The Weird World of Theatre Bootlegs


Do you ever notice how everyone online is
always like “be gay, do crimes!”, but then when it comes down to the specifics of what
crimes we’re actually supposed to be doing, everyone gets really apprehensive? When it comes to crimes that are obviously
not victimless, the debate tends to come down to who it’s okay to make a victim. Like, is it fundamentally different to steal
from a mom-and-pop shop or to steal from Walmart? Maybe both are fine. Maybe neither are fine. But in these cases, there’s usually someone
being negatively affected by it, even if marginally. I mean, we might be okay with that in some
instances if we think the person being negatively affected either isn’t being harmed that
much or deserves it. But what I find even more interesting is these
cases where people can’t really seem to determine whether a crime is even victimless at
all. So, take something like art forgery. Someone makes a fake painting that looks like
it could be a Jackson Pollock and sells it to a rich art collector. The forger makes a lot of money off of it
and the rich art collector gets to display it in their house and bask in the pride and
amazement they get from their fellow rich people. Is that a victimless crime? Like, sure, you could say the art collector got
cheated out of their money, but if they were willing to pay that amount for a genuine painting
and it has zero effect on their life whether the painting was actually genuine or not, did they
really? If you think on principle that that’s just
fundamentally a morally wrong thing to do even if no one gets hurt, that’s that. But if you’re taking more of a utilitarian
“whether it’s right or wrong depends on the effect your action had on the world”
stance… that’s pretty victimless, right? Alternatively, would it still be considered
victimless if we weren’t talking about a hoity-toity art collector, but maybe someone
who doesn’t have a lot of money and unknowingly spends a month’s salary on a fake pair of
Clyde Livingston sneakers? Suppose no one ever found out they were fake. Is that victimless? Suddenly, a lot of you probably felt
more uncomfortable about that example, even if the effect on the world were the same. This is the kind of ethical issue I like thinking
about. These moral gray-areas in illegal sh*t where
it’s hard to determine if someone’s really being hurt at all. Like, if you pirate an album, but you weren’t
gonna buy it anyway, no one’s bottom line is really getting hurt, so does that make it
okay? Does your answer change if you’re talking
about a super rich celebrity or a local singer-songwriter? To better understand these questions, I wanted
to take a look at a subculture within a subculture that’s dedicated to doing a crime, as well
as the associated backlash. More specifically, I wanna talk about the
musical bootleg community, and the culture it’s created. I know. As soon as I said broadway musicals, some
of your hands immediately went to the “close video” button. I don’t blame you. I wouldn’t wanna see a former theatre kid
who went for Halloween as Sexy Alexander Hamilton talk about musicals for any amount of time
either. But give me a chance, because this stuff can
get pretty interesting. So let’s take a look. For the uninitiated, here’s a basic rundown
of how bootlegs work. So first, some context on theatre in general,
and why bootlegs are a thing. So, most theatre productions are meant to
be seen live. Some shows, like Legally Blonde or Newsies,
will be professionally filmed and released online, either for free or for the price of
a DVD. Others are adapted into film mediums, like
Les Mis or Rent. This is pretty rare, though. Most shows do get professionally filmed nowadays,
but the recordings rarely actually get released. So, in most cases, if you’ve listened to
the soundtrack and want to see your favourite musical, you’re probably gonna need to see
it live. If you have money and live in New York or
London, you’re pretty much gucci. Otherwise, you’d better hope you either
have the money to travel or that you’ll have the chance to either see it on tour or
done by a local community theatre group. Also, Broadway tickets are expensive. Like, really expensive. For a decently-popular show like the Book
of Mormon, one ticket can average about $200, with the best seats going for almost $500. If we’re talking musical titans like Hamilton,
you could wind up paying more than $800 a person for one of their best seats from the
official website. Of course, as soon as tickets become available,
people snatch them up to resell them for even more, so if you want a front row seat, you
could easily be paying more than a thousand dollars for a few hours of entertainment. Assuming you’re not going by yourself, be
prepared to double that. That doesn’t mean everyone going to see
musicals is rich; the cheap seats tend to be a bit better, and there are ways to get
deals and enter contests for free tickets. But like, on the whole, the whole Broadway
culture tends to be fundamentally exclusive because of both the limited number of tickets
and their high prices. This culture of exclusivity isn’t incidental,
