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Steal Your Tapes

Things are not so kosher in Deadhead land these days. Years ago, the Grateful Dead embarked on a bold, trust-based journey with their innumerable fans: The band allowed the taping of their live concerts and the trading of live tapes. So long as the trading was noncommercial, fans could do pretty much what they wanted with these recordings. Part hippie ideology, part brilliant marketing strategy, the encouragement of fan taping was one of many aspects of Dead-dom that built a sense of community, of family, and of a collective renegade spiritóreal or not, there has always been this sense that there were no barriers between the music and the people. Once the music was in the air, it belonged to everyone. The Dead also established the gold standard of music trading, followed by countless musicians everywhere. Take a look at Łber-site (actually you can spend a lifetime there): There are tens of thousands of live recordings up for download, all there with the explicit permission of the artists.

All of this came crashing down last week when suddenly announced that Grateful Dead management had asked it to pull all Dead recordings off of its site, where they had been available for free download for years. Within hours, there were petitions whizzing around the net calling for a boycott of the Dead and its official merchandise. Dead bassist Phil Lesh posted a message on his Web site that heíd been blindsided by the announcement. Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow, who uses the Dead ethos as a bulwark of his groundbreaking work in the ďfree cultureĒ movement (Barlow is also co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation), was simply beside himself. He told

ďYou have no idea how sad I am about this. I fought it hammer and tong, but the drummers had inoperable bricks in their head about it. Whatís worse is that they now want to remove all Dead music from the Web. They might as easily put a teaspoon of food coloring in a swimming pool and then tell the pool owner to get it back to them. Itís like finding out that your brother is a child molester. And then, worse, having everyone then assume that youíre a child molester too. Iíve been called a hypocrite in three languages already. How magnificently counter-productive of them. Itís as if the goose who laid the golden egg had decided to commit suicide so that he could get more golden eggs. This is just the beginning of the backlash, I promise you. This is worse than the RIAA suing their customers.Ē

Within days, a dťtente of sorts was reached. issued a diplomatic apology, implying that it had misread the Deadís intent, and stating that fan-taped concerts would be put back up for download. Soundboard-fed recordings, however, would be available only for streaming, which means these recordings can be listened to off of the site, but not automatically downloaded. (Streams can be readily captured and stored with the right software; this is another one of those ask-a-13-year-old-boy deals, and itís fairly easy to do, Iím told).

The Dead management has been cleaning up soundboard feeds of shows and selling them on the official Dead website, and this compromise solution protects those ďpropertiesĒ while keeping intact, sort of, the utopian vision of fan-generated freely available concert recordings. A good argument can be made that soundboard feeds are the Deadís property, like their studio recordings, and not ďmusic in the airĒ that, mingling with the arc trails of hacky-sacks and the pungent aroma of patchoulie, belong to The People. Nonetheless, the whole episode caused a stain thatís not going to wash off anytime soon.

Actually, what the Dead did was neither unprecedented nor irrational. Phish, Dave Matthews, and Widespread Panic long ago pulled all recordings, including fan-recorded shows, off of, for the simple reason that the site didnít foster community, sharing, or any of the other touchy-feely positives that were the reason for allowing fan taping to begin with. The site was simply a place to get stuff for free.

Such is the nature of digital media. Itís mobile, itís small, and it moves around fast when itís something people want. Try to control it. You canít. The Internet represents a sea change in the information paradigm from when the Dead instituted its tape-trading policy so many years ago. And the Dead, as standard bearers for this whole brave new world, canít possibly pretend that they can change what the world has become, like it or not. As Iíve said before, the catís rolling around in the toothpaste, and you wonít get the toothpaste off the cat and back into the tube, nor will you ever get the cat back in the bag.

óPaul Rapp

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