The Pirates of Los Angeles: Music, Technology, and Counterculture in Southern California
In 1978, with a new album on the way and a growing popularity that had started among the Hell’s Angels in Southern California, the Doobie Brothers made an unlikely guest appearance on the television show “What’s Happening!!” Set in Watts, the popular series focused on the comic tragedies that befell its three main characters (apologies to Dee) Raj, Dwayne, and Rerun. In a February episode, the Doobie Brothers planned to hold a fundraiser for the Watts High School music program, a show all three boys hoped to attend. However, as these things go, tickets proved scarce. When a burly man intervenes, offering the boys free tickets in exchange for their clandestine recording of the event, the trio accepts — only to regret their choice when the Doobies expose Rerun’s failed attempt at a bootleg recording. With the help of the boys, the band turns the table on the serial pirate and public menace, “Al Dunbar.” Bootlegging, one member of the band tells the boys, meant “the record company doesn’t make any money, we don’t make any money, and the public gets a pretty bad recording.”1
As home to most of the nation’s, and perhaps the world’s, music industry, Los Angeles naturally exerts an influence on the production of music. For all the Doobie Brothers’ protestations, bootlegging proved far more complex, politically and economically. While the internet and MP3s have opened up new opportunities for music, and at the same time have undermined traditional music industry structures, the confluence of music piracy and new recording technologies, fights over copyrights and artists royalties, and fans’ access to music stretch back much further.
Predictably, Southern California pirates played a critical role in all of this. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, by creating the eight-track, pushing the music industry to use new recording technology, and defining an anti-establishment ethos that continues to reverberate in the internet age, pirates in Los Angeles provided a window into the tensions over access to music that besets the sometimes obscene, but always difficult, ménage a trois relationship that exists between artist, label, and fan.
As noted by Alex Sayf Cummings in his recent book The Democracy of Sound: Music Piracy and the Remaking of American Copyright in the Twentieth Century, piracy existed long before MP3s or even tape recorders. Los Angeles in the late 1960s and early 1970s played a critical role in twentieth century bootlegging and, by extension, the music industry.
First, take Glendale’s Earl “Madman” Muntz. Dressed in all white, driving an alabaster Lincoln Continental, and wearing a Napoleon hat, one could not miss the energetic salesman. Credited with establishing the “this guy is insane” approach to selling cars, Muntz squeezed prices and pushed sales by engaging in various wild antics. Muntz often advertised a daily special, destroying it by evening if he failed to unload it.
Having played a critical role in popularizing the drive-in market in the 1920s, cars and consumerism have long been at the heart of Glendale’s existence. Muntz capitalized on this relationship. By combining the car with the new technology of magnetic tape, Muntz bettered the practicality of four-track cartridges (two programs, two tracks each) and, in the process, played a crucial role in bringing the medium to the wider public. Luring Engineer Bill Golden from Texas, the two men improved upon the original model. As noted, California’s car culture played no small part in these developments and the development of four- and eight-track recordings, just as paralysis setting in on Los Angeles freeways made Muntz’s timing impeccable. As Golden told interviewers years later: “I guess it was kind of like iPods are now … For a teenager at that time [the car] was really a domain, and because of that it was a product that people would spend money on and put in their cars.”2
Aviation pioneer Santa Monica’s Bill Lear joined forces with Muntz and pushed the technology even further, adapting Muntz and Golden’s innovations to an eight-track format (four programs, two tracks each). Placing it in his Learjets and soliciting the car industry to install them in their vehicles, Lear helped to popularize the new technology.
The two men’s proximity to the L.A.-based music industry nullified their lack of connections. Despite being music industry outsiders, they prodded new developments in commercial recordings. For a long period, the industry had avoided employing magnetic tape as a recording medium; however, through Lear and Muntz’s deals with RCA for their music, Ford for their cars, and Motorola for their stereo equipment, the music tape cartridge finally reached a mass audience. Lear struck deals with other record companies, as did Muntz with Capitol in the late 1960s. With so many formats being available, record companies waited it out to see which one prevailed — and the eight-track emerged victorious as they finally embraced magnetic tape.
