Posted May 20th, 2010 (2:06 pm) by Joseph Bogen

Until recently, the Black Lips had two concerts available for download on NYCTaper.com. They have been taken down, presumably at the request of the band or the label. This shook my emerging confidence that all rising musical acts were taping friendly. This is truly unfortunate, because as technology and the music industry changes, the rationale for keeping tapers and their recordings off of the Internet is beginning to make no sense. Concert taping and sharing is no longer intertwined with the bootleg recordings industry that for decades, sold cheaply made CDs and records of dubious recording quality at exorbitant prices, never passing any profits along to artists. Sure, I still see a couple of strange looking CDs at some West Village record stores, but by and large, concert tapers these days make their recordings available for free over the internet. And I firmly believe that as technology and the industry evolves, allowing the free taping and sharing of concert recordings can only help musicians.

While listening to the archived recordings of The Mekons, the advantages for listeners and artists became instantly clear to me. For any musicians who want to see as much of their live work preserved as possible, nothing provides a greater resource than The Live Music Archive. At LMA, I can hear versions of the band that never recorded a single studio track, live versions that eclipse their studio counterparts and completely unheard material. But a band does not need to be 30 years old to be well served by an archive of their live history. Thanks to tapers, I can hear Silver Mount Zion songs that blow their album versions out of the water, the evolution of Low’s songs and set-lists and Acid Mothers Temple jams that never made it to the studio. For a band that cares about documenting their history, tapers provide invaluable assistance.

Cooperation with tapers can also yield commercial benefits to artists in the form of free recording of live albums. The Grateful Dead have been able to release a near-constant stream of posthumous live releases thanks to the tapers that were allowed to document their shows throughout their entire career. NYCTaper.com specifically waives all copyright claims to the performers recorded. Presumably, if a band was satisfied with a performance and recording on that site, they could release it commercially if they so desired. Many of the live albums released over the last few years suffer from a staleness that results from over-planning (My Morning Jacket’s Okonokos, Wilco’s Kicking Television and The Sadies’ In Concert Volume One are perfect examples). My favorite live album of all time, Swans are Dead was collected from recordings from various Nights of Swans final tours instead of a handful of carefully scripted live shows. While the recording Swans are Dead was likely supervised by the band, the fact remains that the best live recordings come not from a live studio session, but from actual concerts that capture a band’s live sound. This is best captured by tapers.

Another obvious advantage of welcoming tapers is the increased exposure they provide. Blogs like NYCTaper.com can provide invaluable assistance in promoting artists and providing music fans with increased opportunity to hear new acts. While I primarily use taping resources to listen to bands I already like, I have frequently found my interest piqued in acts I have never heard of. For bands that never will be played on the radio, concert taping/sharing provides an invaluable means to get their music into the ears of future fans. More importantly, concert taping provides fans in un-toured parts of the country with a chance to at least hear their favorite bands live.

I only see two arguments against allowing sharing of concert recordings: listeners will stop paying for what they can hear for free and artists will lose some control over their output. The second complaint is clear nonsense to me. While I understand why some artists may not like seeing poor recordings or poor performance widely distributed, I can’t find sympathy for this concern. If an artist would be embarrassed by recording a poor performance, then they should have either practiced more before performing, or refunded the members of the audience because they cheated with a performance that was not worth listening to for free. Needless to say, the latter never happens. Furthermore, one band that has specifically ordered recordings of their concerts taken down –Pere Ubu—has released more than a few live recordings of dubious quality and also makes some live material only available in MP3 form. Clearly, their decision was not motivated by any interests in quality control. No musical act worth listening to will be scared about fans having access to some poor live recordings.

Of course, the main reason artists don’t like to allow free sharing of concert recordings is that they don’t want fans getting their music for free. Again, it doesn’t seem especially fair or reasonable to deprive fans of a chance to hear fan-made concert recordings in order to drive up demand for official live albums and studio releases. Especially when we have blogs like NYCTaper.com that explicitly urge downloaders to, “…PLEASE SUPPORT [artist name], visit their MySpace page, and purchase their official releases from [record label name],” providing links. These are also recordings that would go completely unheard otherwise. With only a couple of rare exceptions, I have not heard a single concert recording that matches the quality of official live releases, and I have never heard an freely shared recording of a concert that matches the audio fidelity of studio tracks. Furthermore, live sets frequently have a more limited variety of tracks than studio albums. No one is currently downloading concert recordings as an alternative to purchasing albums.

Of course, the viability of making money off of recorded work is threatened, but this has nothing to do with concert taping and sharing. It’s the sharing of artist’s commercially available music that’s a real threat to the industry. This is not the article for me to discuss why recorded music should or should not be freely available. But even if file-sharing is a real threat to the music industry, it hardly seems fair or reasonable to punish tapers whose activities potentially benefit musicians far more than they hurt. The cat is out of the bag. Large numbers of music listeners expect to download free digital music in some form, and they will find it. Why not encourage free sharing of concert recordings as an alternative to pirating copyrighted material? Efforts to stymie file-sharing would be more palatable if in the alternative musicians and labels at least let us enjoy for free what they are not even asking us to pay for.

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