either; Broadway as a whole actively cultivates this “we’re a select few who get to appreciate
this art form” vibe. A number of Broadway actors, particularly
people of colour, have been pretty vocal about feeling systematically excluded from a very elitist
culture. This tends to piss a lot of people off, partially
because a lot of the narratives we’re getting sold in these shows are about being scrappy
and coming from poor backgrounds and still being able to succeed in life if given the
same opportunity as everyone else. Hamilton is literally the story of an immigrant
coming from extreme poverty and managing to shape the future of an entire country, and
yet almost no one who gets to see it live is remotely from that background. I am gonna talk about Hamilton a couple times throughout this video, so: To be clear, this isn’t me dunking on Hamilton,
although the entire show does have problems that, while not entirely relevant in the context
of this video, should definitely be taken into consideration if assessing it holistically. And it is worth mentioning that the creator,
Lin-Manuel Miranda, has certainly made efforts to make it somewhat more accessible, from
free covers outside the theatre to reserving a certain number of seats for his Puerto Rico
show for Puerto Ricans so the audience isn’t entirely rich tourists. This culture of exclusivity and elitism surrounding
theatre isn’t a problem with one specific show, and it’s not something that would completely
go away if Hamilton decided tomorrow to give away all their tickets for free. This is an overarching issue in the genre
as a whole, not just a Hamilton problem. Hamilton is one of the most popular musicals
to enter the general collective consciousness of non-Broadway fans, and it’s an easy to
understand example of the problem, which is why I talk about it. But, it’s just an example. This is a problem throughout Broadway. And this is where bootlegs come in. Bootlegs are secretive, illegal recordings
of Broadway shows taken by fans and posted online. They’re typically recorded on someone’s
phone, or video camera. They tend to be fairly low in quality- there
are even “audio bootlegs” where people are only able to capture the audio of a show
with no footage. These recordings have existed for a while;
you can find bootlegs online of shows from the 80s and 90s, but with the rise in cell
phones and social media, they’re a lot more common now. There’s also a pretty widespread community
of people who take and distribute footage, since anyone with a cell phone and a +5 to
stealth can do it now. In the past, though, this community was a lot
smaller. There’s a sort of legend in the Broadway
community that almost all the old-school bootlegs were taken by this one guy, a critic named Ken
Mandelbaum who would buy out entire rows for him and his friends and set up a camcorder. Legend has it, if you wanted an old recording
of a show like Raggedy Ann, you’d need to get a hold of him. He hasn’t really been heard from since 2007,
leading most people to assume he’s been banned from most theatres. But the days of these bootlegs mostly being
owned by old theatre critics are long past. In fact, nowadays, the majority of bootlegs
tend to be made and shared by young people. Youths. The Millennials. Gen Z? When you look at places where bootlegs tend
to be shared: YouTube, Tumblr, Google Drive, even PrnHub, the accounts sharing them nowadays
are mostly teenagers and people in their 20s. This is interesting for a few reasons. So, first of all, even though Broadway culture
is certainly something elitist in a sense, a lot of Broadway shows have built up a huge
following of young people who are decidedly not super wealthy. This is due in part to the massive popularity
of bootlegs; when you look at which shows are the most popular with young people, it’s
shows that have recordings of them. So, shows like Be More Chill, Wicked, Heathers,
Hamilton, and Dear Evan Hansen have massive fanbases in part because of how accessible
they now are. There are a few other reasons for the popularity
of these shows, like relatability, but being able to experience not just the soundtrack, but also the dialogue
and visuals, certainly contributes. Like, Dear Evan Hansen fans can get a lot
closer to Evan Hansen as a character if they get to see all of him: his dialogue, the actor’s
movements, how he looks… rather than just listening to the soundtrack. Also, because of the presence of social
media among us youngins, these bootlegs spread much more quickly and much more widely than
they did in the past. In the past, you’d need to get a bootleg
from whatever specific person filmed it, and then you would just have that recording. If you wanted to make copies of it and share it
with other people, you’d have a lot more trouble doing so. But nowadays, if someone makes a bootleg and
posts it online, people are gonna rush to download it to their own computers. If it gets copyright claimed or the bootlegger
chooses to remove it, it’s gonna get reuploaded by someone else very quickly. Even now, if I search “be more chill bootleg”,
I can very easily find multiple videos of the same recording on top of multiple different recordings. The original video of the Hamilton bootleg
