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Columns > David Steinberg - Some Are Mathematicians

Published: 2005/12/12
by David Steinberg

Dead Wrong

As most people have probably heard by now, the Grateful Dead have asked for all of their soundboards to be removed from archive.org. Many people have reacted to that out of a sense of entitlement, that it’s our music and the Dead didn’t have any right to take it away from us. That attitude, while perhaps a little understandable, is wrong. Many musicians do questionable things to make a dollar, but selling their own music is a perfectly valid business model. Grateful Dead Merchandising obviously has the right to make that decision and I stand by the fact that they have that right. What I do question is the intelligence of it. Is this really going to maximize their profits?
On the surface, sure, it makes sense. You’re a company that’s trying to sell CDs of music and over there is a place where people can get things that are very similar for free. However, the first thing to remember is that "very similar" and "identical" are quite different things. If you download the soundboards off of archive, you’ll encounter missing songs, drop outs, some static and diginoise and nothing in the way of mastering. The versions in the vault don’t have cassette generations and – for many shows – there is the ability to remaster them. For a subset of fans, the difference between getting a professional release of a show and the copy that they had downloaded would be worth $20. Isn’t that what releasing shows in HDCD is about?
"That might be true," comes the objection, "but that’s only a tiny subset. Look at our album sales. We can’t just sell to them." [1] If you’re a manager at GDM and looking for reasons why Dick’s Picks 36 isn’t selling as well as the first few, that argument isn’t going to fly. However, there are reasons why sales would be going down, and few of them will involve the Live Music Archive.
The first reason why sales might be down, is implied in the name, _’Dick’s Pick’s 36.’ _ Between those and the 12 Vault releases from a show – not to mention compilations like The Grateful Dead Movie Soundtrack and Dozing at the Knick, the market is pretty saturated. One From the Vault was an exciting novelty in a way that Forty-five From the Vault could never be.
Moreover, the vault releases are very early 70s biased. That’s understandable as most fans think of the 1972-1974 period as one of the peaks if not the peak of their career. I count fifteen releases from that era. Unfortunately, as good as those shows were, there wasn’t too much setlist variance. The extra jam between "China Cat Sunflower" and "I Know You Rider" is wonderful, but how many times am I really going to be interested in buying it? Even the "Playin’ in the Band" versions from that era start to sound alike. Sure there are some exceptions – the jam out of the "Weather Report Suite" on disc 4 of Dicks Picks 12 is amazing and one wonders why none of the "Playin’" -> "Uncle John’s" -> "Morning Dew" -> "Uncle John’s" -> "Playin’" performances has been released – but there is some definite self similarity in tone and style in the jams from that era which limits the enthusiasm for future releases.
In addition, the problem with 1970s releases is that it flies against one of most obvious rules of concert albums – people are more likely to buy shows that they attended. Yes, if a show is really well known for some reason (e.g. 5/8/77) it’ll attract interest, but a large reason for sales is people wanting to relive a moment.
Unfortunately, the percentage of people who witnessed a random show in 1972 who still are following the Dead is a lot lower than those who want the String Cheese Incident show that they saw the previous week. Due to Jerry’s health problems, the period of their greatest popularity overlaps with the worst music that the band ever produced. There are some great shows in the compromise years between 1989 and 1992 that they’ve been mining for some excellent video releases, but after Bruce’s departure, the gems are much harder to find. As the final Grateful Dead show gets more distant, there needs to be a way to get new fans interested. If only there were a free way to advertise that would spawn many conversations about the band.
That was what archive did for the band. It’s been over a decade since the band has played its final show, and yet there still are regular debates over the best "Eyes of the World" or if 1977 is better than 1974. This replenishes the fan base, some of whom would be interested in the shows that are for sale.
The other thing to remember about the vault is that quite a few shows fall in the unfortunate gap where people are interested in hearing them if it’s just there for the taking, but they’re not really worth a $20 download to anyone. I recently burned every show I ever attended [2]. As a little project, it was a lot of fun and brought back memories. However, there is no way I’d be interested in paying to hear some of the weaker shows in that period. A side effect of doing that was that a show that I always thought as a weaker sister to the next one surprised me with its quality. I might not have purchased the Truckin’ to Buffalo DVD had I not been reminded how cool that "Not Fade Away" was.
I’ll admit that Grateful Dead Merchandising is going to have some issues now. Without a band continuing to play shows, it’s going to be harder and harder to keep money coming in. I can respect that they want to keep loyal employees hired. However, there is a limit to how much money any band short of The Beatles is going to take in a decade after their frontman’s death. Being on the Live Music Archive might not have been the best move for short term profitability, but it was doing something amazing for the long term. Unfortunately, making a decision that makes more money this quarter at the expense of ten times as much down the road is how corporations are run these days. While it’s their right to do whatever they want with their music, it is too bad – both for their bottom line and their future relevance in musical history – to see the Grateful Dead making the same mistake.
Note: Between the time this column was written and its publication, archive.org has been given permission to allow soundboards to be streamed. I am glad that this is going to be allowed, as it will allow interesting conversations about random shows to continue, but I still think that allowing downloads would gain the Dead more than it would hurt them. It’s a lot easier to turn someone onto the band by handing them a few CDs for a roadtrip than to make them sit in front of the computer to listen.
[1] I don’t know have any numbers on how the recent Dick’s Picks have been selling, but if they were doing well, GDM would have had no reason to make this move.
[2] Well almost every show. Two of the Albany shows from 1991 were missing. That meant I didn’t get to hear my only "Dupree’s Diamond Blues."
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 http://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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