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The Jolly Roger’s Booty

By Michael Kurtz | 3 Comments » May 8th, 2008

pirates.jpgFive thousand miles east of the planet’s commercial capital New York City, in yesteryear’s global capital of Istanbul, Turkey, pirate music vendors freely peddle CDs packed with hundreds of MP3s to customers at rock bottom prices without a care in the world.

They are not preoccupied with the thought of being busted by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), and the local police force certainly does not have the time, in Europe’s largest city, to deal with petty pirate vendors. Istanbul is a city famous for its bazaars filled with knock-off goods, and the music and movies sold here are no exception.

One of the interesting perspectives we’ve gained from our whirlwind trip around the globe is a broad survey of the pirated goods available in each of the countries that we’ve visited.

On the streets of São Paulo, Brazil, the days of single album CD piracy are quickly coming to an end. As pirates and consumers have sharpened their technological wits, the age of single album audio CDs has yielded to more practical and lucrative mediums, namely the MP3 data CD.

MP3 players, now a common sight here and nearly every other city on the planet, have effectively rendered the single album audio CD obsolete, the latest victim of technology’s rapid advance. Today in the Brazilian megalopolis, pirate CD vendors have shifted from selling single albums to complete artist discographies, generally available on one or two discs in MP3 data format.

The neatly packaged single disc discographies of musicians ranging from Brazilian crooners to American country stars are sold at discounted prices. For example, one such pirated discography of British rock legends Queen, containing 20 albums on two CDs in MP3 format, was being sold for a mere 10 Brazilian reais (or roughly $6.25 and about 30 cents per album), a value that makes any music collector salivate.

Other discographies that we encountered in São Paulo include Bob Marley’s massive body of work, which was being sold in MP3 format on four CDs, David Bowie’s career works, the complete discography of George Benson (a surprising fan favorite in Brazil), and complete discographies of Brazilian legends Jorge Ben, Bezerra da Silva, Djavan, among many others. Within a single block radius we counted a dozen CD vendors, all fully stocked with enough complete discographies to easily eclipse the selection available at most Virgin Megastores.

On the CDs sold in São Paulo, albums are neatly organized into separate folders and most MP3s are encoded with song title and artist name, making it fast and simple to transfer into an iTunes library.

In all our naïveté, we assumed that these complete MP3 discographies couldn’t be topped in terms of their value.

We were wrong.

In Mombassa, Kenya, a bustling port city on the Indian Ocean, we encountered a similar phenomenon, however this time instead of discographies, the products being peddled were filmographies.

For an average price of 250 Kenyan shillings ($4) pirates offered up movie collections, organized by either actor (Harrison Ford, Al Pacino, and Dennis Quaid to name a few) or theme (i.e. kung-fu, romantic comedy, 1970s cannibal-themed soft core porno).

The movie files are compressed, resulting in a noticeable reduction in quality and squeezed onto a single DVD. On average, these DVDs contained roughly 10 to 20 full-length feature films per disc.

Collections we saw for sale included the complete works of Alfred Hitchcock, a Sylvester Stallone tribute collection featuring all six Rocky movies and two of the four Rambo films, along with a smattering of other less memorable Stallone flicks, and the complete James Bond collection: over 30 hours of 007.

Upon arrival in Belgrade, Serbia, we were introduced to truly high-end piracy, or (a term I’d like to coin) “boutique pirates.” These vendors pride themselves on providing their customers with quality product and distinguish themselves from other pirate vendors around world by offering a dynamic selection of material.

One boutique pirate we encountered on the street in central Belgrade featured neatly designed and packaged collections of movies organized by actor, such as the Steve McQueen collection, which includes five of the heartthrob actor’s biggest box office successes on one DVD for the bargain price of 250 dinar or $5. Other collections found in his stall included collected works of acclaimed actors Audrey Hepburn, Al Pacino, Cary Grant, and Peter O’Toole, among others. Also found here were directors’ collections including the best of Pedro Almodovar and selected works of David Lynch.

At another nearby stall, we found a pirate vendor who specialized in trilogy packages: Back to the Future, Indiana Jones, Honey I/We Shrunk/Blew Up the Kids/Baby/Ourselves, Look Who’s Talking Now… the list goes on.

