By: Edna Gunderson
For: USA Today
December 14, 2005
In pop antiquity, the fan who missed the hot-ticket rock show had to settle for a breathless critique, a muddy bootleg or the negligible possibility that a song, buffed and overdubbed, might crop up years later on a live album.
Today, consumers can pick up freshly pressed CDs of a concert while leaving the venue or point and click to the experience without leaving their driveways. The boom in live recordings, enjoying unprecedented vitality in the marketplace, is opening new revenue streams for artists while expanding the sonic smorgasbord for listeners.
And while bands are usurping bootleggers by issuing live material, many also allow fans to freely tape and trade shows, which has created enormous vaults of recorded concerts online.
The tidal wave recently spawned a riptide when the Grateful Dead directed non-profit website archive.org to stop making the band’s concert music available for download.
After fan protests, the Dead, which has a vast catalog of live albums and sells soundboard recordings online, amended the order to permit downloads of audience recordings and streamings only of soundboard audio, which is directly recorded by technicians.
“Soundboard recordings are the band’s property and are regarded as a separate entity,” says Dennis McNally, spokesman for Grateful Dead Productions. “That mini-Sherwood Forest of people in the audience with mike stands and recorders (is) OK. The band approved of taping in the late ’70s because to stop it, you need to impose a police state, and they hated being cops. They also saw it in terms of community.
“But we became disturbed by a giant website that could run all night and download anything. That’s not community. Find a Deadhead, swap tapes. We encourage trading. Nothing has changed in that regard. We just didn’t want a supermarket.”
Live albums once documented extraordinary moments: James Brown’s Live at the Apollo. Johnny Cash’s At Folsom Prison. Bob Dylan’s The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert. While 23-5-00 Estadio do Restelo Lisbon Portugal may not belong in that company as a defining performance in Pearl Jam’s career, it’s just as historic.
The CD was one of 25, each capturing a show on the band’s 2000 European tour. The band’s authorized bootleg CD series, a move regarded by some as brave and by many as foolhardy, sowed the seeds for today’s bumper crop of live recordings by eventually selling an estimated 3 million discs and demonstrating the public appetite for live fare.
“The people have spoken, and they want a more intimate relationship with their favorite artists,” says Stephen Prendergast, general manager of Instant Live, which provides professionally recorded and packaged concert CDs immediately (usually within six minutes after the encore) or by mail, as well as digital downloads.
Modeled after the proven but illegal underground network of bootleggers, the company started in 2003, gained traction in 2004 and saw its business explode this year.
“We’re expanding with people that don’t fit the classic established rock act, like The Dears and The Decemberists,” he says. “We did Charlie Daniels and Lorrie Morgan to test the country market. We’re finding that when people want something, they want it now.”
The standard Instant Live CD is $25, and up to 20% of the house might bite, depending on fan-base fervor. The Black Crowes, The Pixies, Jewel, Kiss, Bauhaus and Hall & Oates have shown brisk sales.
As technology allows greater efficiency, Prendergast envisions on-site copying of shows onto fans’ digital devices, personalizing CD keepsakes with a photo and recording shows remotely.
“Our engineer could be in L.A. for a London show,” he says.
The logic of audience taping
In this climate of falling album sales, which is blamed largely on piracy, the new assembly lines for delivering live music might have some bands rethinking their lenient policies on audience taping.
Instead, even acts outside the Dead zone of jam bands are loosening restrictions. Mercury Rev, Death Cab for Cutie, Jason Mraz, Ozomatli, Polyphonic Spree, Jack Johnson and Queens of the Stone Age either openly permit taping or turn a deaf ear to the practice. (Bob Dylan, U2 and the Rolling Stones forbid taping and trading and remain among the most-bootlegged acts on the planet.)
Logic suggests audience taping undercuts retail sales, yet most touring musicians believe fans rabid enough to trade homemade recordings also will buy a band’s official, and technically superior, releases.
The Dave Matthews Band always has invited taping and trading at live shows, even allowing high-tech gear, while discouraging sales of those recordings.
