WEST COAST SWINGBootlegging Boogie Part I


by Michael A. Harvey

This story hurts. It really hurts. And it’s sad too. It directly hurts the finances of this publication and it hurts the impression our dance community presents as a whole. But it’s a story that can’t be swept under the rug, as some dance leaders choose to "look the other way," and so it must be told. It’s a story that forces each of us to examine our own position on the moral road of life. Where we stand is a statement of who we are. This story will not demand that you take any particular position, but it will force each of us to see where we are in our own heart. Here we go.

At the Phoenix convention there was a constant buzz around Bob Brewer’s "West Coast Swing CD" table where he was selling 5 Volumes of music for $18 each. Remember in last month’s West Coast SwingAmerica in an article entitled "Music, Music, Music" where I praised "Swingin’ The Blues Volume I" because finally someone went through the effort, and the expense, of putting together a West Coast Swing specific CD? All of a sudden I’m looking at over 100 tracks of awesome West Coast Swing music! My thrill and delight seemed to overcome any slight twinge of suspicion I may have had. When I asked the direct question, "Have you gotten all the proper releases from the record companies for these compilations?" and the answer came back, "Yes, of course," I took the man at his word.

The dancing public can only assume that they are in great luck to have access to awesome CD’s which they are told are legal, and which the convention has blessed with vending space. Each CD had around twenty cuts including some big names like Aretha Franklin, Chaka Khan, Manhattan Transfer, Cylinda Pink, and more, and I began to think "this is too good to be true!" But all weekend my exuberance overcame my doubts.

I negotiated a quantity of CD’s for sale in Atlanta in exchange for extended advertising. I was in hog heaven ... big bucks, a great product, this would satisfy the dancer’s craving for good music at a cheap price. I couldn’t have been more wrong. There seemed to be a hint in the air that anything that is too good to be true probably isn’t. I was informed that one of the tracks was by a local Boston band, The Love Dogs, a true-blue, struggling, blues band, who could really use any remuneration that came their way.

So I called the band’s record company, Tone Cool Records, and spoke to the President of the company, Richard Rosenblatt. He told me flat-out that no proper releases had been granted for this "West Coast Swing CD" compilation. Also that day I received a phone call from Bob Brewer telling me that there was "a small problem with Atlantic Records" and that I should "sit on" the CD’s he had already sent me.

Disappointed but sensing that the problem might be somewhat larger than "small" I contacted the representative of Cylinda Pink, Lynn Pennington, Vice President of Operations at Step One Records. "No, we have not authorized the use of these three tracks on that compilation." I got the same response from Larry Edwards of Shag Archives concerning one track; ditto B & B Music concerning one track; ditto Ed Chamelsky, owner of Blind Pig Records concerning three tracks; ditto Sarah Humphries at Black Top Records concerning four tracks; ditto Marion Carter at Ripete Records concerning eight tracks. I wasn’t finding anyone who had been properly paid or agreed to release the rights to use their tracks on this compilation.

There seemed to be no reason to continue the investigation because my purpose was not to try, convict, or punish the producer of the compilation. This was obviously not a slight, isolated, oversight made within the confines of a huge undertaking. This was not getting caught doing 57 mph in a 55 mph zone, but rather 110 mph in a 35 mph zone. This was a blatant "piracy." So here’s the sticky part, the real purpose of this article: Given this knowledge, how do each of us act?

There is a moral "High Road," "Middle Road," and "Low Road," to every action each of us makes all day long, every day. We all do the best we can. Each of us has bought a CD, recorded it for our best friend, and given it to them for their pleasure. This is, technically, illegal, just like doing 57 mph in a 55 mph zone is illegal. The recording industry "lets it pass" and knows this happens (dual cassette decks are standard issue in electronic stores), the same as the state trooper with his radar gun will allow less serious violators to pass.

But when someone records for their own financial gain, without properly remunerating people for their artistic efforts and financial risks, the recording industry considers this theft. It’s harmful to the artists and producers in the same way a speeding car is potentially harmful. To traffic in these goods is illegal. To abet in their sale is to give them your blessing. To purchase them gives the black market industry life.

It’s one thing to buy a bootlegged CD in ignorance, it’s another to purchase the item when you know it’s pirated. It’s one thing to offer a vendor’s table, solicit sales through MC’s and DJ’s, or accept advertising in publications if you’re ignorant to the status of the merchandise. It’s another thing to do it when you know it’s illicit. Are we as a dance community going to allow illegal merchandising "out front" and visible or should we push it out to the trunk of a car in the darkest corner of the parking lot?

Those who sell Dance Videos know that some of their sales get "passed" around (Dance Club "Libraries" are one example). They may not like it, they know they can’t stop it, and so they accept it as part of the business. But what would happen if someone made an instructional tape containing the best of Kelly Buckwalter, Robert Cordoba, Mario Robau, Buddy Schwimmer, Jackie & Charlie, Carrie Lucas, et. al., videos and sold them at a convention. It would definitely make one dynamite, very sellable video, something everyone would want to own. Would the Event Director allow sales to continue because the vendor had already paid for his booth? Would the DJ and/or MC let everyone know what an awesome video it is and how it could be purchased? Would dance publications eagerly take advertising money?

I think a lot of people would be more than mad! Everyone would be up in arms because everyone knows and loves those great instructors and don’t want to see them hurt financially. Don’t we truly love our music and the artists (even though we may not personally know them) who create the medium that strikes to our very core? It’s truly no different. We would never think of routing money around a deserving Kelly Buckwalter, so why would we route money around the deserving Love Dogs?

Given the knowledge that something is illegal the dancing public will choose it’s own spot on the moral road. If we are willing to buy it (the low road) we’ll find it whether it’s offered at a vendor’s table or the trunk of a car. But the average dance enthusiast is the last spot in the bootlegging line. It is the DJ/MC’s responsibility to ask if a product is legal before they push it. It is the Event Director’s responsibility to close someone down if they know of piracy. With so many great, competent DJ’s available why would an Event Director hire a known bootlegger? It’s my responsibility to not allow advertising of pirated products in this publication no matter how much it affects my profit statement.

Everyone up the line has a hand in protecting the community down the line. If we push the bootleggers into the back alley, won’t that make it less profitable and, therefore, less attractive to others who might want to profit illegally? There are others in this community, icons in fact, dabbling in the piracy trade. Are the few bucks they might gain really worth the tainted reputation? Some are being sued, others are taking the chance that they won’t get caught. They will.

When I called Bob Brewer to get his response to this article his telephone was disconnected. Repete Records called me hoping to get an updated address for him as their Registered Letters were being returned unsigned. Bob Brewer’s experience should be a lesson to us all. The Record industry has powerful, persistent, and well-financed legal arms ready to pounce.

What people have done in the past in this regard, is past. A public admission with a statement that they will immediately cease is not necessary. Just cease now! Getting busted is going to happen with much greater frequency in the future than it has in the past. The recording industry knows now about our little Swing Dance community. The moral high road, given the risk/reward ratio, is truly the easiest decision here. "Love as if you’ll die tomorrow &ldots; do business as if you’ll live forever!"

But all of us are responsible, in every corner of the dance community. What each of us does, each choice all the way down the line, from this point forward, is what will make our dance community fresh and clean or dirty and sleazy. From this moment on we all share in coloring our community. I trust our choices will synergize a Swing Dance world that’s "fresh and clean."