Chapter 5: Bootlegs

Whenever the topic of remixing comes up, someone mentions bootlegs.

There is a difference between a bootleg and a remix, so let’s unpack that to start with.

Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer. Any advice in this post is subject to critique. If you want to know more about copyright law, please do research yourself or consult a lawyer.

A bootleg is any form of illegal or unauthorized remix or edit. If you edit a song and distribute it online or anywhere else without permission, it’s a bootleg.

If you get your hands on a studio acapella given out by the artist, make a remix with it, and put it up on Soundcloud without clearing it – it’s a bootleg.

If you have stems lying around from a remix competition 3 months ago and you decide to finally make a remix, even though the competition has ended, it’s a bootleg.

But what’s wrong with bootlegs?

Copyright law

As I was doing research for this section, I was taken aback by how ambiguous copyright, and fair use law, really is.

This stuff is complicated, and I don’t expect to do a great job of laying it out here, so if you are interested in learning more about this then I encourage you to do your own research.

Fair use

Before understanding fair use, it’s important to realize that it’s illegal to sell, or even freely distribute music that has sampled other works unless you’ve has acquired the necessary permission to use content from such works.

Unofficial remixes or “bootlegs” fall under this.

What’s also interesting is that sampling another song, whether it’s a few seconds or the full arrangement, might infringe on two different copyrights–the master copyright and the publishing copyright.

The master copyright includes the recording of every stem, whereas the publishing copyright includes the composition: music and lyrics.

Most of the time, when you produce a bootleg, you’re infringing on both.

Now, some producers will cite fair use by saying that bootlegs are fine as long as you don’t include too much of the original and don’t try to make financial gain of them. This is simply not true, and fair use is less clear cut then people think.

Fair use allows artists and creatives to use parts of existing works without permission and not violate the law. A fair use might be criticism (reviewing something), commentary, reporting, teaching, or research–but the list extends beyond this.

For instance, me quoting the below paragraph from a book on copyright law and creative use would fall under fair use…

“To determine whether a particular use is fair, courts consider four factors, including whether the use is commercial, whether creative rather than factual elements of the existing copyrighted work were used, how much of the existing work was used, and whether the market for that work has been harmed.”Creative License: The Law and Culture of Digital Sampling

It’s difficult to figure out whether your unofficial remix falls under fair use unless you’re taken to court, and you don’t want that happening.

Now, it’s obvious that the majority of artists do not get taken to court over bootlegs. Electronic music producers have been making bootleg remixes for decades and very little has happened in the way of legal action.

Can you expect your bootleg to be taken down from YouTube or Soundcloud? Yes.

Can you expect a cease & desist letter? Yes.

Can you expect to be taken to court? It’s a possiblity, and I wouldn’t rule it out, but it’s unlikely.

Here are the facts:

  • Producing an unofficial remix or edit for the purposes of practice, is illegal.
  • Producing an unofficial remix or edit for free distribution is lllegal, but the repercussions are less harsh than if you were to attempt to sell it.
  • Producing an unofficial remix or edit for direct financial gain is lllegal and the repercussions will be harsh.

I know what you’re thinking – how is it illegal if I don’t release it to the public?

If you produce a bootleg simply for practice and don’t show anyone, it’s still illegal. You’re infringing on intellectual property. It’s just extremely difficult to penalize.

If you’ve got this far and you’re confused, don’t worry. Copyright law is incredibly confusing. Here’s what my friend Budi Voogt had to say when I asked him about it:

“International intellectual property laws were established years ago, and there is increasing misalignment between standard industry practices and the copyright laws that are supposed to support them.”

I recommend reading Budi’s article The Indie Guide to Music Copyright and Publishing for more info.


One way to work around copyright law is to produce a cover.

If you’ve produced a cover, you’ve taken the composition and arrangement from the original version of the track without taking any of the recordings/samples.

If you were to do a cover of a track containing a vocal, you’d need to re-record that vocal.

A cover version also has to be similar to the original to such an extent that it’s not considered a derivative work (a remix). However, this is a grey area and I recommend consulting a professional.

