Scalability @ Live Phish: An interview with Brad Serling
Brad Serling is the guy behind the guy behind the guy at Live Phish, the internet download series launched in the winter of 2002. His perspective, shaped by years of experience developing the fan site, nugs.net, is complemented by experience gained via his role as Chief Technology Officer at CinemaNow, a provider of video-on-demand technology. After seven months and several hundred thousand successful downloads, I caught up with Brad and we spoke about the past, present and future of Live Phish.
*On a scale of 1-10, how do you rate the success of the Live Phish program thus far?*
In terms of meeting the goals that we set out when we launched the service, I would rate it at an 11! Now, I'm not speaking financially necessarily. The process is completely new to the music industry, so there is no precedent to go by per se.
But insofar as providing a service that fans are truly excited about, I think it has been an enormous success. Based on the response we've gotten from the press, as well as the feedback from fans and the reaction of other bands, especially bands close to the scene, it has been tremendously successful.
Are you currently working with any other bands to launch a similar service?
Several artists and managers have contacted me since launching the Live Phish download series. We are discussing projects with various bands to offer similar services through my company, nugs.net enterprises.
*I think the press coverage garnered by Live Phish speaks to the groundbreaking nature of the project, as well as to some of its risks.*
The media attention has been pretty amazing. I think Phish has set the benchmark for online distribution of concerts. We had a great article in Rolling Stone when we first launched and Wired picked up on it as well. Slashdot had an interesting reaction and then another reaction when we switched over to FLAC. Live Phish has also been compared to Clear Channel's Instant Live. The fact that any band, let alone Phish, has decided to do something like this warrants big headlines, especially given the state of the music business today.
In terms of the risks, we had to consider the intellectual property issue of putting out every note Phish plays in an unprotected format, but that was a given. And yes, that is a considerable risk. Certainly one we had to deal with from Elektra's perspective, but the label signed off on it. You could also say there is a risk in terms of impacting the retail sales of Phish CDs, but that is another tradeoff we decided to make.
What improvements are in the works for Live Phish?
We really need to provide one-click downloads on the Macintosh platform because users have to download each file on its own right now. That is probably the biggest improvement I see coming in the next couple months.
The original plan was to implement a system that initiates the download process automatically, as soon as the show us uploaded, and we may revisit that idea. Also, I have been toying with a more versatile download manager, one that merges the download, extract and burn processes into a single step. Now that there is a considerable archive of 50 or so shows online, I imagine we'll introduce a search capability in the near future as well.
I suppose there is the potential to integrate Live Phish with Phish Ticketing. Users could purchase tickets to the show and pre-order a download at the same time. However, I don't think something like this is feasible at the moment.
*Could you explain the process by which a show is taped, tracked, compressed and uploaded to the internet?*
In addition to mixing sound at the show, and handling a slew of other duties, Paul Languedoc makes the recordings that end up on Live Phish. He feeds a two-channel mix from the soundboard into a laptop. Paul will then track out the show later that night or the next day and then upload the files to nugs.net and we will encode and publish the files out to the site.
A complicated aspect of the Live Phish service comes in dealing with the publishers and the authors for each song. Clearing the rights can be a tedious process especially if it's for a song the band has never played before. This explains why the music and the label are not always posted at the same time. Our top priority is to get the music up as fast as possible, and we often need to work out certain details before we can post the label.
I would like to dispel any rumors about Phish not playing cover songs as a consequence of releasing all the shows. For instance, the band will not stop playing "Loving Cup" because they don't want to pay royalties to the Rolling Stones. They still play what they want and the Phish office then scrambles to make sure the publishing issues are taken care of.The process is a little more involved than one might expect.
I had proven through nugs.net that the biggest demand for a show is the first couple days after the show. That is the impetus driving the Live Phish download service: to make each show available for download as soon as possible. And to provide that degree of service for every single show on such a broad scale, it costs money.
nugs.net is a labor of love for the scene. I try to keep it running all the time, but it is a free site and things go wrong because there is only so much time and energy that can go into running it.
