Tape Trading in the Digital Age

I’ve had a half-written post lying around for a long time in which I wanted to reflect on the change from tape trading to torrenting but I’ve never been quite sure what its final point is. This excellent article about bootlegging, in conjunction with a couple of emails I’ve gotten recently from people talking about differential levels of respect for bands that do and don’t allow bootlegging, makes me want to finish that post. The linked article talks about the Woodstock-era Deadhead origins of tape trading, the pros and the cons of it from band and fan perspectives, the bands that play along, the ones that don’t and the legal and ethical issues entailed by both positions.

I was pretty active in tape trading in the 1980s, collecting mostly REM shows, but also a lot of other bands in the ‘college rock’ scene of the early 1980s. I have a dusty drawer full of what are probably now warped cassettes. To be involved in the tape trading scene, you had to really know people who knew people. You couldn’t just hop in as a novice fan and build a good collection. You had to work the social network to get the good stuff. For instance, one of my great coups was when someone in a band (the dBs) gave me the secret address of someone in Chapel Hill, NC who had all kinds of early recordings of southern pop bands and told me to tell him that he’d sent me. Those tapes were treasures when they arrived.

And now you just fire up your torrenting program of choice and bam, all those shows I collected like treasure hunts are right there, in multiple for everyone. I can’t help but feel a little bit like something’s been lost. But maybe that ‘something’ is elitism — I used to get social status for the boots I’d collected, and now I’m just another torrenting geek, and a less obsessive one than many at that. The internet’s made everyone as cool as they want to be.

I also rethink my sense of loss when I realize that despite the easy availability of many recordings, in fact, torrents do not last forever and personal connections still matter. The internet enables us to build more of those connections than we used to. When I got interested in Norwegian band Madrugada, I devoured their records and wanted more. I found a fan community that posted a lot of torrents, with the band’s permission (for more on this and an interview with the webmaster, click over here to an earlier post), and I built myself a nice collection. But some of the very best stuff I got came not from the torrents but from a person on that site who felt bad for me never getting to see them in concert and snail mailed me over a dozen live recordings (from France!). Those cds were treasures when they arrived.

I have never believed that trading bootlegs (not selling: trading) takes any money away from anyone. Live recordings can enhance the fan experience dramatically. The flaws in the performance, when there, give us that much more to appreciate about the recorded versions, and the transcendent shows when the songs just flow one into the other and the band plays like one organism do more to enhance attachment to a band than any studio recording ever could.

Comments (2) to “Tape Trading in the Digital Age”

  1. Your discussion of “social status” with tape trading is interesting. With tape trading moving to and now doing the bulk of its work on the internet I can see how that would have felt like a blow in terms of “fan hierarchies” for you. I think the social status has shifted now to give more powers to (or back to?) the tapers. At Dave Matthews Band concerts I often hear fans discussing and in many cases rating those tapers who capture higher quality recordings and put them up the quickest for people to download. I’ve heard people talk about having met this or that taper once or knowing this taper via this person and that person.

    Online music archives like the Grateful Dead Internet Archive Project for example give fans a way to connect with this dialogue and to write their own informal histories, linking their memories and connections with music with the ablility to download a concert recording or a concert they went to. This is especially important when one considers that fans new and old no longer have a chance to see the Grateful Dead perform. It is through the live music recordings that these fans are now able recreate the Dead’s musical experience and I think that is invaluable.

    To get even geekier for a moment I must profess my love for your research. You always make me feel validated about my work especially when my cohort used to teasingly refer to my research in air quotes. Maybe we’ll run into each other at some of the upcoming conference on the East Coast in April.

  2. Thanks Kelly! Validating the serious study of fun things seems to be one of my callings, and not a bad one to have either ;)

    Really interesting to hear you say people speak of knowing the taper. The mystery of who did the taping was something we never even considered when I was in on that scene. Except, of course, for the elusive Board Tape. Goes to show I suppose that social hierarchy always finds a way to assert itself, no matter how egalitarian the internet makes things seem.

    Totally agree about the Dead Internet Archive Project.

    No April conferences for me, I’m giving a talk at my alma mater, the University of Illinois, in mid-April and that’s it.