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  • Writer's pictureThe Vinyl Hole

Bootleg or Counterfeit?

By Derek Howie

I see the term "bootleg" misused so prevalently these days. I felt the need to use our helpful and very popular "Tips & Advice" series to explain the differences and hallmarks of illegal releases. With the growth of vinyl records comes the opportunity for criminals to cash in on unsuspecting buyers and take advantage of the vast amount of new collectors out there. Unfortunately, the usually informative site Discogs have missed a trick here and labelled ALL illegal releases under the term "unofficial." Although technically correct within this catch-all category, there are two very distinct forms.


A recording that contains unreleased live or studio material.


A recording that contains already released material and has

been made to imitate a genuine release.

On the left is a genuine copy of "From The Muddy Banks Of The Wishkah," on the right is the counterfeit version. It is not a bootleg.

A prime example of the incorrect use of "bootleg" is amongst fans of the band, Tool. Out of 60-different formats, listed on Discogs, of their latest album, "Fear Inoculum," a staggering 39-issues are tagged "unofficial." Using the description from the music industry's own, International Federation of the Phonographic Industry:

"…which are packaged to resemble the original as closely as possible. The original artwork is reproduced, as well as trademarks and logos in some cases. It IS likely to mislead the consumer into believing that they are buying a genuine legitimate product.", these are "counterfeits", and they should not be referred to a "bootlegs."

Even the Wikipedia page on "Bootleg Recording" states this:

"Bootlegs should not be confused with counterfeit or unlicensed recordings, which are merely unauthorised duplicates of officially released recordings, often attempting to resemble the official product as close as possible. Some record companies have considered any record issued outside of their control and for which they do not receive payment, to be counterfeit, including bootlegs. However, some bootleggers are keen to stress that the markets for bootleg and counterfeit recordings are different, and a typical consumer for a bootleg will have bought most or all of that artist's official releases anyway."

Again, the genuine copy is on the left, with the counterfeit on the right. You can clearly see the difference in colours of the real verses the fake.

"Why does it matter what we call our records?"

Well, the reason for this is to aid and help educate each other, especially the guys and gals new to this hobby who have just joined us during this current "vinyl revival." For example, it might be easy for us veterans to spot that copy of Pink Floyd's "Dark Side Of The Moon", stickered as "Limited Edition: Red Marble Vinyl" as a fake, but take it from the perspective of a super-enthusiastic newbie, who only recognise that iconic sleeve! Also, this problem used to be limited to quarterly record fairs or weekend market-stall traders. Still, nowadays, I have even seen "counterfeits" spread into the most reputable of record shops!

How do you spot a "counterfeit"?

The clues are often in the finer details. The sleeve imagery is never as sharp on a fake as the real thing, but it can be difficult to spot unless you have a real copy to hand to compare with the "counterfeit." So, look to things like the small print on the record's sleeve. Usually, along the bottom on the rear of the cover is the publishing and copyright text. This print will be rather fuzzy and is nowhere as defined as it would be on the genuine release. This trait can also be spotted on the record itself; the centre label can have equally small writing; it will also be evident here.

The upper images are the counterfeits, while the genuine releases are below.

While you are checking the discs' label, the run-out area is another tell-tale area to decipher the authenticity of a copy. Each separate pressing of a record can be identified by the letters, numbers, and/or symbols that have been stamped or engraved into this area. With this series of information, using the Discogs database search bar, you can determine things like which pressing plant it was manufactured at. As such, "counterfeits" are very often devoid of any run-out information.

Another thing to pay attention to are things like "hype stickers." The aforementioned small print on these can be blurry, but the fraudster hadn't bothered to peel it off before they copied the cover art. You can feel that this, normally removable sticker, is a part of the sleeve on this "counterfeit" version.

A fake hype sticker from my Nirvana "unofficial" version of "From The Muddy Banks Of The Wishkah" 2xLP.

As you can guess, I deplore this form of illegal recording. "Counterfeits" have no place in our hobby. They add no value to an artist's discography. The incorrect use of the "bootleg" term when referring to a "counterfeit" is only used by sellers to gain your money by posters because it's a far more lauded word than using "bogus," "fictitious," "forged," "fraudulent" or "phony", is it not? People seemingly go crazy when anyone pluralises "vinyl" with an "s" I wish the same fervent condemnation applied to the calling of a "counterfeit" record a "bootleg"!

I call out this improper terminology because genuine "bootlegs" are important pieces of musical history. Iconic live performances or radio sessions, demo songs or whole albums, early or alternative takes of the officially released track, rehearsal jamming sessions, and weird cover versions captured from the recording studio's alleged secret confines. When this material surfaces, put onto tape, CD, vinyl, or nowadays digitally, this is a "bootleg" in the true sense of the term.

A real bootleg: Nirvana "Rags To Riches" features 2-unreleased studio tracks and 2-songs from live television appearances.

Although, as wholly illegal as "counterfeits" releases, the general consensus, like my own, is these are more acceptable, and as physical formats are highly collectable amongst all levels of fandom; how cool is it to find a recording of a gig you attended? The number of articles written on the subject of "bootlegs" and entire websites solely dedicated to a single bands' "bootleg" discography is phenomenal. Where the Internet and the digital age, that has made ugly "counterfeits" easier to produce, it has also meant that these, once almost impossible to obtain, unique archived "bootleg" material is now available to all to enjoy via these devoted fan-sites, who unlike their counterfeiting counterparts have little financial gain to make. Their love is simply for the music. The profit is to share it with everyone.

This is akin to our view at The Vinyl Hole. We contribute our own time to these articles, sharing new acts and helpful advice and telling tales about collecting records. All done with love, just for you.


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