The minute you start charging for music, it is like opening Pandora's Box because the landscape is altered so dramatically. At a basic operational level, Live Phish is obligated to provide customers with the highest quality of service. We want people to keep coming back, so we take steps to ensure that downloads happen as fast as possible, and that the site is always online.*To summarize this contrast, one might say that preemptive performance tuning is far more costly than reactive performance tuning.*
Right. That being said, I think the price points we came up with for Live Phish are as reasonable as can be. If Phish were looking to launch quick money-making schemes, I don't think Live Phish would have been at the top of the list. laughs
At the end of the day, users are getting 150 minutes of music for $10 or $13. As much as everyone would love the music to be free, the service costs money to run. And an important distinction is that users are paying for the service of getting the music so quickly after the show, and not just the music by itself.*How did you get involved with Phish and how has your relationship developed over the years?*
nugs.net had been on Phish's radar for a while. Since the site caters to a variety of groups, other bands had an interest in what I was doing as well. Naturally, any site distributing a band's intellectual property, free or not, is going to catch the attention of that band.
nugs.net grew to a point by 2000 where we were doing about 500,000 downloads per month. At that time, Grateful Dead Productions contacted me, and I started working with them as a consultant on a whole list of projects, all somewhat similar to the Live Phish idea.
As a bi-product my relationship with GDP, I connected with [Phish manager] John Paluska in the fall of 2000. I met with John at Shoreline, on the night of the last Phish show, right before the hiatus. And it was kind of ironic: it was the last Phish show, possibly forever, and John and I were talking about the future of the band's music distribution!
But it was actually great timing. Over the next year or two, Phish stayed on hiatus, and I continued working with the Dead. Soon enough, Phish realized they were ready to take shows from their archives and make them available online for purchase. By then, plans started coming together for the 2002 New Year's run, and we said, "Now is the time to do it, let's launch the service," so off to the races we went. laughs
Did you propose the idea to Phish?
No, I wouldn't say that. Phish had been talking about something like this for years, and as it turned out, John Paluska and I saw eye-to-eye on a lot of issues. We both realized Phish would not fit into a cookie cutter service like MusicNet or PressPlay. They needed their own service, tailored exclusively to their fans. That was a guiding light to the project and a driving force behind why we ended up working together.
Considering my experience with nugs.net as a fan of the music, in conjunction with what I had been doing professionally at CinemaNow, it made a perfect foundation to develop this relationship with Phish. Their decision to work with nugs.net, as opposed to one of the major label services, says a lot about the trust they placed in me and is a validation of the last 10 years of my work running nugs.net.
*As of the summer tour, all Live Phish downloads must be completed within a 48-hour period. An email to users explained the reason for the change in policy stating, "We've reached an average of three complete show downloads for every one show purchase."*
As soon as we announced this change, we received a lot of emails asking, "How am I supposed to download the show within 48 hours if I'm on tour, and I preordered the whole tour?" But that's not the case. The 48-hour period begins when the user starts to download the show, and not when the files are initially posted.
When we first launched the site, users could download the same show over and over again. As months went by, our bandwidth expense went through the roof and we had to do something to curb the usage. So we implemented the 48-hour time limit, based on what we felt was a fair term of use. We reached this conclusion after analyzing six months of log files to determine how long it takes the average user to download a show in either file format.
We have been very lenient with customer service because we want people to get the show they bought. If you don't get the show within 48-hours, we will do our best to let you come back in so you can download the show again. Of course, take that with a grain of salt. We can look through the log files and if somebody has downloaded the full file set three times, and he or she wants us to extend the 48-hours, we are going to have to politely decline. laughs
Because we have to pay for every bit of music that transfers through the net, we are very conscious of how the service is being used. For example, we know who the user is that downloaded the second Hampton show 271 times. We did not ban that user from the site, but we are not blind to what is going on either, hence the 48-hour window.