By the 1970s Muntz was out of the tape business. With thousands of four-tracks driving around Los Angeles, entrepreneurs attempted to step in and provide pre-recorded cartridges for consumers that labels no longer would. “How could the public get four-track tapes? What the hell are you supposed to do?” asked Los Angeles stereo equipment salesmen and bootlegger, Donald Koven. “What’s the public to do? … I was forced to give my customers good service.” Though Koven employed the arguments of bootleggers and pirates from earlier decades, California state officials disagreed.3 Coven pleaded “no contest” in 1971 when charged with violating a 1968 state law that made unauthorized reproduction of sound recordings illegal. California had become the first state after New York to do so.
The Great White Wonder and Rubber Dubber
Though eccentric, Muntz and Lear stood as paragons of American business, innovators and entrepreneurs firmly ensconced in the capitalist system. What arose along side their adventures into magnetic tape recording, though, declared itself firmly against capitalism — sort of. For all the talk of “underground records,” hazy Marxist organization, and a disgust with mainstream capitalism and consumerism, this new breed of bootleggers operated on some of the most basic of economic forces: scarcity, supply and demand, and marketing.
Late 1960s and early 1970s California — Los Angeles and San Francisco especially — exuded a counterculture ethos that bled into piracy and bootlegging. Just off Hollywood Boulevard at Las Palmas Avenue one could saunter into the Psychedelic Supermarket and pick up a copy of Bob Dylan’s “Great White Wonder,” known to be one of the first commercially available bootlegs (released by L.A.-based “Trademark of Quality” bootleg label), for a couple of bucks. Posters of ’60s rock bands, revolutionaries, and cartoons adorned the walls around the store, which offered typical sundries of the hippie era — pretty much everything but the drugs themselves. A few Angelenos recall the Psychedelic Supermarket as a stop along the way to the city’s occult/gothic scene that unfolded at what remained of Houdini’s castle in Laurel’s Canyon, “a cool rendezvous spot for the ‘spooky’ L.A. denizens who knew the scene,” recalled one blogger.
Los Angeles stood at the center all kinds of political and metaphysical experimentation. Espousing radical notions regarding intellectual property and music, a new wave of pirates pushed past the preservation and archiving goals of previous generations of music pirates. Instead, this new breed of “counterculture” bootlegger employed a “complex amalgam drawing upon both Marxist and utopian socialist writers, [that they] translated into the rhetoric of the New Left,” argued sociologists R. Serge Denisoff and Charles McCaghy.4
Popular music, a clear result of the capitalist machine so many bootleggers claimed to oppose, seems an unlikely source of rebellion. Yet, bootlegging offered these individuals and fans a form of revolt that combined characteristics of the counterculture movement: anti-corporate, anti-consumerism, and anti-technology attitudes regarding mainstream society. “Many of our salesmen would otherwise be pushing drugs,” twenty-something Los Angeles bootlegger Uncle Wiggly told journalists. “We give a lot of money to the free clinic and to the peace coalition. I don’t think there’s anything illegal about this.”5
Undoubtedly, Uncle Wiggly subscribed to a more radical idea of politics than mainstream America at the time. But others took their beliefs further. In fact, the most radical of bootlegging factions, Rubber Dubber, operated in Los Angeles out of their East L.A. warehouse. While its unassuming location shrouded it from attention, Rubber Dubber’s radical political rhetoric echoed that of Eastside lefties, like those in 1930s Boyle Heights, in its attention to collective action.
