Trading Tapes

In 2005 my family got their first cable and we were upgraded to a much faster internet connection. Although this was overall a positive upgrade, it was the beginning of the end for a hobby and community that I had deeply invested into. I don’t know anyone who didn’t have a collection of something between middle school and college. I have a set of Bunnykin figurines stashed in my garage that my wife hasn’t been able to give up. I once helped a friend move an unhealthy amount of beanie babies. I still have a friend rounding out that shot glass collection. But me, I was a tape trader.

Tape trading is the activity of collecting live music concerts on CD or cassettes and then duplicating those concerts for friends or to trade with other people. Podcaster Harris Wittels said collecting these shows fills the portion of your brain mostly reserved for sports statistics or Star Wars trivia. Towards the beginning of those years I had a reputation for being the guy who had the show, could get the show, or knew of the show. I don’t think I have ever been involved or committed to any community as deeply. I’m also surprised at how quickly my passion died off after moving to college. As I look back at the massive undertaking and the amount of content that passed through my fingers, it is bittersweet not being in involved anymore.

The original roots of tape trading began in the mid-seventies. Based around music with a unique live performances tapers were eager to capture what has happening on stage and eventually a network of show collectors and recorders was formed. With cassette tapes and tape duplicators hitting mass markets, the ability to get involved in trading became more accessible to even the casual fan and trading within the jam band scene boomed.

Before the internet, magazines like Relix or The Golden Road would offer a penfriend network to connect through. I could get into the idiosyncrasy of taper equipment and it’s evolution through the years but it’s a bit boring. But the culture and production line from show to home has remained relatively unchanged since the 80s. A taper with his rig will go to a show and record it using (typically) a pair of mics into some sort of recorder attempting to capture the essence of that particular show. They will then take it home and process it as they see fit until they have a listenable version of the show to their liking. They will then disseminate that show how they see fit either offering it as a torrent, giving copies to friends, offering to send copies on a website, or just keeping it for their own personal enjoyment.

I had always known about the concept of tape trading but never knew how to get into it. Through middle school, my parents were not entirely on board to help me talk to strangers on the internet to trade Grateful Dead shows. I remember going into a bootleg record store and finding a bunch of live shows in the back and thinking ‘Oh I get it! This must be it. Buy these, trade them around.’ But was wrong. I did start freshman year of High School about the time Phish ended their hiatus in 2003. That was also the time I started seeing shows with my friends. And after going to these shows, I wanted to have them. The internet just wasn’t at a point where high quality audio files could be downloaded in a timely manner yet. The only way you could get them quickly was to use US Mail.

There are two ways to start massing a collection. First, B&P or blanks and Postage. You could get onto a place like Phishhook.com or any of the other trader websites and post that you are looking for a particular show. You’d find someone willing to burn them for you and you would mail them an empty mailer envelope with postage on it and blank discs. That person would then burn these CDs for you and mail them back only costing the burner his time. The second way to build your collection was through Trees and Vines. Someone would offer up a show or a group of shows on a forum. Then in the order of signing up, you would receive the discs, burn them, and then mail them to the next person in line. I signed up for tons of these over the years and picked up some of my favorite shows from saying, sure why not? Looks interesting.

Over time, you would build a list and through email and forums meet up with like minded people to send discs back and forth through the mail. There are some rules to trading. I broke all the cardinal sins on my first trade. First, don’t trade anything copyrighted. The reason any band allows tapers is a hope to grow their fan base and not infringe on fans purchasing their official releases. This became a gray area around 2005 when the Grateful Dead argued that none of their shows recorded from the soundboard should be traded. This was a big point of contention but we’ll get into that later.

Second, don’t write on the discs. Everyone has their own method of filing or special cover they like to do, don’t take that away from them. Over time I met a guy who would make disc covers and liner notes for his favorite shows. Others would write the setlist or have a very specific format. My uncle gave me some tapes he had from a Grateful Dead Chicago Rosemont show which had beautiful hand drawn artwork. Despite getting rid of most of my CDs, I still kept those tapes.

