Friday, July 10, 2015

In Defense of Bootlegs

Greetings from the midst of my Finnish Summer Theatre Tour! I'm not yet finished with my Finnish summer series, but something else has been on my mind recently, so I wanted to discuss that in English today.

Let's talk about bootlegs.

Self-made recordings of theatrical productions that fans share and exchange with each other, that is. Illegal and forbidden, of course – but wrong altogether? I'm not so sure.

Text without pictures looks boring, but I don't have any related images.
So here's my Jekyll & Hyde fancomic instead. Part 1.

Personally, I am against pirating things you can buy. I think if you enjoy someone's work, you should support them. Buy the CD or the DVD, pay to download the files, subscribe to Spotify or Netflix. The artists of course only get a small slice of the profit, but even so, they're getting more than from illegal downloads.

But what about things that cannot be bought? There are no legal recordings available for most musical productions. Official videos happen once in a blue moon and most CDs feature Broadway or West End casts. That being the case, is there harm in fans sharing audience recordings of their favourite productions? Well, as long as you don't bother the actors or other audience members while recording – and that is really important, there is no excuse for distracting others in theatre – I don't think so.

Sure, there are good arguments that speak against bootlegging. Theatre is not meant to be captured, it's a part of its magic to change and disappear. The actors might object to being filmed if they knew someone's recording the show. Bootlegging breaks copyright. Important things to consider, but after having thought about them, I'm still personally okay with bootlegs.

The way I see it, and I know many other theatre fans share this thought, bootlegs mainly profit people who cannot see the show any other way. People who can't afford tickets, people who live too far from the theatre to visit, fans of shows that have already closed. I don't think anyone's losing any profit here. I've never heard of anyone who, if they had the chance to see something live, would still prefer sitting in front of a laptop, peering at a shaky blurry image.

Bootlegs also capture something that usually fades away. For hundreds of years, all theatrical performances were lost forever. Now we can save small examples of some of them and enjoy them for years to come. Some think that is the complete opposite of what theatre's about. I see their point, but even so, I feel there's something comforting about the thought.

For the record, I am not a big bootleg person myself. I've of course watched a handful of illegal videos, mostly of German shows (some of those were so inspiring I travelled to Germany for the live experience). But they're a rare treat, something to be enjoyed only every now and then. I after all prefer Finnish theatre.

You see, in Finland, bootlegging is not a thing. Finnish theatre culture is different from West End, Broadway or Central European theatre cultures, and that also applies to bootlegs. Maybe there are recordings of Finnish shows somewhere, but they're not generally available, not listed in fans' collections and certainly not on Youtube.

In Central Europe especially, the musical fan culture, the bootlegging that comes along with it, and even the theatres' attitudes towards their own videos are more laid back than here in the north.

Musical fans' collections and even Youtube are full of not only Central European bootlegs but also pro-shot videos (meaning performances filmed by the theatre, often with multiple cameras and careful editing). I don't know who is leaking these videos, but in a way, it almost seems like a form of advertising. Slipping a video online, hoping people get excited and visit the theatre for real to see more.

I believe that works. As said, me and my friend travelled to Germany because we found a new favourite actor via bootlegs and leaked pro-shots. And imagine if we were German! We'd probably take the train to see him every weekend.

I don't see why there couldn't be an active fandom for Finnish musicals, like there is in some other European countries. But I believe that fandom could use some bootlegs to grow. Having updated Fuck Yeah, Finnish Musical Theatre! for over three years now, I've read plenty of comments wishing there was a video of this or that production available. Sometimes from foreigners. Oftentimes from Finns.

I'm not saying anyone should take the risk and start filming. I'm just wondering – in theory, might having easy access to bootlegs create new buzz, attract new audiences to theatres around here? No one knows for sure, but as you can expect, I'm guessing it would.

Part 2.

That's about it for my personal thoughts about bootlegs. What do you think? Please let me know in the comments. Are you for or against bootlegs, and why? And, if there are any actors reading this – what would you think if you encountered fans sharing a bootleg featuring your performance?


  1. Interesting to read your thoughts on bootlegs, a subject I have many times found very hush hush due to its illegal nature. I personally pretty much owe my deep affection to theatre to bootlegs. I always liked going to see plays and the occasional musical they staged in the city-run theatre in my hometown. However, coming from a relatively small town in Lapland, you can imagine that the quality of the shows cannot be the same caliber as in larger venues, due to financial reasons and the difficulty to get many actors to stay in a remote location for a long time.

    My fascination with musicals started to deepen first through the discovery of some catchy tunes I heard from cast recordings on Youtube but I quickly advanced into bootlegs. I had a big collection of them saved on my computer and I would watch the blurry videos of my favourite shows and listen to crappy audio recordings just to hear how a particular understudy does a particular riff in a particular part of a particular song. The fact that I, a teenage girl in Northern Finland, had these bootlegs did not take any money away from the theatres where these performances were taking place. On the contrary, I started making trips to actually see shows that had sparked my interest through bootlegs, first to Helsinki and then to London. None of this would have happened without bootlegs and I have no regrets over possessing them.

    Nowadays, I don’t really consume bootlegs and my collection has been lost due to a broken hard drive. But I’m still glad that they exist – to spark that enthusiasm and love for theatre in another teenagers in remote areas. I also like the idea of preserving shows in this age when great productions can close way too soon due to financial trouble. In these cases, a blurry bootleg can offer a lot of comfort for the fan whose beloved show was taken away too soon. And I do have to admit that I myself may have recorded some audio from some Finnish productions but just for my own use (particularly because I want to remember how some lyrics were translated, please no lawsuits - I will deny everything). I do not condone making money off of bootlegs which seems to be common especially among theatre fans in the US. I also agree that any recording should not be disruptive for the performers or the audience. Recording the performance should not go ahead of enjoying it. Now that any phone has a camera on it though, I can imagine that bootlegging might have become an increased problem when people who are not so skilled in hiding it still attempt to do it and are disruptive in the process.

    Finally, just one thing I have always wondered about people who film amazingly clear bootlegs, how the hell do they do it without getting caught? There are so many ushers patrolling in the big theatres where these videos often come from, how are they not spotting people with video cameras? Especially the videos recorded in the 80s, 90s and early 00s – video cameras were huge back then! You’d have had to hide them in a bloody suitcase!

    1. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts!

      Personally, I was lucky enough to fall in love with musicals by seeing them live – but you are not the only person I know who got started via bootlegs. And that's exactly my point, too! They're like the gateway drugs of the theatre fandom, they can get people hooked... I agree with you about making money off of them, though. That's crossing the line from all right to not acceptable, if you ask me.

      The secret of filming clear bootlegs is a mystery to me, too. Though I've heard rumours of some really innovative expert bootlegger secrets... Let's just say I'll gladly leave the filming for the experts! As you say, the recording business shouldn't override your enjoyment of the show – let alone ruining it for someone else sitting next to you.

      Lastly, about recording audio for one's own use – that's a victimless crime if I ever heard of one. To be honest, I see nothing wrong with that. Sometimes you just want to return to some closed production for a moment. Listening to it lets you relive at least a little bit of the magic!

  2. When I saw Jesus Christ Superstar in Åbo Svenska Teater, I though that Alexander Lycke's version of Gethsemane was the best version I've ever heart. Now I've found a good audio of his version on Youtube in English but I'm still yearning for a good Swedish audio.