Rubber Dubber established a media identity and functioned as a “capitalist commune,” producing live performance bootlegs of notable artists like Jimi Hendrix and James Taylor, with striking artwork and photography, complete with their own logo. The organization sent new bootlegs to Rolling Stone for review, and though Columbia Records threatened to withdraw advertising from the magazine as result, agents soon started contacting the collective in the hopes the group would bootleg their up-and-coming clients.
Rubber Dubber leaders, who remained shrouded in mystery and rumor, argued that they provided a service that connected artists with fans by eliminating the middle man: the record label. To some extent this was true since, unlike labels, which had levels of bureaucracy to wade through and agents to cajole and coerce, bootleggers simply snatched up the latest concert tickets, dispatched someone to record the performance, and produced a bootleg.
L.A’s proliferation of venues meant countless opportunities for bootlegging. Rubber Dubber captured Neil Young at the Los Angeles Music Center and Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, and Jimi Hendrix at the Forum. A Rolling Stone interview with the bootleggers responsible for “Great White Wonder” underlines the endless opportunity and immediacy of L.A. piracy. “Do you know what will happen if you get away with [bootlegging]? Why if John Mayall or anybody opens at the Whisky tonight they’ll be a live recording of it on the stands by the middle of next week,” an exasperated Jerry Hopkins pointed out.6
Rubber Dubber professed a quasi-Marxian vision that echoed the rhetoric, at least of Eastside radicals decades earlier. “Everybody in Rubber Dubber has to work,” one of its leaders told an interviewer, “but nobody has to work all the time, and nobody works the same job every day. Each person knows how to do every facet of the operation, so if somebody gets sick or wants to take a vacation, somebody else can take over.”7
The group’s leaders went even further, attesting that all profits they produced were to be shared equally and even claiming that artists received cuts of bootleg royalties. Still, whatever the rhetoric, the reality remained much murkier, as one former employee claims no such profit sharing existed: sales teams worked on commission, artists never got a dime, and the workers never shared in the proceeds. “It didn’t take long to see through those guys,” he told Cummings. “They were only in it for personal gain.”8
If Rubber Dubber’s ultimate intentions veered significantly from their espoused ideology, they were hardly the only ones. Indeed, for every Rubber Dubber, there was a Godzilla’s American Phonograph Record Export Service. Located in Glendale, Godzilla made no bones about its approach as the company issued catalogs that openly embraced basic capitalism. “We offer these high quality original productions at the lowest, most competitive prices possible,” its catalog noted. “This enables your firm to have a substantial profit margin when reselling this product.” With a sly nod to the counterculture, Godzilla’s owners also noted that underground records, being easier to sell wholesale or to retailers, produced greater profit margins.9
Whether they were radicals or opportunists, the game was soon over. Congress passed the first-ever copyright for sound recordings in 1971, under heavy pressure from the recording industry. For years pirates and bootleggers had exploited the gray area in the law that protected songwriters and their written compositions, but provided no separate copyright for recorded performances as creative works in their own right. In response to the new law, Rubber Dubber and others scrambled to clear their stock. The age of the “counter culture” bootlegger who aimed to take down the system ended, and piracy returned to preservation and archival duties.
In the end, Muntz, Lear, and Rubber Dubber may have espoused different political beliefs, but they all looked to exploit technological and legal vacuums regarding music production and recording and capitalized on the unique advantages offered by Los Angeles. The eerie symmetry between the copyright issues of the 1970s and those of today’s internet age (i.e. Napster and Facebook, as depicted in “The Social Network”) suggest that L.A.’s spaces and places have long played a critical role in shaping how we listen to and consume music.
1 Alex Sayf Cummings, The Democracy of Sound: Music Piracy and the Remaking of American Copyright in the Twentieth Century, (New York: Oxford UP, 2013), pg 150.
2 Ibid, pg 83.
3 Ibid, pg. 85.
4 Ibid, pg. 106.
5 Ibid, pg. 103.
6 Ibid, pg. 98.
7 Ibid, pg. 103.
8 Ibid, pg. 118.
9 Ibid, pg. 114.