The music industry, shaken by decreasing CD sales, is turning to a high-tech, legal approach to the old "bootleg" concept of concert recordings.
The Instant Live unit of Clear Channel Entertainment's Music Group, part of the Clear Channel Communications conglomerate, is one of the commercial ventures that have been experimenting with making instantly available CDs of live concerts, by mixing recordings on the spot and selling them to club-goers as they exit concerts. On Monday, Universal Music Group and Instant Live announced a partnership, and the concept of "instant bootlegs" is taking another step.
The partnership is the first of its kind for any of the major music companies, officials at the companies said. It also fits in with Clear Channel's plans to expand the sale of on-site live concert recording, to allow these recordings to be better-edited and distributed online, and then, sometime next year, sold as downloads for MP3 players and other devices.
The agreement announced Monday paves the way for production of live recordings with Universal's various affiliate labels, according to Stephen Prendergast, general manager of Clear Channel Music Group's Instant Live division. The deal with Universal gives it a sort of "template" agreement for division of revenue and recording ownership it can use going forward, Prendergast said.
"Were coming out of the R&D phase now, and we're starting to turn it into a business," Prendergast said.
Instant Live recordings made with Universal labels will be sold at shows, and also made available on the Instant Live Web site, individual band sites and also via online retailers, he said.
The concept of selling recordings of live concert echoes what happened in the 1960's, when the underground bootleg industry, operating outside the auspices of the record labels, started to fulfill fan needs by, for example, offering recordings of concerts they could not afford to attend. These recordings also allowed concert goers to relive the live experience. Though music companies also offered live concert recordings, the bootleg industry offered a vastly broader selection, typically at lower prices. However, that underground market was based on unauthorized tapes, and the quality of the unedited recordings varied.
In the last couple of years, technology has made it profitable for artists and companies to record and sell instant live recordings to the audience -- all through legal means. Artists like The Dead and The Black Crowes and companies like Live Discs/Sonance Entertainment Group, DiscLive/Immediatek and Clear Channel have further developed the concept, which in the last year has started to reach a larger audience.
On The Black Crowes' last tour in April and May, accompanied by Instant Live's mobile unit of recording and CD burning equipment, 24,000 people visited the concerts and 8,000 live CDs were sold, according to Prendergast.
The company has microphones placed around venues in order to capture ambient sound, mixes in signals form the stage and instruments in an on-site mixing board, and plans to release Dolby 5.1 live recordings in the fall.
"Sometimes live albums sound too sterile. We want to give you a feeling of audience participation, particularly in your car," said Prendergast.
Clear Channel wants to take the concept further. Broadband access to the Internet, for example, allows for offsite, centralized studio editing and mixing, for higher-grade recordings than what can be done onsite. Prendergast plans to use broadband-transmission capability to get off-site mixes for the "instant albums" that are offered to concert goers.
"It's much easier for us to take a feed from Cleveland, instead of having a truck or any vehicle there, completing the mix in our studio in Los Angeles and then sending it back to Cleveland where it's burned on site."
Capacity is increasing as well. Today, Instant Live can burn about 1,000 recordings a show, having the first CDs available just minutes after the last riff was heard from the stage, thanks to preprinted covers that leave out the set list.
"The challenge is to take it to the arena level," Prendergast said.
When Instant Live started operations in 2003, the equipment filled a 40-foot trailer. Today, everything is contained in a Dodge Sprinter van. One bulky part, the CDs themselves, is expected to be less of a problem in the future thanks to the ability to offer digital downloads.
This summer Clear Channel Entertainment and Verizon Wireless Inc. also started offering concert clips to cell phones.
Up to now, the limited edition, instant CDs offered at venues have been popular with concert attendees, despite declining sales of conventional albums. About 17 percent of concert goers who attended venues with the instant CD ability have actually bought the CDs, according to Prendergast. In Clear Channel's experience so far, US$25 per double CD appears to be the price that concert-goers will accept.
Some recordings even become collectibles.
"Yes, we've seen some of the limited edition discs sell for as much as US$350," Prendergast said.
A patent issue stirred controversy among bands and fans in 2004 when Clear Channel blocked bands from trying to make their own instant albums at ClearChannel venues. Clear Channel claimed that such attempts would infringe to a patent they had on their instant-recording and mixing system. But Prendergast, who came from DiscLive/Immediatek Inc. to Instant Live in April, appears to want to make peace with bands that want to do their own recordings, and stressed that he will not use the patent as leverage.
"We want everyone to share it and use it, but we have to do it in a way that is feasible and is financial beneficial to all of us who are involved," he said. He said Instant Live will take a "service-oriented" approach, offering bands a list of options for on-site recording and production.
Prendergast asks for help with making the production efficient enough to handle an arena concert.
"How do we service a half million people? If you get any ideas, let us know!"