The new bootleggers

I’ve long wondered how digital downloading would affect bootlegging, and judging by an article in the latest Billboard (not available online as of yet) the answer is either “not at all” or “it’s made it easier”:

A version of T.I.’s single “I’m Flexin’” has sold 2,000 copies, according to Nielson Soundscan. The song, which features Def Jam artist Rick Ross, has been available in the iTunes store since Jan. 24 as part of the DJ Cortez and DJ Ransom Dollars mixtape Fuck the Competition Vol. 3. But something isn’t right: T.I.’s Grand Hustle camp has never licensed this version of the song for retail, and hasn’t seen any revenue from these sales.

In short, bootleggers grabbed the freely available mixtape, stuck it up on iTunes as if it were a legitimate release, and then sat back and watched the money roll in. Not a lot of money, of course, at least in the case of this one song, but since their outlay is zero, everything is profit, and it’s a lot easier than having to produce and distribute CDs. Needless to say, the T.I. track isn’t the only one that’s available: there have been at least eight other mixtape tracks from various rappers that have sold enough to chart. Rick Ross’s “Stay Schemin’” has sold 8,000 copies; 2 Chainz and DJ Drama’s “Riot” has sold over 20,000.

The charts, in fact, are the biggest difference between these bootlegged tracks and those of the past. Since they’re being sold through legitimate channels instead of out of the trunk of a car or a folding table on Canal Street, bootleg sales are tallied by Soundscan and made part of their weekly report. As such, though what they’re doing is illegal, the bootleggers are providing a valuable service to the labels by letting them know which mixtape tracks are registering with fans. That might explain why Def Jam decided to release “Stay Schemin’” as a legitimate single; it debuted on the Hot 100 this week at number 58.