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Columns > Jesse Jarnow - Brain Tuba

Published: 2005/09/08
by Jesse Jarnow

An Open Letter to Tapers

Dear Tapers:
I love you. In taking the initiative to record and distribute concerts, you have not only performed the live music community a wonderful service, but also constituted one of our most resilient sub-sub-cultures. Your need to spread the music was so desperate and so encompassing that you adapted to new technologies as soon as they were released. You were among the first users of high-quality DATs, early settlers of the internet, and the first on the block to get CD burners. You pioneered Furthur, the direct forerunner to BitTorrent, the killer app currently dominating the majority of the net’s traffic. Now that there’s BitTorrent — whooey — people start to get snippety if a show isn’t up by the next morning. And it was all done in the name of spreading killer tunes to as many people as possible. (For that matter, you also started the magazine that currently owns this website.)
Over the years, you’ve occasionally gotten a little agro over certain issues — establishing standards so shows got reproduced on high quality XL-IIs instead of hiss-filled URs, for example, or making sure people didn’t make high-speed dubs. But — generational loss in tape-to-tape copies being a very real concern — that was okay. In the end, though, people did it anyway, and I don’t think the frownings they received from geeks (like me) dimmed their enjoyment of the music one iota, thank Dobbs.
While the amount of tapers at shows has surely declined significantly since most jambands began to sell their own performances online, their role remains important as curators of the music on any number of BitTorrent forums. Tapers’ concerns for quality remains noble, and has carried on into the cyber-age. Quickly, they established two forms of lossless compression — SHN and FLAC files, both designed to be converted and burned to CD — as the standard for distribution. ‘PLEASE DO NOT ENCODE TO MP3 OR OTHER LOSSY FORMATS,’ reads a typical text file that might come with an upload. Sigh. Lossy. Yes. But perfectly digital nonetheless, and able to be itself copied without loss.
There are many practical purposes for mp3s, mostly centering on their convenient file size. And what convenience! Drag and drop copying! Portability with iPods and other devices! Easy transferal to friends’ computers! Because of their size, flexibility, and usage, mp3s are almost literally a different medium than the sonically richer WAVs. For a growing number, the very idea of putting on a compact disc seems almost antiquated. So, just as people slapped the music onto UR-90s a decade ago, people have been ripping their tunes to mp3 with impunity. There’s nothing anybody can do about that.
Which brings me to my purpose in writing this letter.
Tapers, as I’ve said, I love you. Your cause is righteous. There is nothing wrong with offering audiophiles music in dense, memory-heavy formats that sound great when pumped through awesome speakers. But I implore you to make an effort to distribute your recordings in a medium of lesser fidelity, as well. "I think that if there’s something you like," former Dead lyricist and digital advocate John Perry Barlow told me, "that you think ought to be there in a hundred years, deserves being part of the human heritage, you almost have a moral responsibility to see that it gets digitized and put in as many places as possible."
There is a world of difference between instantly firing up an mp3 and waiting for a gigabyte chunk to download before converting it to a playable format. Blame it on slothfulness to wanna save time and harddrive space, but I’d bet many more people would download files (which would, in turn, would be circulated more widely) if they were available as mp3s. Not only would this up the chances of the music being preserved for the future, but it could literally only increase the amount of people who might hear it in the present —— which (unless I’m mistaken) was sort of the whole point of making tapes to begin with.
Anyway, it’s just some food for thought, and I mean no disrespect. Hippie swear. Carry on, then.

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