The music genie's out of the bottle

When Napster hit it big a lot of people pointed to the success of the Grateful Dead despite having almost no hit records and ascribed it to their liberal tape-trading policies. Part-time Dead lyricist and EFF co-founder John Perry Barlow spread the gospel of music sharing and how a liberal intellectual property regime had fueled viral word-of-mouth advertising for the band.
Not only that but Deadheads played a big role in the development of early online communities, as I touched on in the book. There were a lot of hippies enthralled by the potenial of the personal computer (Timothy Leary saw it as the next LSD), and Deadheads helped get the Whole Earth spinoff, the Well, off the ground back when it was a dial-up BBS. Deadheads were also overrepresented in the early days of Usenet, spawning the first subdivision of the old newsgroup. While taxonomical purists objected to the creation of (now before broader genres and forms had been split off, a filibuster by Deadheads finally led to an agreement to give their own space, helping crystalize the Usenet principal that spawning new branches in the tree can help prevent people from getting on each other’s nerves.
The Dead’s tape trading culture experienced a digital revolution, as mangy old cassettes gave way first to DAT (digital audio tapes) and later to CDs and raw non-lossy digital files. The folks at tried to model the old bubble-wrapped snail mail tape trees in a digital format to enable people to download and share digital music more easily. Along the way they conceived of the ultimate Grateful Dead archive of live concert recordings, to preserve and distribute the music well past all of our lifetimes.
At some point the etree folks approached Brewster Kahle at the Internet Archive to ask if he’d be interested in mirroring (backing up) their collection. This led to the creation of the Live Music Archive, which offers downloadable and streaming recordings from a huge and growing collection of bands and other musical entities.
The Dead collection on the Archive supposedly exceeded 2300 recordings when contact from the Grateful Dead management led to all of the downloads being removed from the website and audience recordings only being made available for streaming.
The fans reacted, mostly shocked by the seemingly greedy action of their heroes. Pro-EFF blog Boing Boing accused Jerry Garcia’s widow of being behind the shutdown. Rumors and petitions spread. The mainstream media picked up the story, and the explanation for how what happened happened started changing day by day. Dead bass player Phil Lesh posted an announcement on his website saying he had not been consulted and disapproved of the change. Barlow condemned the policy, seeing it as a repudiation of the Dead’s formerly open trading policy (and, incidentally, belying one of the music-sharers’ primordial myths).
The New York Times picked up the story and ran with it for several days. As did the AP, CNN, Yahoo News, and so on. Deadhead blogs also provided commentary and shared tidbits, binding together themselves as a new offshoot of the longstanding Deadhead online presence. I did my best to cover the story at Uncle John’s blog.
As of yesterday the band changed their policy. Now it’s OK for fans to download (fan-created) audience recordings and to listen to streams of (crisper but unofficial) soundboards. Most of the outraged ‘heads seem satisfied by this compromise. (Many bands do not permit soundboards to circulate, even on LMA.) And the band reaffirmed its commitment to the community-building activities of tape trading and music sharing.
What was essentially a PR snafu (the music was alreadey out there and was already showing up on Bit Torrent sites and elsewhere) may have been pulled back from the cliff, and a 40 year-old band that broke up more than ten years ago managed to stir up ripples throughout the online world and the mainstream media. It’s been quite a week.
I’m taping a discussion about this with CNN blog reporter Jackie Schechner this evening. It will air at 7 pm eastern tomorrow (Saturday, December 3) and again at 1 pm on Sunday (December 4).