Tuesday, November 29, 2005

What Would Jerry Do?

Dancing Bears
The Grateful Dead built their reputation as one of the premier live bands in America by not just allowing, but encouraging their fans to tape their shows and share the tapes. And with the advent of the Internet age, this ethic was expanded to allow for the liberal downloading of free Dead shows (while the band continued, long after the death of Jerry Garcia, to finance its operations through a steady stream of archival releases). So it came as something of a shock to Deadheads when the band pulled the plug on the free music parade. Last week, the band's merchandising arm requested that all archived Dead shows on the free music download site archive.org be pulled, apparently in anticipation of a new paid downloading service. (The change does not, however, seem to impact the band's tolerance of live music trading among fans.) Deadheads are now starting to circulate petitions in protest.

As usual, I'm of two minds about the whole thing. I remain convinced that allowing easy and free access to live music does not hurt artists; to the contrary, speaking as something of a closet Deadhead, I have long traded (and more recently downloaded) Dead shows, and, if anything, it's led me to buy more, not less, official product, as the ready access to a steady stream of taped shows keeps up my enthusiasm for the band long after their demise. [Case in point: I recently bought the limited-edition 10-cd set from their '69 run at the Fillmore West, even though I could have just as easily (and much more cheaply) downloaded copies of several of these shows (albeit less sonically immaculate than the official box), and, indeed, already have some of them on cdr. Similarly, I recently picked up the new Wilco live cd, even though I have massive amounts of live Wilco I've picked up from trading/downloading. Of course, I'm obviously insane.]

On the flip side, the music belongs to the artists, and shouldn't they be able to profit from their music? Merely allowing taping & trading goes way beyond what most bands will tolerate; if the band's management wants to digitize the entire live music archive and make it available for (paid) download, it doesn't seem all that unreasonable to limit the ability to download it for free. (Again, I'm assuming that I'm still free to trade the shows I've already got for other shows; it's just the easy downloading that's being restricted at this point.)

Indeed, what the Dead apparently now plan to do is what I wish far more artists would do: open up the archives. As the steady trickle of bonus tracks sprinkled among reissue packages confirms, most artists are hoarding an awful lot of live material (and demos and outtakes, etc.), and I sure wish other artists were as good as the Dead (and Phish and a handful of other bands) about making it available to fans. Viewed that way, of course the band should be entitled to sell the music, and I sense the only reason the 'Heads are pissed is because they had a few years of being spoiled by the ready access to free music. If Yo La Tengo or Wilco or some of my other favorite live acts decided tomorrow to open their vaults to fans, I can't imagine any fans credibly insisting that the music be made available for free... so why should the Dead be any different?


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