This obsession of his was both an act of love and a crime, and to do it right, he had to take care.
The 40-year-old communications technician headed to a bathroom. Inside a stall, he unpacked a tiny sound studio he had smuggled in beneath his flannel shirt. He fit dime-sized microphones under his hair, then readied a miniature digital tape recorder.
These were the well-rehearsed details of a practiced man. He was at the height of his surreptitious craft--making illegal bootleg recordings of his idol, Bruce Springsteen. Midway through the singer's 15-show stand here, Tapewyrm intended to get mementos of every night for himself and hundreds of friends.
But as the lights dimmed inside the 20,000-capacity Continental Airlines Arena, Tapewyrm's torture started. For three hours, a trio of loudmouths behind him brayed on during Springsteen's anthems, gossiped during his ballads and chanted "Beer run!" during his harmonica solos, a cacophonous yammering that pulsed directly into Tapewyrm's $300 mikes.
"I was gold," he moaned afterward to fellow bootleggers in the parking lot. "And now I've got three hours of yahoos in love with their voices." Tapewyrm's only consolation was that he had made one more recording, flawed as it was, without being caught.
"In practicality, they can't stop me," he said the next morning, while he transferred a concert tape onto recordable compact discs known as CD-Rs. "There are 40 more people there every night doing the same thing. You can't stop a movement."
Music bootlegging--the unsanctioned taping and distribution of rare, unreleased recordings and concert material--is a hobby gone haywire, part black market, part crusade. It is an outlaw trade of hustlers who cater to the voracious appetites of music buffs who can never get enough, fans who scheme and pay whatever it takes to obtain souvenirs of the performances of their idols.
For three decades, bootleggers have skirmished with the recording industry in a cold war of smuggling, raids and lawsuits. The two sides have always talked past each other: the rock zealots who depict themselves as on a quest for hidden art, the record companies and musicians who fret that bootlegging chips away at their revenue and copyrights.
Hobby Leapfrogs Into Computer Age
All bootlegs are illegal under federal law, whether sold, traded or given away. After years of lobbying for stricter copyright protections, the music industry was rewarded in 1994 with an anti-bootlegging statute passed as part of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. Even the act of recording a concert without permission, Tapewyrm's shadow hobby, now carries a federal penalty.
But in the last year, just as the tougher legal stance began to show results, bootlegging leapfrogged into the Computer Age.
Fanatics who once prowled through seedy CD stores and weekend record conventions are turning online for their illegal treasures. They can search hundreds of "CD-R tree" sites on the Internet, where fans trade and pass on recordable discs of unauthorized concerts to each other free. Others link up with underground retailers and auction houses, where bootleg discs that appear out of nowhere in limited amounts can fetch from as little as $20 to as much as $300, sold off in furious bidding wars. The more computer-literate download hours of music onto their hard drives from Web audio sites.
And the growing availability of high-performance equipment--from inexpensive "CD-R burner" machines and computer hook-ups that transfer music onto compact discs, to easily hidden digital tape machines and microphones--has made it possible for enthusiasts like Tapewyrm to become one-person bootlegging operations.
Technology's whirlwind pace has brought so many changes so quickly that even the record trade's aggressive lobbying arm in Washington, the Recording Industry Assn. of America, has quickly had to fine-tune its stance. While insisting current laws "give us a good base," Frank Creighton, the recording association's director of anti-piracy operations, concedes that "some areas will have to be strengthened."
In the past, black marketers produced their contraband--records, cassettes and compact discs--in foreign or fly-by-night pressing plants. But in the first six months of this year, law enforcement raids confiscated 10,485 CD-Rs, a clear sign of how quickly bootleggers are embracing the desktop revolution. Raids have waned in recent years as bootleggers have been shut down, but the new spate of computer-related activity sparked 71 operations against pirates this year, 20 more than in the same period a year ago.
And recordable CD machines that cost $25,000 a few years ago have been replaced by stand-alone and computer units that can be had for as little as $200.