To the owners of Record & Tape Traders, it was only rock 'n' roll.
But they liked it, and they sold it. Hot bands like R.E.M. and Nirvana, captured live on the bootleg compact discs that are prized by hard-core fans and collectors.
Now the chain of Baltimore-area record stores has been swept into a nationwide crackdown on illegal recordings, and the two owners could be dancin' to the Jailhouse Rock.
"It was a cool thing to us. It was a cool thing to our customers," said one owner, Steven Smolen, explaining why he sold the unauthorized concert recordings -- despite having been placed on probation for similar charges in 1987.
"We were just trying to service the people who wanted it -- just like thousands of other stores, which gives you the illusion it's a safe thing to do."
Last Sunday, Baltimore County police and investigators from a recording industry trade group raided a record show at a Timonium hotel, seizing more than 700 recordings and bringing criminal charges against a Delaware man.
On Feb. 27, State Police and the recording industry investigators raided Record & Tape Traders' Owings Mills warehouse and four of its stores, seizing some 2,000 recordings.
Almost immediately, a columnist for a national trade journal for record retailers criticized the raid.
"Whew, I am so glad that this crime will not go unpunished," Mark Cope wrote in the Album Network. "We can all sleep better at night knowing the state police are after bootleg vendors."
Alexandra Walsh, spokeswoman for the Recording Industry Association of America, said the matter is hardly worthy of debate.
"It's against the law," she said. "That's the beginning and end of the argument.
dTC The RIAA said illegal recordings cost the music industry $300 million a year in the United States. The trade group began investigating Record & Tape Traders more than a year ago.
Police said criminal charges are pending against the store's owners.
Selling bootleg recordings carries a maximum penalty of a year in prison and a $2,500 fine for a first offense and three years and a $10,000 fine for each subsequent offense, police said.
From their start in 1978, Smolen and business partner Kevin Stander knew they didn't want Record & Tape Traders to be another "corporate" record store, the kind in the malls.
Instead, they opened what they called a "rock 'n' roll shop" in a house near Towson and became an institution of sorts to Baltimore rockers. They were one of the first stores to sell used records. They rented records and sold bootleg albums and "head gear" for those inclined to alter their minds with more than music.
The hash pipes and the bongs have long been pulled from the shelves. The store stopped renting records when that practice was outlawed. But they continued to sell bootleg albums, and in 1987 four of their stores were raided. Smolen said he and his partner received probation before judgment.
The chain grew to nine stores, from Severna Park to Bel Air to Westminster. But even now it continues fighting to distinguish itself from the relatively sterile chains and mega-stores.
"You want to stay unique," Smolen said. He added, somewhat sadly, "I'm ending up selling things that really aren't music."
As for music, the store still sells products that the big chains won't -- used compact discs, recordings by bands far from the mainstream and discs imported from overseas.
Smolen said his company did not sell bootlegs for several years after the 1987 charges, but got back into the business by selling the recordings through the company's mail order business, Yodelin' Pig CDs & Collectables.
The recordings are typically concert performances or studio out-takes that are not sanctioned by the artists or their record companies -- a product for the serious music lover.
But the industry was keeping its eye on the company because of the 1987 case, said Frank Creighton, head of investigations for the RIAA.
And after several years combating counterfeit cassette tapes, investigators are using a new federal bootlegging law to aggressively pursue vendors.
"There was that misconception that the record companies or artists don't care about these type of recordings anymore, which was never the case," Creighton said.
As for the Record & Tape Traders owners, Creighton cited the 1987 case and said, "We're going to push for the severest penalty we can under state law."
Cope, the columnist for the Album Network trade journal published in Burbank, Calif., said bootlegs don't sap money from the music business because they are typically sought by fans who have already bought an artist's official release.
"The fan will find a way to get ahold of that Pearl Jam tape or that Metallica tape or that imported Italian Neil Young tape," Cope said. "They are a reality in this business."
Don Van Cleave, owner of two Magic Platter stores in Birmingham, Ala., and president of the Coalition of Independent Music Stores, said he doesn't sell bootlegs.
But he agreed that a crackdown on them might hasten the trend toward homogenization in the retail record business.
"It's getting harder to be a cool record store," Van Cleave said.
However, he added: "Everybody that sells fan club recordings, as we call them, is playing with fire because it is illegal, and everyone knows it is a calculated risk."
Pub Date: 5/10/96