*There has always been a tendency to kick down crisp sounding copies of shows to friends and I'm not sure this practice has subsided, even though it is in violation of the Live Phish terms-of-service.*
There is really nothing we can do about that, short of not letting people burn CDs, but that would be ridiculous. In general, fans are not maliciously abusing the system and that is a positive sign. Repeat downloads have been by legitimate users for the most part: somebody downloaded the show when he or she first bought it, and then downloaded it again a couple months later.
Can you envision a situation where Phish would sidle up with the RIAA and take legal action against individuals illegally trading copyrighted music files over the internet?
Piracy is something we deal with on a case-by-case basis. The best thing about the Phish community is that it is a self-policing community. Users will let us know if Live Phish files pop up somewhere else on the net. When there is evidence that somebody is offering our files for download, we'll ask them to stop and it is as simple as that. To my knowledge, it has never escalated to any sort of legal action with the RIAA.A bigger concern is the sale of CDs of downloaded shows in a record store or at a show. Something like that would set off a few alarms. Who knows, you might see [outgoing RIAA CEO] Hilary Rosen making some big busts in the parking lots this summer. laughs
The Live Phish FAQ states the Live Phish download series and the Live Phish retail series will remain distinct entities, but one might suspect these two systems will converge at some point in the future.
I don't know what the band might do with the retail series, however, I will say we plan to have more archival releases through the Live Phish website. If we released archive shows for download any time over the last couple months, they would have been lost in the shuffle with all the other stuff going on. So we decided to wait until after the summer tour and to make something special out of the release.
There is a cognizant split in the decision making process in terms of covering as much territory as possible with all the releases, both download and retail. That is not to say one method is better than the other, we just want to offer as much variety as possible. For example, the next show we are considering for archival release on Live Phish downloads, is a show from an era that has not been covered on Live Phish retail CDs.
By the way, we are very happy to take suggestions and we get a lot of them coming in through feedback, so please keep the requests coming! We do read all of that stuff. In fact, we just compiled a report analyzing the feedback from Live Phish over the last six months and these findings will shape future operations.*Is Live Phish responsible for diminishing the significance the Phish taping community?*
One of the more memorable emails I got after we announced the launch of the site was an email somebody forwarded me. It said, "Is anyone else going to feel dumb dragging a rig into MSG?" It was funny because a driving force behind launching the service was to make life more convenient for tapers.
I've been taping shows since I was 14. Back then, if I could have paid $10 or $13 and known that I would get the soundboard the next day, I would have had a much better time at a lot of shows. Even today when I go tape other bands, I wish those bands were providing the same service as Live Phish.
Sometimes you absolutely love taping, after all, it is an integral part of the show-going experience for many people. Other times, getting in early, lugging your gear, charging batteries and bringing mics or finding someone to patch into… The list goes on and on. It can be a nightmare when all you want to do is enjoy the show!
*Offering soundboards while still allowing fans to freely tape and trade audience recordings is like the best of both worlds, in a sense. But hasn't Live Phish mitigated the importance of tapers, at least to a certain extent?*
It probably has in some ways. That being said, there is nothing like a great audience tape. In fact, I've gotten a bunch of audience tapes from each one of the last tours that sound phenomenal. I wholeheartedly hope that people continue to tape and put in the effort that they have been putting over the years to make the best sounding tapes possible. Luckily, those who are fired up to tape are still going to do so and the community is better for it.
I think a lot of the people who are taping are also buying the downloads because, let's face it, Phish tapers are nuts! They will take three copies of the same show and say, "Here is the Schoeps version, here is the Neumann version and here is what the board sounds like."
*Some tapers have even gone so far as to matrix their audience tapes with the soundboards.*
There are all sorts of technical reasons why this practice will not produce a perfect recording. For one thing, it is very difficult to synch up separate recordings unless you've time-coded them together. However, if you bought the files from Live Phish and you taped the show, you can do what you want in the privacy of your own home. The problem lies in distributing matrix copies far and wide because that is essentially ripping off the files we are selling on Live Phish.