was taken down years ago, but if I decided right now that I wanted to watch Hamilton,
I could find it in seconds. What this all means if that we’re kind of
in a golden age of bootlegs. Even if I have no money to travel or see a
show, I can watch recordings of almost any musical I want from the comfort of my own home,
whenever I want. So, that’s kind of how bootleg culture tends
to work and who’s the most involved in it. But, of course, as with any other literal crime,
there tends to be a lot of opposition and risk associated. This is in part because of the large number
of people who really really really hate bootlegs. So, where does that come into play? The Case Against Bootlegs There tends to be a fairly significant divide
here between creators and consumers when it comes to bootlegs. Kind of like the fans vs authors divide regarding
fanfiction that I talked about earlier, Broadway writers and actors tend to be, as a general
rule, opposed to the taking and consuming of these bootlegs for a variety of reasons. Now, I’m gonna be completely open about
my biases here: I completely disagree with this, and I think- yes, even though they are
illegal and I would never make one myself- bootlegs do more good to Broadway as a whole
than they do harm. You don’t have to agree with this, and you’re more than
welcome to make your case against bootlegs in the comments. But I’m going to do my best to fairly represent
the primary arguments a lot of creators have against bootlegs, as well as why I disagree
with those arguments. One of the main points of opposition against bootlegs
is this idea that they’re killing theatre by damaging ticket sales. I mean, in theory, if you could just watch
your favourite musical without paying whenever you wanted, why would you ever buy a ticket
to do the same? I can understand that worry and frustration
from the perspective of a creator. It’s the same anxiety I feel when I find
that someone has made all my Patreon posts public. By the way, whoever did that, I do know where
you live and I am coming for you. But I think theatre is fundamentally different
from other forms of media in a way that doesn’t make bootlegging shows the equivalent of pirating
someone’s book or getting a back door into their Patreon. Notably, the fact that Broadway musicals are
both physically inaccessible and prohibitively expensive for the vast majority of people
means that most people who are viewing a bootleg are unable to see the musical in person in
the first place. Plus, because there are a limited quantity
of Broadway tickets per night, it doesn’t represent any additional sales loss to a theatre
if an additional person views a sold-out show online. There was never a ticket available for them
anyway. Also, unlike pirating a book, movie, or game,
where you get the full experience from pirating it and thus have no incentive to then buy the real
thing, bootlegs are never going to be a substitute for the experience of live theatre. Nobody watches, like, a tinny, cellphone version
of Hamilton and then thinks “man, now I have zero desire to see the real thing”. If someone has the means to watch a show live,
even if they’ve already seen a bootleg of it, they’re still going to want to experience
the whole thing in full. In fact, for people who do have the means
to buy tickets, bootlegs can make a show more accessible to people who might then choose
to see it later. So, take the musical Heathers. Its original 2014 run off-Broadway is fairly
underwhelming and it closes in under six months. After it closes, someone posts a full video
of the show online, and it completely blows up in popularity. There’s now a massive Heathers fandom, their
social media becomes super active, and the show gets popular enough with teenagers that it can now make
money off of high schools performing it. Then it gets a revival on the West End in
2018, which is massively popular. I saw it on the West End, and lemme tell you,
the audience was a bunch of teenage girls who went absolutely buck-f*cking-wild for the cast. Most of these people probably did not see
the original off-Broadway run, because almost nobody saw it and because they would have been babies. These are people who found out about the show
through the bootleg. I know I did, and I’d hazard a guess that
if no one had filmed Heathers, it probably would’ve died in relative obscurity. I certainly doubt it would have had the massively
successful West End run that it did. I do also want to point out if we’re talking
about money, the vast majority of Broadway’s profits don’t go to the writers and actors,
but to hyper-wealthy producers, who can make hundreds of thousands of dollars a week off
of these shows. So. Just something to be aware of. There’s also the idea that bootlegs are
inherently damaging to the actual experience of seeing a Broadway show. Lin-Manuel Miranda, who of course made Hamilton, has
been pretty vocal about this in particular. The argument here is that if you see a low-quality
bootleg of a show and that’s your first exposure to it, you’re somehow missing out
on a significant part of the theatre experience. You don’t get the atmosphere, you don’t
