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Published: 2005/12/13
by Dan Greenhaus

Featured ColumnThe Dead Download Debate

You knew it was going to happen. The bombardment of voices condemning an organization that has done so much for its fans hit the internet like a ton of bricks. “How dare they?” “Jerry said we could have the music!” The dissent was heard loud and clear, permeating each and every outcry as if words uttered countless years ago were set in stone, ignoring the fact that the world today is a far cry from the world as it was then. Once an online petition began calling on fans to boycott The Grateful Dead, it didn’t take long for things to get straightened out, as it became clear that there was apparently a “miscommunication” and all audience sourced downloaded were restored. Absent from the restoration, of course, were all the coveted soundboard recordings, which for many fans were at the heart of the matter.

The great irony of this debate, technically speaking, is that fans never once “owned” the music they were so appalled they couldn’t have access to. Even if the Grateful Dead gave it to them, which in the case of soundboards they did not, the band never relinquished the right to it. Ignoring your agreement or disagreement with the decision, one must concede that technically, The Grateful Dead were, and are, perfectly entitled to do whatever they want with what is ultimately their property. And that, at its core, is the great flaw with the outcry stemming from the removal of The Grateful Dead’s music from archive.org.

If you look for the moment, at the non-monetary reasons for asking for such a removal, the decision actually makes quite a bit of sense. Why? Because at the core of the idea of the band sharing the music with the fans, is the belief that fans would share the music with each other. This of course leads to the forming of the now dreaded “C” word: community. Fans, through any number of means, would share the music with each other, and would form a relationship as a result. It worked in the 60’s and 70’s with the Dead, it worked in the early 90’s, albeit in an updated fashion, with Phish, and it worked in the late 90’s with The Disco Biscuits, String Cheese Incident and the countless other bands that benefited from tape trading. To this day, those of us old enough to remember such archaic methodologies remember trading music through the mail, or going to the local store to buy tapes of the bands we loved, even if the purchase and sale of such tapes violated the heart of the taping principle. Friendships were formed as a result of these actions, and I’m willing to bet that a great many of those people who engaged in this trading environment maintain those friendships to this very day.

But with the advent of the Internet and the subsequent availability of music on it, the rules of the game changed. No longer did I need to go to the store and talk to other people there about which shows they liked. No longer did I need to exchange mailing addresses at a show, with the knowledge that I’d receive a package in a week or so, containing a show I desperately had to have. Now, I can just go to a particular website, click a button, and by the time I’m back from buying milk, I have a brand new show. No conversation, no relationship building, no nothing. Its point and click at its finest. Hell, I once listened to the Disco Biscuits’ performance at the Howlin’ Wolf three hours after The Disco Biscuits performed at The Howlin’ Wolf.

While this works phenomenally well on an individual basis, it negates, to a large extent, the reasoning behind allowing taping in the first place. And this is the primary reason, agree or disagree, that Phish has chosen not to participate with archive.org, and one of the reasons that The Dead chose to withdraw their shows as well. Looking at it from that vantage point, I don’t see an argument against it, at least an argument not rooted in selfish, self serving ways.

The second, and primary, reason for the shows removal was of a monetary nature. At first glance, this may seem like the harder of the two rationales to defend, and not surprisingly, it is. But again, if you ignore the disagreement with such a rationale, it really isn’t so far fetched to believe that the band was acting properly and in its best interests. With The Grateful Dead no longer in existence, and the updated Dead 2K barely on life support if even that, revenue streams are drying up pretty quickly. With merchandise sales driven by concerts, and with concerts non-existent at this point, The Grateful Dead turned to their one sure fire way of generating revenues: the official release. Whether it’s Ladies And Gentlemen, Fillmore West 1969 or Truckin’ Up To Buffalo the band is going to rely on these releases to generate funds. Do you think they need the money? That doesn’t matter because that’s irrelevant. What does matter is that the band and its ever changing business model deems the official release of shows in soundboard quality to be vitally important to their future earnings, and we, as fans of the band, should probably respect the beliefs of a band that has, for multiple decades, given fans as much as any group of musicians in history. And this is primarily the reason the band asked for the removal of such soundboard recordings, recordings which they never clearly and expressly authorized us to possess, let alone trade.

One might say that the people who were buying official releases weren’t savvy enough to know about or internet-knowledgeable enough concerning bit torrent, and thus they wouldn’t be affected by the presence, or the removal, of the recordings. And that’s probably a fair assessment. With that in mind, the removal of soundboard recordings would not affect the core consumer base for such official releases. However, one must ask how long it would take for John and Jane to find someone, or come in contact with someone would informed them of this great resource for not only saving $24.99 or however much the release would cost, but for finding hundreds of shows in near perfect quality, thus negating the reason for ever buying an official release again.

If you were running out of revenue streams, and you felt your one surefire way of generating a profit was being compromised, you would do what you could to protect that stream. And that’s what the Dead did.

Nobody said hippies didn’t understand capitalism. Even the ones from the 60’s.

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