*Do you think the Live Phish project has led to an upsurge in front-of-board taping?*
That is impossible to say. I think the people who want to tape front-of-board were taping front of board even before Live Phish. A front of board tape can sound great, but that is not a given and it is not always worth the hassle. The downside to running FOB comes in violating the trust Phish has put into the taping community. Tapers want a great audience tape, but need to realize the band has already gone out of their way and set up a section specifically for them.
*Do you foresee Live Phish offering a subscription service or providing some type of listen-before-you-buy functionality?*
Well, we chose an a-la-carte model because you were either at last night's show and you want a copy of it or you heard it's a great show or you saw the setlist and you want it. Other music services, like iTunes, are perfect for exploring new bands, but if you are coming to Live Phish, you know who Phish is and you know what you are going to get.
Of course, that is not to say we will never offer a subscription program in the future.
*Considering the degree to which the Live Phish site exploits the benefits of FLAC, an open source software solution for audio files, I am surprised the site's front end is driven by Microsoft Active Server Pages.*
Speaking from a developer's perspective, I am completely platform agnostic. I think that is the only way you can survive in the tech world. One must factor in the resources available to determine the most efficient way to solve the problem at hand.
In the case of Live Phish, I had an infrastructure built out from nugs.net, and I had a content distribution system designed for video-on-demand through CinemaNow. Coupling the two together was the fastest way to get Live Phish off the ground at the lowest possible cost.
The site is neither an endorsement for Microsoft nor is it an indictment against
running Solaris or Oracle or PHP. Phish wanted to keep the cost of launching
this service as low as possible. Considering we already had components built
on Windows servers, why reinvent the wheel when we already had a system in place
that was going to do what we needed?
We get a lot of comments about our decision to optimize the site Internet Explorer.
Although not a requirement for browsing Live Phish, we have found that 97% of
the users coming to the site are using Explorer, so that is what we design for.
If tomorrow more people start using Safari,
then we will optimize the site for Safari instead.
There is no technical reason why we could not offer video downloads or pay-per-view streams for every concert Phish plays. Through CinemaNow, you can buy downloads of Harry Potter. If we can do it for Harry Potter, there is no reason why we can't do it for Phish. laughs
Although I am dying to do it, Phish is very conscious about what they release in terms of video. As fans have probably realized, the only video release out there right now is the Live in Vegas DVD. Bittersweet Motel is out there too, but the only full-length concert DVD is Live in Vegas.
As far as webcasts, we talked about doing one for IT, just like we talked about doing one for New Year's Eve. Considering the download service is already in place, we questioned how much is there to gain, given the time and expense of doing the webcast. There will definitely be webcasts in the future when it makes more sense logistically, but we have no specific plans right now.
*To your knowledge, is Phish considering the release of audio and/or video from Big Cypress, either online or via traditional outlets any time in the near future?*
Certainly there is enough unbelievable material in there that something will come out of it in the future. I'm sure we will all be very excited to get it when it comes out.
*Do you think it would be wise for Phish to buttress their e-commerce ventures with direct mail marketing techniques?*
The Doniac Schvice was a unique connection between the fans and the band that has since fallen by the wayside. There could be a lot of great tie-ins with what we are doing online to what we could do with direct mail, but there are no plans presently.
*Could you comment on the idea of "pervasive computing" in conjunction with short range, high-speed wireless networks. Maybe Bluetooth will find a niche with Phish heads.*
Hypothetically, let's say you pre-order a show from Live Phish. You bring your laptop into the venue, and assuming the venue is outfitted with a fast wireless network, you could capture the show off the soundboard and onto your computer.
*I think it will be cool when PDAs and cell phones have the capacity to store music files from an entire show.*
The idea behind Live Phish downloads is to get as much music to as many fans as possible as quickly as possible. With that thought in mind, I am confident that Phish will continue to embrace technology as a means to achieve this goal. The sky is the limit in terms of potential applications and I am definitely excited to see how things evolve.