get the little nuances, and you don’t get the live experience. Once again as a creator, I can understand
this worry. When you work incredibly hard on something,
of course you want people to see it exactly in the way you intended for them to see it. It’s the same problem that I talked about with
regards to fanfiction in my Rowling video, and it’s part of the reason- even though
I’m in a DND podcast- I will probably never successfully DM anything. What if I plan out this beautiful world and
people don’t do what I expected? That’s terrifying! But once again, because bootlegs are often
direct contributors to the popularity of certain shows, they can actually make people more
likely to go buy a ticket for the show, and thus more likely to experience it the “proper”
way. There’s also a distinct possibility that
people who have already seen the show can watch the bootleg later to re-live and re-analyze
key moments. And to people just who don’t have the means
to see the original show, period, that option was off the table anyway. At least this way you’re still getting your
message and art out to more people. If you’d rather someone not experience it
all then have a mediocre experience now and potentially a great experience later, that’s
your prerogative. I don’t know why I’m saying “you”,
since I’m fairly certain Lin-Manuel Miranda is never going to watch this and he has every
right to be uncomfortable with bootlegs, just as I have every right not to be a dungeon
master. But ignoring personal feelings of comfort,
more people getting attached to a show via a video means more people wanting to see it. And if the stuff you’re putting out into
the world is indeed good, I think that puts more good out into the world. The final argument that I hear about bootlegs
being bad tends to come not from creators, but from actors. And this is the argument that bootlegs are
distracting to actors. I mean, if someone is in the audience filming
with their little blinking camera light, that’s super annoying and interferes with your ability
to do your job. Again, as a former theatre kid, I feel this
hardcore. There are times I wish I could have broken
character and just decked certain audience members for talking or flash photography. I don’t really have a counter-argument to
this one, because like… yeah? They are distracting, and this is a completely
valid point. But I also think that these bootlegs kind of exist out
of necessity. You can argue that no one is entitled to seeing
a musical and all that, but the truth is, right now, Broadway relies on the excitement
of young people who love these musicals largely because they’ve gotten to see bootlegs. These are the people buying the soundtracks
to these shows, building up hype online, and, yes, sometimes even buying tickets. These bootlegs are both helping the industry
and making them more accessible. But yes. They are distracting to actors. You know what’s not distracting to actors? Theatres professionally filming these shows
and then releasing them online. Again, I argue that bootlegs right now exist
out of necessity. And so the best way to curb bootlegs is to
remove that necessity. So, let me bring to your attention the musical
Legally Blonde, which I stan. Legally Blonde is one of the few musicals
that’s professionally filmed and available to watch online. It aired on MTV about ten years ago, and as
a result, anyone who wants to can watch it in high quality with captions and multiple, good
camera angles! Also as a result, there are significantly
fewer bootlegs of Legally Blonde than other shows. If you search up any show plus “bootleg”,
you’ll find a ton of recent ones. When you do the same for Legally Blonde, the
most prominent results are all from 2007, before the professional filming, even though
it’s been on national tour as recently as 2018. Bootlegs exist because the inaccessibility
of Broadway coupled with Broadway’s reliance on young people has forced them to exist. I’m not saying they’re good in every possible
world, but in the world we live in today, bootlegs are one of the things bolstering
Broadway and keeping it alive. There are problems with them; they are indeed
distracting to actors. But if theatres and writers don’t want bootlegs
to exist, the best thing they could possibly do is professionally film shows and release
them online as soon as possible. They don’t even have to be for free. Most people who are willing to pay for a musical’s
soundtrack would be absolutely willing to pay the same amount for a high quality recording of that
same musical. But as of now, I’d strongly argue that bootlegs
are a necessary inconvenience. Now, I’ve talked about bootlegs being posted
on YouTube and other platforms, and this is definitely what’s commonly done with
them. But there are some people in the community
who treat them more as a currency than a commodity. What do I mean by this? The Trading Community Well, first of all, as bootlegs have risen
in popularity, theatres’ ability to detect and catch them has increased as well. If bootlegs are posted immediately after they’re filmed,
or at a performance where anything noteworthy happened, like an actor missing a line or
