Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Bootleg Series, Vols. 27-44: How the Hell Did We Get Here?

When Bob Dylan’s latest “Bootleg Series” release was announced on September 24, 2015, the question “How big can these things actually get?” was definitively answered: As big as they fucking want. What started as a rather conservative 3-CD endeavor in 1991 (the adorably-named Bootleg Series, Vols. 1-3 -- as if the campaign would stay small enough to count each CD as a “volume”) has become a runaway train driven by a phantom engineer. This is both a good thing (more music for Dylan fans) and a bad thing (less money for Dylan fans to spend on, like, food and stuff). The “Collector’s Edition” of The Bootleg Series, Vol. 12 will cost -- best sit down for this -- $599 + tax and shipping. But if you’re willing to be one of the luck 5,000 who pony up for the goods, you’ve been well prepared for this day.

The first Bootleg Series was a huge success; it seems almost silly now that Sony panicked and cut it from four CDs to three, fearing fans would flinch at the price tag. After discovering that Dylan fans were more than willing to pay for The Bard’s scraps and leftovers, more archival releases followed in 1998, 2002, 2004 and 2005 -- all 2-disc affairs. By 2005’s Volume 7: No Direction Home, however, the series had started to eat its own tail, re-tracing ground already covered on the first set. It was fair to wonder if the Bootleg Series might run out of steam sooner rather than later.

Perhaps feeling that a shake-up was in order, Dylan’s manager and Bootleg Series Godfather Jeff Rosen swung for the fences with The Bootleg Series, Vol. 8: Tell Tale Signs. A virtual sequel to the first set (subtitled “Rare and Unreleased, 1961-1991”), Tell Tale Signs picked up where Vols. 1-3 left off and presented an overview of his best rare and unreleased material from 1989-2006. It was a rich well to draw from, covering some of Bob’s most beloved late-career albums, from Oh Mercy to Time Out Of Mind to Modern Times. Fans had known for years that there was a lot of great live and studio material from this period, but had never dared to think that an entire Bootleg Series set would be devoted to it.

The sense that this was a “big” release was also reflected in the purchasing options. There was a single-CD “best of” version, a “standard” 2-CD version, and a “Deluxe” 3-CD box set. No big deal, right? After all, the first release had been three discs. But this time, instead of simply packing the discs and a nice booklet into a slipcase and charging $30-40 for it, they put it in a REALLY nice slipcase with a stupid book nobody cared about, with a price tag reading “$129.99.” Sony had taken a step into the abyss, and was inviting us to follow them.

The righteous anger of Dylan fans was swift and furious; I may have even had a thing or two to say about it. The lyric “money doesn’t talk, it swears” was quoted a lot. The pre-release price did dip to around $100 eventually, and I did cave and get the damn thing, because (a) I’m a Dylan fanatic and the period covered by Tell Tale Signs is important to me, and (b) I used Amazon points to defray the cost so I could tell myself it only cost about $45. It stung, but I never regretted owning that music -- and to Sony, that was the important part.

Who knows if the cries of “Injustice!” ever reached Jeff Rosen’s ears, but for whatever reason, subsequent Bootleg Series releases have offered more bang for the buck, even as they got bigger and more expensive. The Bootleg Series Vol. 9, a somewhat ho-hum (but still essential) collection of demos, was a normal 2-CD set -- and if you bought it from Sony’s website you got a free live CD of a recently-discovered 1963 concert, just because. But the seed had been planted at Sony: Fans will pay a LOT of money for this stuff, as long as we don’t rub their faces in it.

The 10th Bootleg Series set (subtitled “Another Self Portrait”) was a watershed event, both for Dylan fans and the bean-counters at Sony. It was a brazen move, taking a bunch of outtakes from Bob’s most universally-hated album (1970’s Self Portrait) and asking us to pay THEM for the pleasure of listening to them. Let me repeat that: they made a Bootleg Series from the REJECTS from Bob’s WORST album. What were they thinking? And while I'm at it, what were WE thinking when we bought it?! Surely we were into “scraping the bottom of the barrel” territory here.

But the amazing thing was, not only did Another Self Portrait NOT suck, it was amazing! For the first time, a Bootleg Series release didn't just reinforce Bob’s reputation -- it actually IMPROVED it by salvaging and completely re-contextualizing what had always been seen as a “lost” period (the post-motorcycle-crash “semi-retirement” years of 1968-1971). In another ballsy move, this was also the first Bootleg Series to break past the three-CD barrier -- this time, the “Deluxe” version contained the standard 2-CD set, a rare (and coveted) live recording from 1969, and a remastered disc of the original Self Portrait double album. Throw in a couple of truly beautiful books and you’ve got a $100 box set that actually was worth every penny.

