How Vinyl Got Its Groove Back

Vinyl’s Gray Zone

Gray-Market-deep-dive-2021-billboard-1548-1623084951
Courtesy Photos

Inside the shady business of unauthorized reissues.

Three years ago, Sundazed Music put out a blue vinyl pressing of Bo Diddley’s 1958 Chess debut. The independent reissue label paid a “hefty licensing fee,” as A&R director Jay Millar describes it, to Universal Music Group, which owns the Chess catalog. So Millar was dismayed on release day to find not one but three rival pressings of the album for sale online, from Italy, Russia and elsewhere. 

None, other than Sundazed, had permission to issue the album from UMG. “All of a sudden, a different version of the same title comes out internationally, at half the price,” says Millar. “It just muddies things up.” 

These sorts of unauthorized pressings take advantage of a gap in international copyright law, leading to what Millar and other U.S. labels and retailers say is a “gray market” of vinyl reissues. Some, like Bo Diddley; Herbie Hancock’s 1962 debut, Takin’ OffJohnny Cash’s 1957 Sun Records debut, With His Hot and Blue Guitar; and the Bill Evans Trio’s 1961 classic, Sunday at the Village Vanguard, are albums that have slipped into the public domain in Europe but remain under copyright in the United States. Others are recordings of live radio broadcasts that are legal to distribute throughout Europe but fully protected by U.S. copyright law.

Verve and Impulse! Records executive vp Jamie Krents says his labels closely monitor this "fairly consistent issue," though the losses on jazz and Chess reissues aren't likely to do much damage to the bottom line of parent company UMG. But it's a bigger problem for the little guys, like Sundazed and Concord's Craft label, which presses 1950s Miles Davis and John Coltrane recordings and relies on sales of a few thousand per title. "It's extremely common and increasing in frequency," says Millar.

The overseas gray market exists because a 2006 European Union copyright directive protected musical recordings for only 50 years. After the term ends, the work — whether it’s a song or an album or even cover art — goes into the public domain, free for anyone to use, so long as they pay royalties to songwriters and publishers. 

The EU changed the rule in 2011 to extend the copyright protection term to 70 years — but that leaves a gap, leaving vulnerable the works that came out between 1956 and 1961. In Europe, any label, from Jazz Wax Records (the Spanish label that put out the Evans title) to Doxy Records (which released the Cash album and identifies itself on Discogs as a “Russian bootleg label”), can cash in on these recordings. 

In the United States, however, copyright laws cover works for 95 years, so Bo Diddley and the rest are not in the public domain. The American equivalent of Jazz Wax or Doxy cannot reissue Takin’ Off here for a quick buck. And while gray market LPs (and CDs) are in U.S. record stores everywhere and all over Amazon, a 2013 Supreme Court decision, Kirtsaeng vs. Wiley, prevents international distributors from selling them here.

So the releases are illegal in the United States — but they’re rarely caught. Gray market titles are generally too small for major labels to worry about much, and the RIAA, which makes part of its mission stamping out piracy and bootlegging, has more pressing issues, like YouTube stream-rippers. But for Concord-owned Craft, says senior vp A&R Mason Williams, legal European reissues being sold illegally stateside is “a big problem.” 

“It’s a constant game of Whack-A-Mole,” he adds. “It might be down for a few weeks and somebody else puts it up. It’s something that we try and monitor, but it’s a lot. It can easily be a team’s full-time job.” 

It’s not easy for consumers to know if they’re buying an authorized or gray market pressing. A Dol Records version of Hancock’s Takin’ Off, recently purchased through Amazon, reproduces the original cover image but has noticeably thin sound quality, with less oomph in the bass. When asked about the availability of gray market pressings of these kinds of titles, an Amazon representative told Billboard the company would investigate: “Amazon respects intellectual-property rights and requires third-party sellers do the same when listing items for sale.” Discogs changed its policy in 2017 to disallow unauthorized recordings, but hundreds of clearly unauthorized gray market LPs remain posted on the site, like the more than 450 titles listed on Doxy Records’ profile page. It’s difficult for Discogs to police its 13.8 million releases, according to spokesman Aub Driver. 

Who are these labels? Some are explicit outlaws: Doxy, the self-described “Russian bootleg label,” thrives in part because Russia is not a member of the European Union, and copyright rules there are rarely enforced. Along with sibling companies Dol and Lilith, Doxy is part of a Russian partnership between MiruMir and Vinylogy, which opened in Moscow 13 years ago and ramped up its catalog, according to Discogs, to “literally hundreds of thousands of titles” by fall 2011. These include classic recordings by Miles Davis, Ray Charles, Henry Mancini and even Elvis Presley, as well as the unauthorized 1958 LP Bo Diddley, which came out on Vinylogy subsidiary Rumble. 

The Facebook page for Goodfellas Records borrows a line from its Scorsese-movie namesake — “I’ve always wanted to be a gangster” — but label manager Roberto Corsi maintains that the Rome-based company has always paid royalties to songwriters and other rights holders for music it reissues. The company has released many classic-jazz, James Brown and calypso titles from the ’50s and ’60s, believing they had slipped into the public domain, but largely abandoned this reissue approach once the EU changed its copyright laws. “We stopped that,” says Corsi. “Also, the market was really overwhelmed. On the same record, you could find dozens of editions.” Goodfellas focuses on Italian new wave and other contemporary music.

Another problem is that while Blue Note and Verve and other top jazz labels have more aggressively reissued their catalogs during the vinyl boom in recent years, many sought-after titles remain unavailable. So retailers sometimes hold their noses and agree to stock the gray market reissues. “A lot of the great jazz, all that stuff from the ’50s and ’60s that is really in demand — a lot of the American record labels really haven’t paid attention to it,” says Terry Currier, owner of the 52-year-old Music Millennium in Portland, Ore., which stocks gray market reissues. “Europe is so far ahead of this thing, and people wanted these. We needed to take care of our customers.” Chad Kassem, founder/owner of online-focused retailer Acoustic Sounds, adds that labels could “play offense instead of defense” and flood the marketplace with authorized versions of classic LPs so gray market labels won’t be able to compete. But if they don’t, “somebody fills that fricking void,” he says. “Put it out, and they wouldn’t have a bootlegger.” 

Regardless of how legal these gray market reissues are in Europe and elsewhere, an additional concern is that the labels rarely pay artists and songwriters what they’re owed for sales, say U.S. label reps. “It does hurt the artist,” says Concord’s Williams. “And it’s definitely a pain in the ass.” 

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