an understudy being present, it gets pretty easy to tell when it was filmed and generally where
the filmer was seated in the theatre. And since bootlegs are in fact illegal and
nobody wants to get sued or in legal trouble, a lot of people are pretty hesitant about
publicly posting their bootlegs shortly after filming. So, what a lot of people will do is set a
date where they won’t share their bootleg until; in the meantime, if you want to see
it, you have to pay for it. As a result, there’s this massive sub-community
within the bootleg community of “traders”, or people who will hoard bootlegs and sell
or trade them with each other to get the best ones the fastest. There are entire websites and subreddits dedicated
to this, and people take it very seriously. Here’s one user extremely upset because
of people pooling their money to buy a bootleg, arguing that that puts too many copies of
it out into the world. Depending on the popularity of the show and
how available other bootlegs are, recordings typically go for around $5-10. Sometimes people will sell their entire collections of bootlegs as like a package, and that can go for $100 or more. So, there’s a sort of conflict here. Some members of the bootleg community, who
share people’s bootlegs online on public forums, have a vested interest in making as many of these
recordings as accessible as possible, since their goal is to make sure the largest number
of people possible can watch them and participate in fan culture. But members of the trading community have
a significant incentive not to make them accessible, as that would mean the shows,
which are used as a de facto currency, would then become less valuable. No one’s gonna trade you for a show that they can go on YouTube and find. This can sometimes lead to suspicion amongst
traders, as well as an unwillingness to sell their bootlegs for money rather than trade. If you trade with someone, they’re probably a serious trader; they’ve probably got a good collection going on. But if the person you’re selling to isn’t
an established trader, they might just post your bootleg on YouTube and there goes a source
of income and trading power for you. That’s part of the reason some of these
communities, like the Reddit forum for bootleggers, literally make you fill out applications including listing
what shows you own before letting you in. There’s also somewhat of a debate on the
topic within the community. If you’re in the bootleg community, you’ve
probably already decided for yourself that bootlegs themselves are morally okay. But even then, you have some people arguing
that even if bootlegs themselves aren’t inherently unethical, it’s unethical to
sell them as you’re making money off of someone else’s work. Some also argue that the whole point of bootlegs
is to make theatre more accessible rather than selling them for personal gain. A common rebuttal is, well, even if it’s
not technically legal, you’re still doing labour and providing a risky service for other
people when you spend a lot of money to see or record a show. It’s entitled and wrong to suggest that people
shouldn’t be compensated for that. It’s definitely a pretty big point of contention
within these communities, and speaks to a divide in terms of what people feel bootlegs
should be for. Are they meant to be a limited commodity that you
can trade for and get the best of, or are they meant to be a means of making a traditionally
elitist interest accessible? In terms of which one is right- spicy discourse time- I’m inclined
to agree that the value of bootlegs comes from their popularizing of shows that would
otherwise be inaccessible, and that can’t really happen without them being widespread
online. On the other hand, there is definitely significant
risk associated with filming bootlegs and asking people to do risky work for free really
isn’t a good look. I don’t have a perfect solution aside from
maybe encouraging bootleggers to have some kind of public donation page and then encouraging
fans of the show to both financially support creators by buying merch and support bootleggers
if they’re able, but I think in order for bootlegs to exist as a vessel for good, they
do need to be public to some degree. I also think this is a systemically created
problem that can’t be looked at individually. I often see people getting mad at specific individuals
for choosing to sell or trade bootlegs rather than posting them for free, since it seems
like they’re contributing to the same problem that bootlegs are intended to fix. But, in the context of the wider system, they
have a point; if a bootleg they owned and could trade for suddenly got out there, they wouldn’t
be able to trade with it any more, which could reduce their chances of getting to see other shows. But taking a broader look at it, if every
single bootleg everyone ever owned was somehow magically posted to YouTube right now, this
wouldn’t matter any more. Bootlegs as a whole wouldn’t be a commodity
you needed to trade for, so there’d be no reason to keep your own guarded. If they were posted communally, as long as
it was past the date where someone could conceivably get retroactively caught for filming, most
