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Columns > David Steinberg - Some Are Mathematicians

Published: 2004/06/28
by David Steinberg

A History of Tape Trading

Sometimes things can change a lot in a short period of time. I first started collecting live music in 1988. That was only sixteen years ago, but it seems like a different world when I look back on it. This is how the system worked then. There were two ways of getting tapes in the late 80s. You either had to know people near you who had a good collection or you had to answer an ad in a music related magazine; the biggest section in Relix’s classified was the tape trading one. I managed to get lucky when I was starting to build mine, both in that I went to a hippie school and in my timing. The Betty Boards were just coming out and a nice person took pity on me and gave me low generation copies of some of the better offerings (including the then unheard of Cornell show). I was the only person at Bard who had those; I parlayed them into enough tapes to get a critical mass. That was one of the dirty secrets of tape trading. It was an extremely elitest game.
Not just anyone could get the good tapes. Not only did you have to make the connection, but you had to prove your worth. For a tape trade to happen, you had to have tapes that the other person didn’t have. Sure there was the occasional person who felt bad for a newcomer, but they were hard to find and sometimes they extracted a toll (e.g. extra blanks required). Not only did you have to have a good collection yourself, but you had to have good enough equipment to make copies. While cd burners are pretty much identical, tape decks widely differed in quality. Having the holy grail of tape decks (the Nakamichi Dragon) granted a lot more respect (and trades) than having a dual deck. The minimum required to make sure you wouldn’t get rejected by the people who had the tapes you wanted was two independent brand name (i.e. Japanese) decks. Even before you went out and started buying the XL-II’s, you were $4-500 in the hole.
Ok you have the decks. You’ve made a connection. This is how an actual tape trade went. You’d get out your tape and a blank, putting them in their respective decks. On the record deck, you’d push record and pause, while scanning the set to try to find the loudest moment on it. Once you had a reasonably loud moment, you’d have to listen to it a few times, while adjusting the levels on the record deck to make sure the peaks were correct. Depending on how picky you wanted to be, this process itself could take five minutes. Finally, you’re ready to go. Rewind the play tape, hit play on both
decks at the same time, and let them go. Oh yeah, I hope you don’t want to listen to a different tape during this as both your decks will be busy for the entire length of the show. This recording happens at 1x.
Even this slightly simplified version of the process (I didn’t even go into the wars over Dolby use and issues about generation loss, high speed dubbing, and pops being introduced if you didn’t eject the tape before turning off the player) might come as a shock to people raised in the cd generation. Yes indeed, we did walk ten miles… barefoot in the snow… uphill both ways to get our music. What changed it?
The same thing that changed everything else – the internet.
The evolution was slow. For a long time the net just focused on getting rid of the other barrier – that of having to know people. While online tape trading didn’t always work – discs got lost in the mail, people flaked, etc – it still helped people who didn’t have a good local connection get shows. Even early on though there were hints that something more might be happening. Back in 1994 I managed to download a few samples of Grateful Dead music that were online. Sure I had to use the fast pipe in the math department’s computer lab to do so, but it was proof that the capability was there.
The next major change to the process was the invention of the cd burner. It wasn’t obvious at first how much this would change things. I was an early adopter and my first generation cd burner was a pain to deal with. Not only was it barely faster than a real time tape deck (my first burner was a 2x), but the coaster rate was about 25%. With blank cds being upward of $5 even when purchased in bulk, this was quite a frustrating process. Without the burner though, none of the other musical revolutions would be possible. People would still be able to download music, but it is the ability to get the
music to their stereos that made all the difference.
Once there was a way to get music from the computer to a stereo, the next wave could happen. Increased hard drive space and faster connections led to a few more methods of trading. Etree servers were a popular step but any server that had anything interesting either got bogged down or had few logins. Eventually the old elitism issues came up again. If you had rare recordings or were well known, you could get some backdoor logins, otherwise you had to just try to get what you could. In an effort to deal with that, some P2P programs tried to fill in the gap. Furthur never really seemed to work all that well and schnapster was just a wraparound for ftp. Bit Torrent was a definite improvement, but if you didn’t jump onto the link in one of the first days that it was active, it would likely be dead. Anyone who was willing to be persistent could get what they wanted, and that was great, but for the Deadheads out there there still was one way of making things easier. Archive.org was about to weigh in.
I had tried to use archive.org a year or two ago. It had an amazing selection, yes, but downloads were incredibly slow. I just assumed that it would be a cool idea, but nothing that would really work. When they first started adding Grateful Dead material, we all just joked about what it would do to their servers. It seems like they knew what they were doing though. I’ve been playing with it for a while and have been able to download whole shows in hours. In fact the download speeds seem to be faster than most bit torrents. Just during the course of writing this column, I found a cool 1969 show in the Taping Compendium to download, started the process, and while it was going streamed a few songs (such as the Box of Rain bustout) on a whim. A teenager today who suddenly decides to get some Grateful Dead shows could have a better collection in a matter of weeks than all of my hard work of a decade got me. The treasure hunt factor might be gone, but so is the elitism factor. If you want to hear the music, all you need to invest now is the time to download it. That’s how it should be.
David Steinberg got his Masters Degree in mathematics from New Mexico State University in 1994. He first discovered the power of live music at the Capitol Centre in 1988 and never has been the same. His Phish stats website is at www.ihoz.com/PhishStats.html He is the stats section editor for
The Phish Companion and is on the board of directors for the Netspace Foundation. You can read more of his thoughts at http://www.livejournal.com/users/thezzyzx.

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