How to spot bootleg records

How to spot a bootleg record

If you are new to record collecting, it is vital that you quickly learn how to distinguish original records from bootlegs - also referred to as reissues, pressings, lookalikes, carvers etc. The main thing that seperates a bootleg record from a reissue is the fact that the bootleg is made to look as near as possibly identical to the original version - and while they might not be sold as originals in the first instance, there is a risk that other sellers - especially when selling on auction sites - will be deliberately vague about the heritage of the record, leading new record collectors to get ripped off by paying a lot of money for what is actually a cheap reissue.

What is a bootleg record?

A bootleg is normally defined as a record that has been pressed up by someone without paying appropriate royaties to the rights holders of the original - i.e. the person that wrote or produced the record gets nothing, and the record label that originally put the record out gets nothing. In other words, the person who creates the bootleg record has absolutely no right to press it up, and in doing so, is effectively stealing from everyone with a legitimate claim to any rights in the original. Sometimes a record that is bootlegged might be a super obscure 45 that had originally come out on a tiny independent label that is long closed down and sung by artists who didn't score a hit in the first place and might have forgotten all about it. Other times, a bootleg might be of a well known record that came out on a relatively major label - for example, on UK Decca. Technically, they are all as illegal and unwanted as each other. Maybe morally, from a record collecting perspective, if someone bootlegs a record where there are only, say, three known copies, then perhaps it's not as bad as someone who bootlegs something that sold 2000 copies at the time. But that's not really the point. This article is concerned about how you can avoid getting scammed by people who deliberately sell bootlegs are originals.

Bootleg lookalike coloured vinyl and picture discs of classic albums

I'm really talking about small run bootlegs of relatively rare 45rpm singles (like northern soul 45s, or rare 50's rockabilly records or 60's mod singles), but I believe that there is also an industry pumping out fake albums and new releases (even on vinyl). These in some ways are the worst sort of bootlegs - as these are straight fake products and are probably poor quality and may not even play properly. They can't even pretend to be catering to a niche market where the originals may be scarce or expensive, they are simple fake goods. These are likely to include eye catching fake releases such as picture discs or coloured vinyl versions of albums which were never released on coloured vinyl. If you see a classic album that is brand new and is either a picture disc or coloured vinyl, double check on wikipedia or somewhere to be sure that it was actually released in that format by the record label because that could be an indicator that it's fake.

Bootleg live albums

Another strand to the bootleg record world is the bootleg live album. I'm not too concerned about these, because anyone who is half awake is going to know that these are not official releases, and that the quality may be variable. But these are usually aimed at hardcore fans who ought to know from a far distance, that these are bootlegs and not genuine licensed product. Therefore these are more of a buyer beware product in my view and for some record collectors, these bootleg live albums are part of a band's history. They are not likely to be confused for a different, rarer, alternative so I don't personally have a problem with them (though I wouldn't buy them myself - you can probably listen to every live concern worth hearing online for free somewhere if you look). Hardcore fans of many bands will probably have a few of these in their collections and won't have a problem with their provenance (particularly for collectors or the Sex Pistols, The Beatles, David Bowie, The Smith etc.).

What's the difference between a bootleg and a reissue record

A reissue is a legitimate release of older material - where the label owner has paid for the rights to re-release the music.  Most reissues are just part and parcel of the record industry, where a label reacts to demand by re-pressing or reissuing an album or 45 that has become in demand again (but these are not to be confused with a fake bootleg record - that is a reissue that was NOT authorised by the rights owner!) Most reissues are therefore legitimate but these won't normally be passed off as originals. For example, Ace records license loads of fantastic 60's northern soul via their Kent label. The 100 club also release a northern soul single at their anniversary allnighter each September and these are also 100% legit. However, most reissues will differ to the original in some way in terms of either the record label or the sleeve and packaging, they won't pretend to be the original, they will clearly state the licensing arrangements on the labels and they won't be trying to fool anyone. The only danger with reissues is when a seller doesn't state that they are reissues and maybe doesn't include a picture of the record being offered, or even uses an image of an original 45 but then sends a reissue. Sounds ridiculous but I've heard it happen! This is an important point to understand, because a lot of people who sell bootlegs will deliberately use the term "reissue" and it's up to you, as the buyer, to understand that it's not actually a reissue, it's a straight bootleg. Why should you care whether a record is a bootleg or a reissue? It's a moral decision. I believe that you should care because the people who make the music ought to be rewarded for their work (no matter how little they get). You may not agree, that's up to you.

How big is the bootleg record problem?

Again, I'm more concerned with bootlegs of niche 7" records and I think this is more of a problem in some specific areas of record collecting and northern soul records are particularly prone to be bootlegged. In this age of digital reproduction, it's easy for someone to fake a near perfect looking label, and there are plenty of pressing plants popping up - including places who will cut single double sided vinyl 45's for a fairly modest fee (£25 or so). Unfortunately, everyone can be a bootlegger these days - it's very easy. In terms of fake records, straight fake copies of classic albums, I think it's probably a bigger problem but that's one that's more for trading standards than for record collectors.

How to avoid buying bootlegs

Item descriptions

Any honest seller will clearly note that their record is a bootleg by using some sort of terminology in the description. The most common are:

  • Reissue
  • Pressing
  • Second issue
  • Boot
  • Bootleg
  • Limited pressing

Sellers on ebay won't normally use the term bootleg as there is a risk that their listing might get pulled, but they might.

If someone says something like "I don't know much about records so I'll leave you to decide if this is original or not" then be VERY aware - this is the sort of language used by sellers who are hoping you'll be fooled and then they'll want to refer to this to claim that they were honest and it was your fault. No seller worth your time and money will say something like this.


Lots of bootlegs will be sold for low set sale prices. So if you see a rare northern soul record that looks mint being sold for £6.99 set sale it's 99.9999% a bootleg. Now if you just want it on vinyl and you don't care if it's original or not, and you want it cheap, then it's up to you if you want to buy it or not. I won't get into the original versus bootlegs for DJing discussion here, you've heard it a thousand times.

Where it's more tricky is when someone has deliberately left their description vague, and other people have been taken in and there are several bidders. Some of those bidders might even be fake bidders who are deliberately bidding an item up. I have seen bootleg northern soul singles going for £100 when they were probably worth £2 because a bidding war has broken out amongst people who have no idea what they are buying.

Some final tips on how to spot a bootleg record

If you're not sure here are a few more pointers:

  1. Check the condition - if it's totally MINT then be wary. Warehouse finds and dead stock do turn up, but be careful.
  2. Check who is on both sides of the record. If there's a big northern soul track on one side and another track by a different artist on the other, it's a bootleg or reissue. Find out what was on the original release and make sure it matches 100%.
  3. Google the original release including record labels and make sure they are identical. Labels are easy to fake so this isn't foolproof but can help.
  4. If the record was originally released in the UK, it will have had a solid or push out centre. If the record on sale has a US style large hole centre, there should be evidence that the centre was removed in most cases. Some might have been dinked using a cutter so this isn't 100% foolproof but most UK beat or mod 45's wouldn't have had their centres removed in this way - if the centres are missing they would have been pushed out, leaving three prong stubs which are difficult to fake with a pressing as they usually have clear large holes in the middle.
  5. Check a sellers feedback to make sure they aren't generating a trail of bad feedback from other complaining customers.

Most record collectors will have been caught out at some point with bootlegs (and sometimes reissues). It can be an expensive mistake. We hope  you're up to the task of spotting those bootlegs and not getting ripped off.

What do you think? Feel free to comment and share.


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