While live-album sales might be healthier without the grass-roots bartering, the tally is still impressive. The new three-disc Weekend on the Rocks set sold 42,000 copies its first week, and four live releases issued from 2001 to 2004 have sold a combined 2.2 million copies to date.
“It’s a matter of trust,” says Marc Roberge of O.A.R., which enlists Instant Live for concert CDs but also allows audience taping, even soundboard plug-ins. “We recognized the recording and trading put us in a position to do this as a job. There’s a good chance we wouldn’t be selling records or touring if our music weren’t spread around via live taping and the Internet.
“We draw an invisible line in the sand: Please do not sell the stuff,” Roberge says, noting that while fan-generated tapes abound, the band’s best-selling release is its 2002 live album, Any Time Now.
“Our listeners are incredibly supportive. They know we pump all our money back into touring. It’s a trust thing that’s totally lost in American business and the music industry, where there’s zero trust. We have a personal connection with the people who tape our shows.”
The band learned to let go of musical glitches on Instant Live CDs and fan tapes.
“We accept the fact that some shows are horrible,” he says. “My voice may be gone, but it’s the real stuff. A lot of artists are scared to let people see them at their worst. They have to control it by wearing eight pounds of makeup and remixing every track.
“If I have a bad night, kids are going to hear about it, so they might as well be able to download it,” Roberge says.
In addition to collaborating with Instant Live, jam band Moe releases entire unedited concerts in its Warts & All series. Since 1993, entire Grateful Dead concerts have been released in the Dick’s Picks series, now at 36 volumes. Defunct Phish also milked the archives for a three-disc set, Live at Madison Square Garden: New Year’s Eve 1995, due Tuesday.
Fans remain loyal
Not every band can thrive live. Acts locked into a rigid set list or static performance seldom incite taping mania.
But those Pied Pipers of the industry, whose fans literally or digitally track every show, feel pressure to deliver fresh goods.
“The fact that we know every show can be downloaded makes it a challenge for us,” says guitarist Warren Haynes of Gov’t Mule, which permits taping and provides Instant Live CDs plus paid downloads within 48 hours at muletracks.com. “Most bands play the same 14 songs night after night. Our set lists vary drastically, and we keep a log of every set we’ve played. We try to make every night a different experience.”
Haynes, also a guitarist for the Allman Brothers Band, says widespread tape-trading may cut into band profits, “but it does more good than harm. It brings more people into the fold. We get a lot of fans who discover us by hearing a tape of a show. The positives outweigh the downside, which is the guy who won’t buy a CD because they have a favorite live show on tape. I can appreciate that passion. They want to be reminded of the moment, especially if they had an amazing semi-spiritual experience. They want to relive it.
“There are certain fans who won’t listen to studio albums and only want the live stuff. But that’s nominal. Taping cuts down the bootlegs.
“And a lot of hard-core fans want the tapes plus everything that exists on the commercial level.”
Pearl Jam leads the way
Pearl Jam, a catalyst for the concert CD explosion, has been fine-tuning its bootleg program since it unleashed 80 titles within a few months five years ago.
“It was messy,” says band manager Kelly Curtis.
In September, the band began offering digital downloads of every show for $9.99 exclusively at pearljam.com or tenclub.net. The high-resolution files have no copy-protection coding, so fans can burn them to discs, transfer them to MP3 players or play them on hard drives.
Sales are steady, “but it’s not like this is going to retire us,” Kelly says. “It pays for itself. We’ve never spent money marketing or advertising it. That crowd knows it’s there.”
Pearl Jam has no set policy on audience taping: Small recorders aren’t confiscated, big gear isn’t welcome.
Amateur tapes circulate, “but people who collect want the best quality from the band,” Curtis says. “They know they’re going to get a better version from us.”
Select shows may reach stores in the pioneering bootleg CD form. “My gut is we know which of the shows are really popular, and we’ll probably release those to retail.”
But can today’s instant-gratification consumers wait?
“The on-demand thing isn’t as big as I thought it would be,” Curtis says. “I thought the big orders would come right after the show. But it usually takes days. People read reviews and want to talk about the shows and rate the set lists.”
He also has noticed a scarcity of illicit bootlegs.
“I used to collect every single one of them,” he says. “Then we figured out how to do it ourselves.”