Third, format should be Flac or SHN in a paper envelope on a Sony or Taiyo Yuden CD. It probably wasn’t a topic most people thought about, but the quality of CDs and their longevity was a concern during the early 2000s. My first big CD case was lined in this awful plastic that destroyed all the CDs that were in there over a couple of years. In hindsight, believing that CD-R discs were going to be a long term solution for data storage is kind of silly. Sonys and Yuden discs were considered to be some of the longest lasting and most durable CDs on the market and they still became scratched or flaked. I think we all learned to live with each CDs quirks back then. But as a trader, it was assumed that you could burn a flawless copy of anything you were offering.

Lastly, you should know where your shows came from. I was happy if high quality shows came into my procession but I never sought out the cleanest of clearest recordings. Some people do. Some collectors in fact are very particular about what microphones were used, how they were recorded and transferred. I never really cared but I’ll admit I can look at a source before downloading a show and predict fairly well how it will sound.

At my high point, I had hundreds of shows from The Grateful Dead, Phish, Medeski Martin and Wood, Umphrey’s McGee, Moe., Miles Davis, and more. I’ve always been amazed at the amount of content that is out there. Much later I met a guy who casually mentioned he was at a Jimi Hendrix show in Dallas and we were both astonished that it was a recorded show that I happen to have a copy of. Sometime into year 2 or 3, two people had offered up their entire cassette collections if I simply paid the postage. Although by 2003 cassettes were a bit dated, I only had a cassette player in my car. I would grab a bag of tapes anytime I’d jump in the car and listen to any random Phish show. I totaled them up at one point that I had over 150 complete Phish shows on cassette alone.

As with anything, there was a desire to cut out the middle man. As cable internet became more prevalent, torrents became the faster way to get content. Tapers would load shows up within a day or two and could be downloaded on sites like BT.Etree.org. In addition, as I mentioned earlier, the Grateful Dead’s archivists had put nearly every Grateful Dead show up on Archive.org. In another marvel of innovation, bands like Moe. And Umphrey’s McGee were offering concert CDs produced on professional duplicators as you were leaving a your show. For $20, you could have a un-tradable yet flawless copy of the show you just attended.

As more of us moved to directly downloading our shows, some websites tried to keep the community going. Some websites requested you have an equal amount of uploads as you did downloads. If you were taking, you needed to be giving. Others attempted to keep their most prized recordings off of the downloading websites. This isn’t anything new. The Grateful Dead over their 30 year career have some runs of shows that are sonically better for one reason or another. And as the community of traders grew, so did the desire to keep these tapes from as prized possessions.

And it was a protection of that community along with the Grateful Dead’s desire to maintain value in their collection of live shows that the Grateful Dead decided to pull all of their soundboard quality shows from immediate download. This became a large point of contention within the community. Many understood it. As a non-touring entity, the Dead’s merchandise and CD sales were the most valuable portions of their legacy. Others were angered that a collections largely maintained the fan base was being taken back by the band to officially release at a later date. In addition, The Dead’s own operators would often let fans plug into their board not thinking of the ramifications later on. Ultimately a compromise was made where fan recorded shows are downloadable, soundboard recordings are available for streaming only.

By the time the Dead drama had started, I had already moved to college. Having my own computer and via the networking within my dorms I phased out of the trading community pretty quickly. I had enough CDs that I wasn’t listening to and was slowly archiving onto hard drives and Ipods. Eventually, through moving and carelessness most of my collection became scratched and unreliable. The last trade I did I was embarrassed that my Grateful Dead 1987 was damaged, ended up re-downloading the whole show and resending. Afterward I thought, what’s the point? In a fond farewell to the cassette collection, I took them all on tour for Phish in 2009. I handed out most of them during the setbreak storm at Deer Creek and to see the smiles on faces is something I’ll never forget. A kid who also only had a cassette player in his car took most of them. I felt they went to a good home.

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