Recording and producing a cover song is not free. Here’s what Sue Basko, Lawyer for Indie Media has to say…

“The most amazing thing about recording cover songs is that the statutory royalty rate is exactly the same no matter whose song you cover. The rate is the same whether you are covering Dave Matthews or the guy who plays the local open mic. This rate is set by law. (At this time, the rate is about 10 cents per copy you will make, give away, or sell.)”

Finding & making acapellas

Acquiring acapellas isn’t always easy. If you want an acapella for a particular song, you’ll typically have one of three options:

  1. Find an acapella online (quality can range from studio to DIY)
  2. Find an instrumental track and create your own
  3. Don’t use an acapella

There are some cases where you simply won’t be able to get an acapella for the song you want to work on. If you’re doing an official remix, you will of course be given one. But an unofficial remix? You’re on your own (in no way do I encourage unofficial remixing).

Finding Acapellas

There are many different places to find acapellas for your favorite music. Here are a few:


One of the oldest and most trusted sources for acapellas. Most people will source their acapellas from here. There’s over 30,000 in total.

Quality may vary.

There’s also a fairly active forum.


Beatport has a DJ Tools category containing stems and, of course, acapella stems. You can download well-known vocals and vocal phrases for the standard track price.

Here are a few of the more popular acapellas on there:

  • Floral – Need to Feel Loved
  • Soulsearcher – Can’t Get Enough
  • Benny Benassi – Satisfaction

There are also acapella packages. A few standout ones are:

These aren’t royalty free. Use them at your own risk.

Making a DIY Acapella

To properly make a DIY acapella, you need to have the instrumental version of the track. Many producers nowadays will create a slightly different instrumental version so you can’t use phase inversion technique.

Not sure what I mean? Check out this video from School of Sounds.

If you can’t find an instrumental, you’re out of luck. The most you can do is EQ and process the full track to make it fit as best you can.

Tips for bootlegging without an acapella

You can’t do much with a song that’s vocal hook is on top of a full instrumental. However, songs that have the “Calvin Harris Crossover Arrangement,” where the vocal hook is in a break and a dance instrumental/drop follows it, are perfect for bootlegging. You just cut out the original drop and make your own.Mikael Wills

1. Find out what you’re going to use

Producers will rarely feature the full track in a bootleg. There may be key parts of the track feature, but given the nature of working with an original master track – some parts simply won’t fit OR shouldn’t need to be included.

Before you start digging in to your bootleg, cut up the original master track and work out what you really need to use. To do this, you need an idea of how your arrangement will be laid out and what kind of style of music you’re making.

For instance, if there’s a chorus in the original track that doesn’t have much underneath it, then you can probably include it in your chorus/drop with other elements surrounding it. If the chorus in the original track is too busy, you may need to have it featured in your bootleg as a separate section that builds into your own drop.

2. Don’t be afraid of the EQ

If you’re working with the original master track, you’re going to need to use EQ. There’s simply no way you can put a drum beat and bassline underneath the original master track without resulting in horrendous clashing.

Typically, you’ll want to filter out most of the low-end, but you may also want to give a small boost around the mids to make it pop through a little more.

One thing’s for sure, if you practice making bootlegs, you’ll get a lot better at using EQ.

3. Loop

I’m not sure this needs to be added as I’m sure most of you will do it anyway, but looping parts of the original track is a great way to add a touch of flavour to your bootleg and show off your production chops.

You could progressively loop a section during your build-up, or include a short sample of a solo vocal section in your intro.

4. Create samples

This is perhaps the most enjoyable part of bootlegging.

Go through the original track and sample as much as you can. Actually view the original master as something to be sampled.

You might like the kick drum being used, so you keep that for your bootleg. You might take the chord hits and rearrange them to create a different progression. You might take a short vocal snippet, chop it up, and create a melody from the individual slices.

5. Don’t overdo it

There are certain limitations to working with an original master track, and one of them is that you can’t add too much.

A drum beat, bassline, and new synth pattern may be enough. Some of the best bootlegs don’t feature much else. Just don’t go ahead and try to add 50 new layers to a track that already has over 20.

I mean, there have been bootlegs that add nothing more than a new drum beat. Do I think this is creative? No, but it’s still something new.