people in the community would probably be better off. Since bootlegs are more often traded than
sold, that applies to the person making the bootleg as well. If you’re noticing any parallels to how
capitalism works in general and why systemic problems require systemic solutions… yeah. Exactly. That’s part of what makes bootlegs a super
interesting case study into how these communities develop. Much like one average middle-class person
choosing to give away all their money or and then spending their life cleaning parks wouldn’t fix
the wider system, the bootleg community has created its own capitalistic niche in order
to sustain itself. Again, I don’t have a perfect solution to
the problem here except for.. yknow. Theatre companies just posting professional
recordings so bootlegs don’t have to exist in the first place, but I think this is just innately interesting as
a case study into how profit motives can turn a community ostensibly based on improving
accessibility into its own microcosm of capitalism. Like, Broadway’s elitism and view of musicals
as a resource that only a select few should be able to access is the exact problem bootlegs are supposed
to fix, but then the exact same problem of resource hoarding and the need for only a
small number of people to be allowed to access any given musical happens nevertheless. I think under capitalism, this is something
that happens to all kinds of communities, even ones actively devoted to combatting some
of capitalism’s worst offenses. Once again, talked about this in another video, but Angie Speaks made a great video
talking about how this happens in social justice communities, but this is another example of
how this kinda happens everywhere. Overall, the bootleg community is a great
example of how this can happen, and a reminder to be cautious of it. TL;DW The musical bootleg community is a fascinating
place. Historically it’s comprised official film
critics selling physical records all the way to thirteen year olds watching a youtube
recording of their first Broadway show. The ethics of whether bootlegs are a help
or hindrance to the musical theatre community in general has been fiercely debated and indeed, answers
vary wildly even amongst actors and writers. Particularly interesting is the parallel that’s
developed between Broadway’s exclusionary practices and the issues with resource hoarding
that have happened amongst some Broadway bootleggers. Are the same issues of financial disparity
and open access occurring in slightly different forms? Or is it overkill? Essentially, this is a great case study of
why in any community, simply saying you’re against bad stuff like resource hoarding or
harmful behaviour isn’t enough. Instead, we have to remain active in fighting
against toxic attitudes and behaviours, lest our own communities become exactly like the
things we’re trying to fight against. I hope this has given you something to think
about. Before we end the video, I do wanna remind
everyone that I’m in a super cool DND podcast with my good good friends called Trials & Trebuchets. It takes place at a magic school. It’s very fun. I was gonna say it’s lighthearted. It is for the most part. But like, it’s getting real. Tone’s getting a little darker. It’s a… it’s a good… it’s a good time. You should check it out! And I do have a link in my description to our RSS feed and our social media! But don’t take my word for it that the podcast
is good. Take my sister’s. Oh! Hello there! I didn’t see you! I’m Alexandra. I’m Sarah Z’s older, better sister! And I’m here to tell you to listen to her podcast! It is a Dungeons and Dragons podcast called Trials & Trebuchets, and you can find it anywhere that podcasts are available. It’s very exciting. Very good stuff. Definitely give it a watch. Listen. Definitely give it a listen, when you have the chance. No worries if it’s not today. I haven’t bothered either. Sorry, what? What? I didn’t hear you for a second, what did you say? Definitely give it a listen, it’s fantastic. It’s exciting. It’s action, it’s Christopher Walker… Who’s Christopher Walker? What!? You don’t know who Christopher Walker is? I know who Christopher Walken is. That’s… Is this like his evil brother? That is totally who I meant. Here I was, I was gonna chastise you for not knowing pop culture… No! It is you who knows not the pop culture! Just the Rs and the Ns are sometimes an issue. There must be somebody named Christopher Walker out there. Christopher Walker, if you’re… We’re gonna find Christopher Walker! Please guest star on this podcast! But yeah. Have at ‘er. Is that how you’re gonna end it? You heard my older, better sister! Have at ‘er! Trials & Trebuchets! DND podcast! Takes place in a magical school, available on every podcast app… I have a la… I have a sticker of it on my laptop! I was gonna say I have a laptop of it on my sticker, which I guess is also a statement that a person could say if they wanted to. Available for the simple price of $0.00! To find out more, give it a listen! D&D. T&T. And that’s a wrap! How was that one? That was great. Let’s look at it. Okay.

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