opinion Opinion October 28, 2019

Are Guns N’ Roses setting copyright traps for their fans?

Are Guns N’ Roses setting copyright traps for their fans?

When it comes to nerding out over live bootleg recordings, Guns N’ Roses fans rival those of The Grateful Dead. Live videos taken in Dublin in 2012 are dissected and discussed at length on fan forums, and slight arrangement changes on 33-year old songs are celebrated or bemoaned.

The obsessive nature of the band’s fans makes sense. It is statistically impossible for any band who sold thirty million copies of their debut album not to have more than a handful of crazies. Guns N’ Roses epitomised the type of hard-living, slithering-around-Sunset Strip lifestyle that rock and roll feeds off. They wrote both breakneck sonic assaults and nine-minute piano ballads about seasonal weather. They are fronted by a red-haired maniac and have a guitarist named Slash who wears a top hat.

Like many great Hollywood stories, they rose too quickly and imploded a few years later, falling to earth in the mid-90s – around the same time the bassist’s pancreas exploded. Axl Rose limped on for decades with a carousel of hired guns, spending 15 years and 14 million dollars making a long-promised masterpiece named Chinese Democracy that still seemed undercooked by the time he presented it.

Their catalogue is frustratingly uneven: a peerless debut album, a bloated 150-minute double, a ‘fake’ live EP coupled with four acoustic tracks; a covers album, then 2008’s Chinese Democracy: the ultimate anti-climax.

So there are a few gaps to fill. That’s where the forums come into play.

After years of estrangement, the classic-era lineup of Guns N’ Roses has been on a worldwide tour since April 2016, mounting the type of late-stage career renaissance even the most hopeful forum fans couldn’t have dreamed possible. By the time the tour wraps this Saturday, November 2 in Las Vegas, the band will have played 175 shows and grossed over half a billion dollars. I don’t think it’s an accident the tour is ending in Vegas, either.

Not surprisingly, there are hundreds of fan videos uploaded of each show. Every moment of the past three-and-a-half-year tour has been documented, uploaded, and debated. The forums have gone mental. Just this week, the band played ‘Dead Horse’, an Illusion deep cut, for the first time in 26 years, and the fan reaction was so intense that picked up the story.

Last week, with the tour winding to a close, whoever runs the Guns N’ Roses pages (Duff?) asked fans to “tag us in your videos from this tour to be part of the #NotInThisLifetime 2019 final tour video.”

The official Guns N’ Roses social media game is generally pretty good. It is almost certainly manned by a few employees with other jobs, who brainstorm ‘fun’ ways to use the platform and end up with animated Halloween videos of laughing skeletons, clumsy AR experiences, and self-awarded certificates for reaching self-appointed milestones. There is a lot of effort put in the wrong places.

Asking fans to share their shaky iPhone footage seemed like a benign enough request. If you can be bothered, sure, share away. But this tweet has spawned an amazing conspiracy within the Guns N’ Roses’ forums.

It’s all a trap, you see, and the hashtag is a way for the band to issue takedown notices to their fans, who shot the videos. It’s all part of a continued bid to cleanse the internet of all unauthorised Guns N Roses footage.

In recent months, a number of the heavy Guns N’ Roses bootleggers have been hit with legal notices, or simply had their channels removed.

One bootlegger had an account that had been active for 15 years terminated, after 20 Guns N’ Roses videos filmed between 2011 and 2016 were removed. “To say I’m upset is an understatement,” the user bemoaned in the forums. “I took filming seriously,” they explain, “but was not in this for the views or publicity.”

Even Meegan Hodges, who is Slash’s girlfriend, had a video removed.

She posted a video of Slash with his foot on the foldback, playing the dramatic final section from ‘November Rain’ – ‘cos if Slash is your boyfriend, that’s the moment you film and put on Instagram. Unfortunately, this loving humblebrag was a breach of law and was removed. She reposted it on October 8, with an incensed caption and the #iamwiththeband hashtag, and it to date, it has remained online.

Technically though, being #withtheband doesn’t allow Hodges to post such a video. Slash himself wouldn’t be able to post this video. But once she declared who she was, the video remained, suggesting that this wasn’t necessarily an automated takedown. Someone is ordering the hits.

It is fairly easy to have something removed from the internet due to copyright. The process is largely a result of a man named John Giacobbi, a tenacious music attorney who calls himself the Web Sheriff.

In 2007, Prince contacted Giacobbi and asked to help him “disappear entirely from the internet”, an enigmatic enough request even for a man who once had an unpronounceable name.

Giacobbi threatened YouTube, eBay, Pirate Bay, and numerous smaller sites with takedown notices. Tens of thousands of videos and MP3s were removed. Websites selling bootleg merch were closed down. Even lyrics sites, concert photos, and album covers were wiped from online existence.

And for a number of years, it actually became impossible to find any of Prince’s music or videos on the internet, unless the Purple One himself uploaded it.

As musical identification software has become more intelligent, guns like Giacobbi have been largely replaced by automated systems which flag copyright issues without troubling the holder. Computers dealing in the backrooms.

But occasionally, a targeted sweep by a human is undertaken, and YouTube channels that have been quietly hosting concert bootlegs for over a decade will suddenly be taken down.

This is what seems to be happening in the Guns N’ Roses universe. But it’s unlikely that the request for live footage is little more than a misguided social media campaign that happened to clash badly with a sweep of routine takedown notices.

But that’s no fun. I prefer the conspiracy. I like to think of Axl Rose sitting at an old MacBook in a robe, fuming at shoddy iTunes footage of ‘Welcome To The Jungle’, and slowly concocting the perfect digital trap.

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