Pirates as Archivists, Librarians, and Students

coltraneI was reading through a book, a biography of John Coltrane by Ben Ratliff, and he wrote something that deserves repeating and contextualizing. In his book he wrote about how some of the legendary jazz musician’s works may have been lost if not for bootleggers who recorded it surreptitiously at clubs and various venues where he happened to be playing. Coltrane himself was a bootleg recorder, taking tape recorders to Charlie Parker concerts so he could record, and later study, the man who would greatly influence his own style.

I couldn’t help but draw some parallels between Coltrane’s behaviour and what would happen if he engaged in it today, along with the bootleggers recording Coltrane’s concerts. Chances are they’d be arrested at the concert, thrown in jail, subject to prosecution, heavy fines, and probably jail time. Yet we owe much to these past musical pirates because of their (now highly illegal) actions. Because of them, we have some recordings of a pivotal era in Coltrane’s musical development.

I also think back to the early television. Wouldn’t you like to watch some of Johnny Carson’s first appearances as the host of The Tonight Show? How about the first episode of the Ed Sullivan Show? Maybe you’d like to see the early work of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore?

Well screw you, because you can’t.

Johnny_CarsonThey’re gone. Utterly and totally gone. Why? Because the networks wiped the tapes. They destroyed their own history, and what pisses me off even more is that they knew they were making history at the time. They had to know they were making history because they were, after all, broadcasting moving pictures and sound through the air to millions of people – something that’d never been done before. But no, they needed those tapes for other things so they wiped them and recorded over them.

Terry Gilliam of Monty Python’s Flying Circus purchased every single episode of the show from the BBC and it’s a good thing he did, because they were scheduled to be wiped. Let me repeat that. Let me repeat that because that’s something that gets inside your brain and starts tearing away neurons with a weed whacker. So I’ll put it in big, bold letters: The BBC was about to destroy the original recordings of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

vampiraaA color production of the Rogers and Hammerstein Cinderella starring Julie Andrews – gone. The original slow scan footage of the first moon landing – missing. The NBC and CBS telecasts of Super Bowl I and II – destroyed. The Vampira Show, the first TV horror movie show – wiped.

The music, television, and movie industries need pirates and librarians because, quite frankly, they have a very hard time managing their own stuff. They’re like children with toys, except these “toys” are easily broken and totally irreplaceable.

One last bit of trivia. As a huge fan of spaghetti westerns, I am well acquainted with the work of Sergio Leone. Back in the mid 70s, he shot a new opening to the classic film A Fistful of Dollars because of broadcasting guidelines. Of course, the network lost the damn thing. The only reason it still survives today is because someone recorded it using one of those, at the time, new fangled video cassette recorder thingies

In other words, because someone pirated it.


  1. Dan, I really like your post, but I have to take issue with your claim “Chances are they’d be arrested at the concert, thrown in jail, subject to prosecution, heavy fines, and probably jail time” – the vast proliferation of concert videos on YouTube suggests otherwise… My lazy Googling doesn’t seem to turn up any arrests-for-taping-at-concerts in the last five or ten years. Care to correct me?

    1. Perhaps an arrest won’t happen at a concert as often, though I’ve been to concerts where I’ve seen people removed for recording using their cellular phones. However, try doing the same thing at a cinema. That can get you in some pretty big trouble.

      There is one thing I think you’re missing. Sure, there are plenty of concert videos on YouTube. But think of what you don’t find on YouTube because it’s been taken down by the recording industry or by YouTube itself. And how many mistakes are made when this kind of thing happens?

      To sort of repeat what I said in the post – it’s not what you see, it’s what you’re missing because it’s gone.

      1. I absolutely agree with the point of your post, and just slipped into “fact checker” mode or something about that one sentence. Sorry if I gave the impression I was disagreeing with your conclusions.

  2. Even when it’s a branch of media that DOES generally mind its archives, content can disappear from the world. Take for example the article “The origin of Palestinians and their genetic relatedness with other Mediterranean populations” published in Human Immunology in 2001, an Elsevier journal. The article was retracted. No big deal, happens all the time. However, in this case, they didn’t just watermark it “retracted” to alert future readers, but in fact the PDF was removed from the e-journal. This was a controversial paper and possibly its conclusions unsupported by its data. But future scholars will have no way to know what the big deal was. Nice work.

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