The last few weeks have seen Discogs launch an all-out assault on the bootlegs, unofficial pressings and straight up rip-off jobs that have populated their market for years. The first I, like many others, knew of this was when I got a run of emails telling me that yet another record in my seller inventory was no longer legit. First they came for the Killah Kuts series of bootlegs that were staples of the early 00s hip hop scene, then they went in on the rare James Brown outtakes pressed on heavy 12”s, and before you know it whole swathes of lavishly pressed ‘unofficial’ compilations of rare soul gems were being stripped away at will.
For a site that came into existence as a way of cataloguing and selling electronic music, this suddenly proactive approach to banning records from sale has the potential to be something of a disaster – and at very least shows a worrying misunderstanding of the foundations of dance music. Pretty much any of the electronic genres you care to think of- electro, techno, house breakbeat, rave, jungle- were built from an illicit mountain of unofficial releases, cheeky bootlegs and the dodgy reissues. This isn’t some misty eyed reminiscence, but straight fact. Consider the milestones that are heading for the naughty step if Discogs continue to pursue their new puritanical algorithm; the original of Blame’s hardcore classic Music Takes You with the Seal vocal the record label refused to clear; all those entirely unlicensed Ultimate Breaks and Beats and Super Disco Brake’s compilations that were the cornerstone of both hip hop and disco; every single record in the Supersound series (tracks from which have ended up in the boxes of anyone from Fourtet to Jamie XX); any one of the many, many Theo Parrish disco edits released on his Ugly Edits imprint that the ‘Cogs community will shell out over three figures for; every single version of DJ Zinc’s infamous Ready or Not bootleg. They’ve all gotta go.
Golden age dance culture was always a bastard hybrid. Made by artists exploring sampling technology, cheapening computers, and magpie logic, the music flooded forward with such speed because it didn’t allow itself to be overly held back by concerns over copyright or rights holders. And in many cases, artists did a lot better with this approach than when they tried to work with ‘official’ labels – it’s ironic that a record released on Trax, notorious for ripping off artists, is considered ‘official’ over a cheeky self-released re-edit. With this knowledge in mind, the previous system Discogs used seemed entirely reasonable; if someone made a direct complaint about a bootleg of a record, the bootleg would get pulled. If no one made any noise, the record would be sold. It’s what the unofficial release category was made for!
But now, with their stepped up attempt to bleach the site of crooked records, Discogs are rapidly creating this ghostly ghetto running through the site’s heart; the whispery world of items that you can see but can’t buy because they are bad.
To ‘explain’ what’s going on, Discogs Chief Operating Officer Chad Dahlstrom released a press release composed of dense, droning legalese. It spends a lot of time saying very little.
"As an organisation where many of us are musicians, record collectors and even label owners, we are and will continue to be zealous in improving Discogs for our trusting community which also includes many recording musicians, labels and publishers. Over the course of this year, we have continued to add resources allowing us to be more proactive in enforcing a policy that has been stated in our existing seller's agreement while also honouring DMCA takedown notices. We respond quickly to complaints, take down requests and are working closely with labels, publishers and artists to remove these items from our marketplace when they show up.
"In accordance to the Discogs seller's agreement under privacy and responsibility, it states: 'Items you list for sale must not violate copyright, trademark or other intellectual property rights. For example, you are prohibited from selling unauthorised reproductions of items, such as bootlegs, counterfeit, pirate copies, etc.' This policy has been in place for a significant time.
"Our mission continues to be the building of the world's largest database and marketplace for physical music. To fulfil that mission we must protect our buyers and sellers, as well as our artists and record labels, with the same ferocity that we drive toward our mission as a company."
Reading between the lines, this points to a couple of conclusions. First of all, artists and labels make fuck all from Discogs. If they want to sell vinyl, they do far better selling it through bandcamp, a site set up specifically to do such a thing. When some chancer sticks the first release on Ransom Note Records up on Cogs for 40 quid, do you think either Bawrut or us see a penny of that? The only people who get paid are the scalper selling the record and Discogs itself.
It’s far more likely that Discogs are either getting ready to either try and raise a round of funding, or simply sell the site. It can’t have escaped the gimlet attention of the major labels that a stupid amount of cash is being turned over by the 638th most popular website in the world. It’s only a matter of time before said majors start chucking their weight around (see: soundcloud) and trying to grab a share of the pie. If Discogs do want to talk to any global corporations, they need to make sure all their legal framework is set up correctly, something that the gloriously anarchic history of dance music on vinyl is always going to make tricky. As such, it looks very much like they’re doing some housekeeping before heading out courting.
Any which way, a site that has managed to insert itself into our lives as easily as Ebay and Uber is now looking to hack off the rough edges and present a gleaming sanitised version of itself. But why shouldn’t they? Discogs can do what the hell they like. Its creation was always a thing of genius; leveraging the obsessive cataloguing instincts of vinyl junkies to create a user built database, policed by zealous unpaid volunteers, leaving the owners largely free to focus on the main business of collecting revenue off every transaction. Discogs users feel a sense of ownership and attachment to the site because a) they have literally populated it and b) music has an emotional pull- and yet they have zero ownership and zero control. As with Facebook, Instagram, Soundcloud or any one of the other monolithic tech platforms that we cradle our lives in, there comes a time when we realise that what we had mistaken as a public service is very much a private enterprise. This current purge from Discogs is a handy reminder. And fifty quid says there’s more developments to come...