Pirated tapes: sweet music for peddler, sour deal for singer

March 02, 1992|By Norris P. West | Norris P. West,Staff Writer

When it's lunchtime outside Lexington Market, it's time for "Scar" to get busy. He wheels up his luggage cart and starts hustling bargain cassette tapes at $5 apiece, two for $8.

They're bargains because they're pirated.

"I've got all the latest," Scar tells a customer. "I've got Gerald Levert, Boyz II Men, Jodeci."

"You got Vanessa Williams? She's really hot," says the customer, who's stopping on her way to the MTA subway station.

She buys the Vanessa Williams tape and another for about $12 less than she'd pay in a store for the real thing. Then she asks for Natalie Cole's "Unforgettable."

"Everybody wants Natalie Cole since she won those Grammys," says Scar, a 20-something man. He's sorry; he doesn't have the singer's tape today. The customer promises to return tomorrow.

While pirated tapes may be bargains for the customer, they're an incurable headache for musical artists and the recording industry. The industry says counterfeits cost companies nearly $400 million a year.

The Recording Industry Association of America, the Washington-based trade group representing major record producers, recently seized 14,000 pirated cassette tapes in Baltimore during a three-city sweep that also targeted Philadelphia and New York.

Working with U.S. marshals, the association's anti-piracy unit confiscated tapes from flea markets and vendors Feb. 6 after obtaining an order from Judge Joseph H. Young in U.S. District Court in Baltimore. The association also filed federal trademark and copyright infringement lawsuits against vendors in all three cities.

Karen S. Miller, an attorney for the association, said U.S. marshals began the recent operation with the Dec. 6 seizure of 7,027 pirated tapes in Manhattan and the Bronx. Philadelphia authorities seized 5,523 counterfeit tapes on Feb. 8, and marshals took 3,867 tapes off the streets in Queens on Feb. 13.

Named in the Baltimore lawsuit were Associated Enterprises Unlimited Inc., alleged to be a major distributor of pirated tapes -- that operates under the name Picture Art Plus at 97 Stemmers Run Road; Earring Johns Plus, 222 N. Greene St.; and several unidentified sellers who work the streets or the American Flea Market in the 1200 block of West Pratt Street. The suit seeks damages of up to $100,000 for the duplication of each tape.

Tanya Blackwood, an association spokeswoman, said counterfeit cassettes are the largest concern because they're still the biggest-selling medium in the United States, despite a surge in compact disc sales.

The industry sold 204 million cassette tapes, compared with 159.5 million CDs between January and June 1991, the most recent reporting period.

Law enforcement officials seized 1.1 million counterfeit cassettes 1990, a year in which the industry sold 442.2 million cassettes. Authorities also seized 152,466 pirated CDs, but most of those were confiscated by customs agents from smugglers trying to bring them into the country, Ms. Blackwood said.

Unlike CDs, cassettes are easy to copy. Ms. Blackwood said the association has been successful in policing the relatively few CD production facilities in the United States, although pirated discs are becoming a major concern in Europe.

While customers think they're getting a bargain, Ms. Blackwood argued that counterfeit cassettes usually are inferior to the real thing.

Indeed, a sampling of a pirate tapes showed uneven quality. A pirated "Unforgettable" had a few flaws: The music dragged in spots, and there was unwanted vibrato in the violins. Musical purists would be dissatisfied, but less discriminating listeners might not be offended.

Much worse was a pirate Bebe & Cece Winans' "Different Lifestyles" tape. It had several dead spots, including a 15-second gap in the hit "Addictive Love."

On the other hand, a pirated tape of Prince & the New Power Generation's "Diamonds and Pearls" was flawless in terms of sound quality.

"The best way for the consumer to see the difference is to hear the difference," Ms. Blackwood said. "There's a big difference in quality."

She acknowledged that consumers often know the tapes they (( buy are counterfeit and are just trying to save money, although most pirates do make an effort to duplicate the original packaging.

The graphics on pirate tapes are usually the same as the original, if abit blurry. The counterfeit Natalie Cole package, for example, had a sepia tone, unlike the real tape's black-and-white photograph. Also missing in counterfeits are the credits for musicians, writers and producers.

Scar admits that customers have returned to complain about the volume level on some tapes, but he says he has a no-hassle exchange policy.

As he talks, he sees a Baltimore police officer. "I've got to move," he says, and he wheels the cart across Eutaw Street and north of the Lexington Market, where he complains that a competitor has taken his spot.

He says that police know what he's doing but that they don't bother him as long as he moves along when they come.

"They'd rather see us out here selling these tapes than committing crimes," Scar says. "They'll just say, 'Respect me while I'm doing my eight hours.' "

Scar knows he's depriving artists of revenue by selling the counterfeits, but he contends that he's doing honest work. And it can be lucrative.

"The first of the month, when checks come out, you might come home with $300, $400 a day," he said. "On days like this, you might come in with $40."

Ms. Blackwood said street vendors such as Scar always re-emerge after crackdowns. But the real problem is finding manufacturers and distributors, who usually produce the counterfeits in basements and attics.

"It's not easy getting vendors to say where they get their tapes, and many times they don't know where the source is," she said. "Manufacturers keep themselves very insulated, very far removed from the street."

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