The 11th entry in the Series, 2014’s Complete Basement Tapes -- long considered inevitable by Dylan fans -- pushed the envelope even further. In addition to the now-standard 2-disc version for the casuals, the super-fans were treated to a SIX-disc deluxe set, along with a now-standard barrier-busting price tag of $150. Just six years removed from the outrage of the $110 Tell Tale Signs set, fans eagerly lapped up BS11’s deluxe box, with only minor grumbling about the escalating cost. The difference between 2014 and 2008 was that Dylan’s Basement Tapes (recorded in a garage, actually, in Woodstock with future members of The Band in 1967) were widely recognized as a crown jewel of the entire Bootleg Series, and again, the packaging and books included were era-appropriate and beautifully produced.

It also helped that Mr. Rosen basically emptied the vault for BS11; while fans had been expecting maybe a 4-CD distillation of the legendary recordings, he delivered basically everything that was considered of “releasable” quality. Was Sony just feeling extra generous, throwing the Dylan nerds a bone so they wouldn't have to listen to gripes about this or that personal favorite being omitted? Perhaps. But I think it also had a lot to do with changes in European copyright laws, which took effect in 2012 and limited the copyright protection of unreleased audio recordings to 50 years -- while extending the protection of recordings released in 1963 and later to 70 years. Basically, if a rights holder (Sony, Dylan) ever wanted to profit from their dusty old  vault scraps, they had to “use them or lose them” before they turned 51.

Therefore, as a sidebar to the Bootleg Series, Sony has been quietly complying with the new European Directive, releasing an exhaustive set of studio outtakes, live concerts, and home-recordings each December since 2012. These sets are completely “uncurated” and not for casual listening, and are slipped out in random record shops in Europe in tiny quantities ranging from 50 to 500. Literally everything in Dylan’s vault from 1962 through 1964 that Sony might EVER want to exploit has been retained for the next 70 years. This helps us understand why Mr. Rosen took the “kitchen sink” approach to BS11 -- he was going to have to release this stuff before 2017 anyway, so why not get ahead of the game and make some extra money at the same time?

Which brings us to the announcement of The Bootleg Series, Vol. 12: The Cutting Edge, 1965-66. With the EU copyright situation in mind, it was logical to expect a mammoth deep dive into Bob’s most lauded period as a recording artist -- the “electric period” that bore three classic albums: Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and the immortal Blonde On Blonde. By now, the 2-CD version seems woefully inadequate, so for the more adventurous fan there is a lavish 6-CD “Deluxe Edition” set -- featuring the same packaging and extras that previously represented the top of the line for Vols. 10 and 11. But since all of those precious 1965 and 1966 outtakes will fall into the Public Domain if not released this year and next, we now have the biggest Bootleg Series package ever released -- the immense 18-disc behemoth “Collector’s Edition.”

As mentioned above, this sumbitch costs a staggering $599 -- more like $680 with tax and shipping tacked on, and God help you if you’re ordering this thing from outside the U.S. After all the angst and hand-wringing over the Tell Tale Signs set in 2008, I ordered this beast almost without hesitation -- partly because I've been carefully conditioned to accept this by Sony for seven years, but also because I really think this is a once-in-a-lifetime box set. By promising to release “every note recorded” during these legendary recording sessions, fans can actually purchase an audio time machine and be a fly on the wall while three of the most important albums in rock history are created. Kind of hard to put a price on that kind of experience.

Yet there is plenty of outrage over this set, because serious, dedicated fans feel “priced out” of this amazing experience -- the kind of experience they used to joke they would give a limb or expendable organ to be able to enjoy. Turns out you CAN put a price on this, and it’s $600+ -- and that is simply too much for some folks. Hell, it’s too much for me, too! I actually had to apply for a credit card I didn't need because they were offering a $250 cash back bonus; that cut my net cost down to around $400 -- still an outrageous amount of money. I’ll spend most of 2016 paying off the rest by applying my Amazon Visa points to my statement, rather than using them to buy music, which is how I usually buy my music. So pain will be felt, but this just wasn’t something I could pass up.

So here we are. Could Sony have imagined in 1991 -- while they were nervously trimming the first Bootleg Series box from 4 discs to 3 -- that they would someday charge $600 for an 18-CD set? Not in a million years. Could I have guessed in 1991 that I would someday PAY $600 for an 18-CD set? Not in a BILLION years. But in the dying twilight of physical media for music, this is the future for music fans. My advice? Starting saving your pennies NOW for next fall’s box sets.