01 January 2004

Exploring Music Trading

by Matt Cole


The recording of live music goes back over a century to the beginnings of audio recording technology itself. The organized recording and trading of a band's live shows by devoted fans, however, is generally traced back to the late '60s or early '70s. The first band which allowed and encouraged such activity was, of course, the Grateful Dead. Although the Dead never had a true radio hit, they were able to become the most consistently successful touring act of all time in no small part by allowing their fans to record and then trade (but never sell) copies of each of their live shows.

Both the library and music trading communities may find themselves under profit-minded assault in the present and near future.

By the time the Grateful Dead called it a career in 1995 with the death of guitarist and guru Jerry Garcia, a number of other bands had taken notice and were emulating the practice of allowing audience taping and trading. Prominent among these bands were first-wave "HORDE" (named for a successful festival tour) or "jambands" such as Phish and Blues Traveler. Despite the lack of MTV or radio support, Phish managed to gross over $20 million per year from their tours in the late '90s. The band consistently sold out venues for multi-day runs, while MTV-friendly bands were playing in front of half-full houses. While there is no real estimate of the number of touring bands today which allow audience taping and trading, a rough guess would place the low end at well over a hundred (given that 80-taper friendly bands were at the High Sierra Music Festival last summer, and at least an equal number were not). Many of these bands now allow, encourage or initiate the posting of their shows to various online sites such as www.archive.org (a must-see site for all library types, not just for the excellent live shows contained therein), usually in SHN or FLAC formats, where they are available for free download to anyone with a high-speed connection.

Given the harsh attitude of the major recording labels (as expressed through the Recording Industry Association of America's various peer-to-peer lawsuits) toward "unauthorized" distribution of copyrighted recordings on the ground that it damages the fortunes of their artists [author's note: one should be properly skeptical of any record company claims of interest in their artists' well being], why, then would bands allow the essentially free distribution of live shows? A 1999 article by Kurt Andrew Kemp for DAT-Heads Digest (www.solorb.com ) provides some possible reasons:

First, it tends to increase a band's fanbase, mostly because the majority of fans feel more allegiance or dedication to a band that freely gives something back to them without asking for anything in return (other than following certain guidelines or rules).

Second, tape trading is one of the most effective modes of word-of-mouth advertising that exist and tends to increase the enthusiasm factor among fans and creates a sense of community among those who tape and trade tapes. Many tape traders have become interested in seeing a certain band in concert after enjoying a live recording of theirs from a tape trade. In turn, this renewed interest often causes tape traders to purchase the official CDs of a newly discovered band. [If pressed, this author will be happy to provide a list of at least a dozen such bands which he has been introduced to through live audience recordings.]

Third, when a band allows taping, it will usually increase its take at the gate, in part because of the widening of its fanbase and in part because it will attract the interest of more tapers in the area, many of whom will choose to attend the concert of a newly discovered band if they know they'll be allowed to tape them.

In short, audience taping and trading would seem to benefit the band through increased fan support and loyalty.

The Study

Most evidence for this, however, is anecdotal. When, in a class on Information Seeking Behaviors (IRLS 587), we were assigned to do a pilot study, I saw an opportunity to explore this phenomenon on a more "scientific" footing (always aware that a pilot study is just that and that conclusions can't be extrapolated from one such study). The project consisted of designing a questionnaire which would determine some information-seeking behaviors of the responding music traders and profile some related behaviors. To obtain a sample group (biased, of course, but unavoidable given the time and other constraints), I posted a notice on the discussion board of a taper-friendly band, Sound Tribe Sector 9 (www.sts9.com) offering up a Sound Tribe Blanks & Postage (B&P, a common practice in online music trading, in which a trader with a larger collection offers copies of a certain show to a certain number of people who will send blank CDRs or other media and return postage; the person offering the show gets nothing in return, just the satisfaction of spreading good music further). I offered the B&P of a very good STS9 show to the first 10 people who responded; I also noted that when I returned their discs, I would include a questionnaire on their music trading and show-attending habits along with a Self- Addressed Stamped Envelope by which to return the survey. As incentive, if they returned the survey by a certain date, I would send them, at my expense, an additional show.

Ten people responded within 24 hours (as well as another person who didn't want to send me discs but offered to take the survey by email; I took him up on this). Of these 10, only three ever sent their blank discs to me and all three returned their surveys on time. I also gave a survey to a taper friend of mine, and, including the emailed survey, wound up with five responses out of a total of 12 for a response rate of just under 42%. In a normal study, this would probably be cause for skepticism, if not outright alarm. However, since this was a pilot study, I did not worry too much as I was not under the illusion that its results would be generalizable, just that they might point out whether further research is warranted.

While the results should be taken with a grain of salt, the conclusions were interesting, if not unexpected. Three of five respondents had heard of at least ten bands through authorized live recordings. Four of five stated they were more likely to see a band that allowed taping (the other being "equally likely") and all five stated they were more likely to support (through purchase of band CDs, T-shirts, stickers, and other merchandise) a band that allowed taping. Further, in general, they thought it was never OK to pirate (i.e. sell for profit) live recordings of a band that allowed audience recording but more likely (with widely varying attitudes) to think it is OK to do so for bands that don't allow such recording. This jibes with another point in Kemp's article, in which he states that if a band allows trading of live recordings, the most devoted fans, i.e. prime marketing targets of for-profit bootleggers, will already have high quality recordings of desired shows. This is especially true now with the increasingly large collection of recordings available on www.archive.org and www.etree.org . In sum, while the pilot study contained some obvious and inevitable flaws, it certainly indicated that further study of this phenomenon is worthwhile, and may in fact show that allowing the audience to record their shows is in fact beneficial to bands in the long run, both from a financial and fan-loyalty perspective.

Some ideas for future research include:

Within the scope of Information Seeking behaviors:

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