THE TALE OF THE TAPE
Phish, Metallica cash in on live shows
By Dan Goodin and Chales Beene
It started in the mid 1970s with the Grateful Dead and the advent of the cassette tape.
Fans lucid enough to set up mics and operate a tape machine documented shows at storied venues such as San Francisco's Fillmore and New York's Winterland, then dubbed them onto this new portable platform and passed them to friends. As elaborate webs of traders sprang up though the mail and the Dead's fanzine, Relix, the band enthusiastically encouraged what other artists considered piracy, figuring that for every tape played while the bong got passed, a ticket somewhere was sold.
More than a few of those tapes trickled into the hands and minds of four students in Burlington, Vermont, in the mid 1980s. They soon forged a cult-like phenomenon - otherwise known as Phish - that would carry the Dead's tour-till-you-die and tape-to-your-heart's-content ethos into the 21st century. Like the Dead's following, Phish fans taped shows night after night, tirelessly compiled set lists and spread them to the four winds, all in the name of sharing the music with other aficionados, or better still, with the as-yet unitiated. A strict credo forbid traders from charging for their tapes or otherwise profiting from the band's generosity.
Now, Phish, one of the biggest live acts in the country, is generating serious cash from the past time. Fans are still free tape shows and distribute them online or by swapping CDs and tapes through the mail. But for those looking for higher-quality recordings taped off the sound board or who want to eliminate the hassle of trading, there's LivePhish.com, launched early last year. The site quickly spurred similar services from bands such as the String Cheese Incident, another jam band, and San Francisco-area rockers Metallica.
Downloadable as MP3s or in a higher quality format known as FLAC, shows are generally available within two to four days of the event and usually come with bonus materials, such as printable booklets, tray inlays and labels for people who burn CDs. Before the stench of patchouli and sweat has even worn off, fans can order a specific show for $9.95 for MP3s and $12.95 for FLAC files and get a complete set list and abundant fan reviews to boot.
"What LivePhish.com or LiveMetallica or any of them offer is the ability to remember those shows," says Marc Schiller, chief executive of ElectricArtists, which advises record labels and companies on online marketing. "Those bands are really about the live performance."
Phish to date has grossed $2.5 million selling live music off its site, said Brad Serling, Chief Executive of Nugs.net, which runs the download services for Phish, Metallica, the String Cheese Incident and several other bands.
The String Cheese Incident sells about 300 recordings of each show, says Kevin Morris, president of the band's label, SCI Fidelity Records. The String Cheese Incident, which has posted recordings of all shows since Halloween of last year, has long sold live CDs, but downloads have become fans' preferred way to get recordings, he says.
It's no secret that the real money in the music business is made by hawking tickets, tee shirts, and other merchandise. That's especially true in the jam band scene, where platinum-selling studio albums are as rare as 10-second guitar solos. But the entry by studio blockbuster Metallica suggests that concert recordings could become a key revenue staple for musicians looking to fill a void created by four years of dormant CD sales.
The sites are also a way to forge stronger ties between the musicians and their fans. That's especially useful in the case of Metallica, which five years ago waged a highly-visible legal assault on fans who downloaded the band's music on Napster.
"It's really about the relationship between the fans and the bands," Schiller says.
Selling downloads can be a mixed bag for Morris. Gone are the headaches of storing and shipping thousands of CDs, potentially allowing him to carve a larger profit off each sale. But he also has to contend with costs of bandwidth, credit card processing, paying a cut to Nugs.net and the pressure of keeping prices low. Profits on sales of CDs, which he's scaling back, are probably higher at the moment, he says.
Other bands are rapidly entering the field. The Dave Matthews Band, one of the few jam bands to enter the promised land of platinum records and high-dollar ticket sales, is developing a site similar to LivePhish.com. Washington-area hardcore stalwarts Fugazi recently founded Fugaziliveseries.com, which sells a catalog of shows spanning more than a decade.
And lest fans without high-speed Net access feel left out, other ventures are cooking up a variation on the theme: offering live CDs at the merch table before fans leave the venue. DiscLive, eMusicLive and Clear Channel's Instant Live all offer services that record a show through the soundboard and room mics, then churn out copies as soon as the band plays its last encore. Within 20 minutes, fans can grab a recording of the show they just saw. Most recordings go for $10 to $20, which can be a real boost to a band's on-the-road cash flow.
EMusic is testing a kiosk that allows audiences to download a show onto a key-chain drive that plugs in to a PC's USB. Fans pay $10 for a show encoded in a variable bit rate MP3. The service will be launched in the next few weeks at Maxwell's, a venue in Hoboken, New Jersey. EMusic plans to include another 30 clubs within the next six months or so, says Steve Grady, eMusic's general manager. The company already dishes up live music from about 50 bands via its subscription-based Web site.
Not all fans are taking to all these new services. For one thing, there's the objection that the recordings fail to capture the experience in all its tattered glory.
"Live shows are all about being there, in the crowd, with the fans, sweating, screaming," long-time Metallica fan Greg says. "I've heard some bootlegs and they just don't do it for me."
There's also the gripe among some that the recordings are yet another attempt by bands to whittle away at fans' paychecks. That criticism is muted in the case of Phish, which recently starting donating net proceeds from Livephish.com to charity.
Morris, of SCI Fidelity, says there's a downside to selling live shows, especially on CDs immediately after the show. Sometimes the time pressure makes it hard to get out a recording that properly labels song titles and other data or that has the right mix levels.
"Putting out three disks 15 minutes after the show, it's hard to make sure the sound is the way you want it," he says.
But the new services remain a hit with hardcore fans.
"Some people may argue, 'why bother when you can trade with tapers and get shows for free,' but it ain't a soundboard, period," says die-hard Metallica fan Chris Martin in Seattle.
Sales tend to spike when a show offers something unusual. The top-selling Metallica show to date was performed on March 5, when the band played Dyers Eve for the first time ever. "Fans were flipping out," said Serling.
Similarly, when Phish played Destiny Unbound at a February show last year, for the first time in about a decade, orders exploded.
Thirty years ago, charging for a live recording was uncharted territory Then a blonde Brit with a Tiger Beat mug dropped a mega-ton bomb on AM radio. With nearly 16 million copies of Frampton Comes Alive sold worldwide, A&M Records made a boatload of cash off what they thought was a dead-end artist. Downloads and other digital means may open a whole new door, and possibly give bands greater control over how they deliver live music. But don't count on the BMGs and Elektras of the world to spearhead online distribution of shows just yet.
"The market has not yet responded to digital music in a way needed to see shift from CDs," Schiller of ElectricArtists says. "Until something starts to make a sizable chuck of money it's not on their radar screen."