Access to Information Changes Things


In today’s New York Times the front page of the Arts section featured a great story Vintage Grateful Dead Posteron the Grateful Dead and how their fans talk and think about the music of the Grateful Dead and what has happened with new ways to access information about the Dead. 

A little background might be helpful. The Grateful Dead were among the original open source bands in that they encouraged and allowed their fans to tape and trade shows for no commercial gain – so much so that some of the best tickets for most venues were reserved for tapers. These sections were usually on the floor near the soundboard and easily seen because of the forest of microphone stands and the snakes nest of patch cables and power cords. 

This meant that for many of their fans a bootleg recording (although technically recordings of Dead shows weren’t bootlegs) of a show was their first introduction to the music of the Dead and not a shrink-wrapped vinyl or CD album from the music store. This was usually for the best since the Dead created most of their magic live in performance and only rarely in their studio recordings. 

These tapes were once hard to obtain since you had to know a taper or know someone who knew a taper. In the days before the web, finding recordings was always a challenge and tapes of shows were a currency of sorts among Deadheads. In fact the sub-culture of Deadheads has been the subject of books and many a term paper – I even wrote a 15-page cultural anthropology paper on Deadheads for which I received an A surprisingly enough. 

It was this very difficulty in obtaining shows which encouraged many people to begin trying to record their own shows. Today recording quality stereo sound can be as simple as pulling out a Zoom Recorder  and capturing almost perfect multi-channel sound with little or no knowledge of the process – just press record. Back then however the rigs were varied and complex built with an attention to detail that reflected each taper’s personal idiosyncrasies and were rolled into the show on dollies and handcarts. Long after Betamax lost the video wars, Betamax was still a preferred solution to capturing quality sound. Of course the venerable Sony TC-D5  recorder was the most common solution given it’s light weight and durability. This was married to a set of stereo microphones raised 10-15′ off the floor to get into the aural sweet spot. Of course if you were able to get a mythical soundboard patch no microphones were needed and the audio quality was usually unparalleled.  All of this work would go into producing a master tape which would be copied each time a new tape was needed – usually onto 2 Maxell XLII 90-minute tapes per show. A new deadhead might have 3 or 4 shows on tape, but a long-time fan might have hundreds and I once spent New Year’s Eve with someone who had over 1,000 shows on neatly filling an entire wall of shelves floor to ceiling. 

Needless to say the scarcity of tapes made for interesting conversations about which Dead show was the best because if you hadn’t been to a particular show or if you had only heard a small number of shows the information asymmetry typically required deferral to the person with the most show knowledge or the largest collection of shows. Despite the difficulty of acquiring tapes of concerts, certain shows were well circulated – sometimes in pristine quality and sometimes they had been copied so many times the major sound you heard was the hiss of the recording heads with the band only a faint background echo. 

Cornell 77  has always been one of those shows that almost every deadhead had a least one or two copies. And since everyone had heard this show, and it was a great show by any definition, people usually settled on this show as one of the greatest all-time shows. But now that we are fully into the digital age with the help of the kind folks over the Internet Archive almost every single show the Dead every played is available for download or streaming over the Internet. This means that you can listen and compare the Dead from spring 77 to say Spring Tour 86 when they broke loose Box of Rain at Hampton. (I was at this show and the energy of the crowd during the opening bars gave me goose bumps and remains a great memory) 

On the Cover of Rolling Stone

On the Cover of Rolling Stone

 

This availability of shows has enabled a new era for Dead listeners and critiques. Every single fan can download a show from every single Dead tour with only a few mouse clicks and adequate hard drive space and decide for themselves. For some Cornell 77 will always be the high water mark of a Dead show, but ultimately each person’s experience is unique and great shows were played every year, so go download a few shows and decide for yourself. 

Parallels can be seen in the PC revolution which freed information from the constraints of the mainframe. The leaders in forcing this change were people who could use information to positively impact their wallets. Salespeople out of pure self-interest realized that they could take the green-bar printout reports from the Data room input the numbers manually and find out which customers were likely to purchase renewals or were ready for a new piece of equipment. They could also make more sales calls by arranging their travel to call on as many customers as possible.  

As much as getting the information into a more usable form benefited the sales people, it also helped companies make more sales and most IT departments were vehemently against this practice because it meant a loss of control over who could access information. Luckily this short-sighted viewpoint has almost disappeared either through enlightenment or through extinction of said IT departments. 

This trend of increasing access to information is only growing as more and companies are getting comfortable with allowing internal employees, partners and even customers to access ever more detailed information. The leader in this movement is of course Google and it continues to pay dividends for Google in loyalty and ubiquity as ever more people devise ways to use this access to information to solve problems or resolve arguments.  

Unfortunately all this access to information at Archive.org and other sites haven’t made it easier for me personally to decide on a favorite show. I find each show I attended to be great for different reasons – whether it was the company I was with, the particularly interesting setlist or maybe the miracle way a ticket found it’s way into my hands. Do you have a favorite Dead show or a favorite story about getting access to information? Let me know either way? -t

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