If you look at Amazon or iTunes, you’ll see a lot of live recordings by bands and it’s now hard to distinguish between:
- Official live albums approved and released by the artist and their record company.
- Third party recordings where royalties are paid to the artists for performance and songwriting. (I’m thinking of the BBC and Rockpalast recordings here).
- Grey market live recordings which are legal in Europe because of the copyright laws only protect music for 25 years unless it’s been officially released. (I’m not a legal expert but this is my understanding).
With category 1, you should expect excellent recordings, both in performance and sound quality. Of course, this doesn’t always apply as live recordings have been abused as a way to fulfil contractual obligations.
Category 2 are normally good but might not have the pristine quality of the very best artist recorded albums. There are several reasons for this. First, if you’re a major group, you can afford to spend a lot of money and time making sure the recordings are of the highest quality, record many different concerts and pick the best versions of each song and even go back into the studio and “fix” things. Some of the very best live albums, like Live And Dangerous by Thin Lizzy have a reputation for being tarted up in the studio.
Category 3 is the wild west. These can be great or they can be dreadful. It’s an area where companies are profiteering, and call me cynical but I’d be surprised if the artists see any royalty payments.
So how do you protect yourself in this category 3 “grey” market?
- Be wary of any recording that is available on CD and vinyl that doesn’t give you the chance to hear the digital snippets. This gives you the chance to hear for yourself the recording quality. Some people care greatly and only want the very best. Others (like me) love the roughness of live recordings and don’t expect them to sound like they’ve been recorded in the studio. Then you get into an assessment of the varying degrees of suitability. I don’t think I’m that fussy but I do expect to be able to hear the different instruments and the singer clearly rather than being lost in a muddy background of noise.
- I’d look for recording details – the year, the venue and even better, the particular date. This really matters to me because bands go through periods when they’re hot and when they’re not. If you know the date, you can tell who is playing on it. The more respectable publishers provide information of the recording and will often admit that it is a radio broadcast. The less respectable tend to hide information because they are looking to fool you.
- If you know the recording details, do a search on those and you may well find the same recording featured many times as they are sold by different companies under different names. This search does three things. First it stops you buying a recording you already own under a different name. Secondly, you can study the different versions and see all the comments and reviews. This will help you to form a better assessment of both the performance and the sound quality. Third, you’ll be able to spot the difference in prices between the different versions. If these companies commoditise music by selling exactly the same thing, you need to buy it at the lowest price.
- Look at my live albums polls. In the genre polls (hard rock, prog, jazz etc), I’ve tried to limit the entries to categories 1 (approved) and 2 (official 3rd parties) but occasionally I may have been fooled. I tend to have a look at Wikipedia to see if an album is listed as official but Wikipedia can be amended by anyone so it’s not always reliable. In the band polls, I have included the grey market recordings to help you to find the very best of what’s available by an artist.