The widespread illegal sale of music and movies around the world and the facility of pirates to pack more punch than ever into their product beg the recording industry and Hollywood to ask the same, old question: What can the entertainment industry do to effectively prevent such piracy?

Ironically, too much time spent dwelling on this question is precisely what has aided pirates and made the stubborn, grey-haired executives of Hollywood and New York age even faster. The question that entertainment industry leaders should be asking themselves is: What can we do to conveniently offer our consumers superior product at competitive prices?

Sadly, the refusal of industry executives to recognize pirates as legitimate competition and, in particular, the music industry’s slow adaptation to advances in technological formats have made it easier than ever for pirates to appeal to consumers eager to progress.

Nations with large black markets like Brazil and Kenya are naturally fertile ground for pirate vendors. But in countries where high-speed Internet is widespread, piracy occurs in the form of online, illegal peer-to-peer file sharing.

While American record labels and the RIAA have continued to make attempts to combat online peer-to-peer file sharing of illegally traded music in the States by threatening those sharing their music libraries with lawsuits, the RIAA has simultaneously engaged in battles against piracy of music abroad.

One of the central issues with the American industry’s attempts to quell piracy abroad is that it has continued to expect foreign nations, often with much lower GDPs and larger black market economies, to uphold equal standards to that of the U.S. in the fight against piracy. In some cases, most notably with Brazil, this type of unrealistic diplomacy has caused a strain in relations between the RIAA and its foreign counterparts who are frustrated by the association’s unfair expectations of their country’s ability to effectively combat pirates vendors.

Until those in charge of the entertainment business accept that ever advancing technology will keep the free or near-free sharing of their product alive indefinitely, the industry will continue its steep downward slide.

With São Paulo, Mombassa, Belgrade, and Istanbul in the books and perhaps piracy’s most fertile ground Asia on the horizon, the unofficial LongJaunt piracy review can hardly wait to see what Mumbai, Bangkok, and Hong Kong have to contribute to the Jolly Roger’s booty.

This entry was posted on Thursday, May 8th, 2008 and is filed under music. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

3 Responses to “The Jolly Roger’s Booty”

  1. Brian's mom Says:

    this is great!–it’s fascinating to hear some of the summing up of the experiences you are having around the world and this piece clued me in a lot more about this issue. I love the written pieces you guys do–keep it up.

  2. Kristel Says:

    I love the research you’re conducting. Traveling the world and meeting a myriad of cultures is one thing, but relating all the cultures in a unique light- piracy- is D*O*P*E!!! Asia is insane with the bootlegs, but you wont find any in Japan. They do NOT play that game. They pride themselves in living by the book and making sure EVERYONE living on their land follows the rules too! Bangkok will have them everywhere. I’ve heard Shanghai and Hong Kong will too. I LOVE this BLOG!!! Gambatte!!!

  3. Richie Joy Flotilde Says:

    Is the author the michael kurtz who used to be at bear stearns? if not…anyways…about your blog, then in the philippines, there is plenty of pirated cds and dvds…for only $1.50 each. and very clear :) which of course,most people in here ( as this is a third world country ) would rather buy the pirated dvd than buying the original or even going to the the theatres or cinemas when a film would cost $2 per person…

About LongJaunt Equal parts lighthearted jaunt and in-depth journey, this intimately documented trip around the world has one goal: to bring you along for the ride.
contributors

Thushan Amarasiriwardena

, former Senior Multimedia Producer at The Boston Globe, has always loved telling a great story. Combining his eye for visual story telling and his technical background in computer science at North Carolina State University, Thushan has reported on business, sports and travel for The Globe. You can find his site here.

Michael Kurtz

, graduated with a degree in Ethnomusicology from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. His thesis research focused on the intersection of race and music in Northeastern Brazil. He worked previously as A&R and Production Coordinator for Putumayo World Music, an international music record label based in New York City. You can find his site here.

Brian Rogers

graduated from the University of Massachusetts with a degree in Spanish and Latin American Studies, and has traveled extensively in Latin America.

Alicia Conway

is LongJaunt's home base chief and a Technical Producer for The Boston Globe. She joined and contributed with the team out in England, Kenya, Tanzania, The Netherlands and Thailand.