A bootleg recording is a video or musical recording, distributed for profit or other financial compensation, that was not officially released by the artist (or their associated management or production companies), or under other legal authority.

Some artists consider any release for which they do not receive royalties to be equivalent to a bootleg, even if it is an officially licensed release. This is often the case with artists whose recordings have either become public domain or whose original agreements did not include reissue royalties (which was a common occurrence in the 1950s and before).

Sources of material

Some bootlegs consist of works-in-progress or discarded material distributed against the artist's will; these might be made from master recordings stolen or copied from a recording studio or a record label's offices, or from demo recordings not meant to be shared with a wide audience.

Bootleg albums can also be recorded "unofficially" with gear smuggled into a live concert—many artists and most live venues prohibit such recording, but modern portable recording technology has made such bootlegging increasingly easy and has dramatically improved the quality of "audience" recordings.

A number of bootlegs originated with FM broadcasts of live or previously recorded live performances.

An increasing number of artists, such as the Grateful Dead, Phish, Dave Matthews Band, The Smashing Pumpkins, and Medeski Martin & Wood have allowed and encouraged live audience recording, but they and their fans generally consider selling such recordings—as opposed to keeping them for one's own personal enjoyment or trading them for other audience recordings—to be illegitimate bootlegging. Fans cite the encouragement of bootleg recordings as a key factor in their long-term loyalty to these bands.

Bootlegging in the vinyl era

In Los Angeles there were a number of record mastering and pressing plants that were not "first in line" to press records for the major labels, usually only getting work when the larger plants were overloaded. These pressing plants were more than happy to generate income by pressing bootlegs of dubious legality. Sometimes they just hid the bootleg work when record company executives would come around (in which case the bootleg record labels could show the artist and song names) and other times secrecy required labels with fictitious names. For example, a 1972 Pink Floyd bootleg called Brain Damage was released under the name The Screaming Abdabs.

Collectors generally relied on Hot Wacks, which was a catalog of known bootlegs published annually, for the actual artists and track listings as well as source and sound quality information. Another source readily available to vinyl collectors was Dust Traxx Records in Chicago which provides limited release bootlegs of such prominent artists as Eminem, Mary J. Blige, and Pink.

The market outlets for bootlegs have been varied. Swap meets, record collector shows, and smaller record stores would stock them, mail order and internet sources were advertised by word of mouth, and there have been assorted unique sources for individual bands. There were major bootleg markets in Japan and Europe for bands like KISS and The Rolling Stones.

"Official" bootlegs

Many bootleg albums have since been released officially by the copyright holder; for instance in 2002 Dave Matthews Band released Busted Stuff in response to the Internet-fueled success of The Lillywhite Sessions which they had not intended to release; The Beatles' release of their Anthology albums effectively killed the demand for many Beatles bootlegs previously available; and Bob Dylan has released an entire bootleg series, which as of 2005 had seven "volumes" (but only five discrete releases). Frank Zappa released two series of Beat the Boots recordings in 1991 and 1992, remastered from bootleg tapes. The Smashing Pumpkins' last official album, MACHINA II/The Friends & Enemies of Modern Music, was distrubited to fans on vinyl and released independently as a gesture of defiance to Virgin Records, who the band felt didn't give them the support they needed.

A few artists like Peter Gabriel, Jimmy Buffett, Pearl Jam and Duran Duran have responded to the demand for bootleg concert recordings by experimenting with the sale of "official" bootlegs made directly from the unmixed soundboard feeds or on-the-fly multi-track mixes, and thus superior to surreptitious audience recordings which are typically marred by crowd noise. These releases are generally available a few days to a few weeks after the concert. Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy is also one of the most vocal pro-bootleg musicians, running an official bootleg label called YtseJam Records.

In the mid-2000s, improving technology in high-speed CD reproduction made some of these "official boots" available to audience members immediately as they leave the concert; however, a key patent in the process (that of dividing the single recording into discrete digitally marked tracks) was bought by media giant Clear Channel Communications, which has led to complaints from smaller competitors and uncertainty on the future development of the technology in the United States.

Bastard pop

Recently bootlegs have become the term for a style of remix, melding two or more music records into each other to make a new piece of music out of the old components. Among the most popular artists in this genre are The Freelance Hellraiser, Soundhog, Go Home Productions, Soulwax and Lionel Vinyl. These type of records area also referred to as mash ups or bastard pop.

Bootlegging vs. piracy

Bootlegging is often incorrectly referred to as piracy but there is an important difference between the two terms. Bootlegging is trafficking in recordings that the record companies have not commercially released. Piracy is the illegal copying/sale of recordings that are available commercially, or are planned/scheduled for commercial release.

Although bootlegging is not legitimate since it infringes copyright interests, it can at least claim it is giving music fans something they want that is unobtainable from official sources. Piracy however cannot make such a moral claim since it directly substitutes for the equivalent official product.

A pirate release is further to be distinguished from a counterfeit. Counterfeit releases attempt to mimic the look of officially released product, while pirate releases do not necessarily do so, possibly substituting cover art, or creating new compilations of a group's released songs. Therefore, a counterfeit is always a pirate, but a pirate is not necessarily a counterfeit.

"Bootlegging" is sometimes used to refer to the unlicensed filesharing of copyrighted music, but as alluded to above, the term piracy is often more appropriate.

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