Mind Left Body Jam -> David BowiePhish
1 for $3, 2 for $5.
At these prices I have purchased Budweiser from a young man in heavily worn patchwork overalls, and a delicious, ubiquitous pizza-quesadilla hybrid from ladies with names like Tree and Infinite Love (those are two different women; one I met in Maryland, the other in California). These individuals, and thousands more like them, form the economic base of a sort of rambling society that has grown up around Phish over the last two decades (i.e., since around 1992, when they made the jump to being a major national touring act). Despite the fact that the vast majority of these folks are legally unemployed, lacking health insurance and retirement plans and the like—the aspirational markers that have come to signify stability and success in American society—this rambling society continues to function smoothly and, excepting certain illicit-substance-related flare-ups, peacefully. This structure is, as previously mentioned, the last remnant of hippier times, the most visible legacy of the Grateful Dead, which is to say, the 1960s, in the Phish community.
Beyond the cheap and totally satisfying food and beverages, there exists in the parking lot of every venue that Phish plays an entire system of barter, one that traffics in everything from recordings to goods to tickets to illegal drugs. The latter three of those function more or less like you’d expect; I’ll leave it to you to speculate on how much acid you can get for a limited edition concert poster.
But we’re here to talk about the music.
This turns out to require returning to the people like Tree and Infinite Love and that guy in the worn patchwork overalls pushing Budweiser. In Nick Paumgarten’s recent New Yorker essay on the centrality of audience recordings to the legacy of the Grateful Dead (which I highly recommend; the quality of its prose is topped only by the meticulousness of Paumgarten’s research), he describes the band’s fans with an unsurprising amount of contempt—his inventory of their perceived personal failings is so thorough that I can only quote it in its entirety:
Many came by the stereotypes honestly: airheads and druggies, smelling of patchouli and pot, hairy, hypocritical, pious, ingenuous, and uncritical in the extreme. They danced their flappy Snoopy dance and foisted their hissy bootlegs on roommates and friends, clearing dance floors and common rooms. The obnoxious ones came in many varieties: The frat boys in their Teva sandals and tie-dyed T-shirts, rolling their shoulders to the easy lilt of “Franklin’s Tower.” The so-called spinners, dervishes in prairie skirts and bare feet. The earnest acoustic strummers of “Uncle John’s Band,” the school-bus collective known as the Rainbow Family, the gaunt junkies shuffling around their vans like the Sleestaks in “Land of the Lost”—they came for the party, more than for the band. Sometimes they didn’t even bother to go in to the show. They bought into the idea, which grew flimsier each year, that following a rock band from football stadium to football stadium, fairground to fairground, constituted adventure of the Kerouac kind.
Of course, he’s not wrong about any of this. And if you switch some song titles, these Deadhead diagnoses hold just as true for a good chunk of the Phish fans following in their wake at any give show. We’ll get to the contemporary equivalent of Paumgarten’s last sentence in a post later this week, but for now let’s focus on the rest. More specifically, let’s focus on the final phrase of the opening sentence there: “uncritical in the extreme.” Though it’s not exactly crucial to the broader curatorial mechanics Paumgarten is working here (more on this as it relates to Phish coming below), it nonetheless stakes an intriguing position regarding the experience of engaging any band that falls in the Dead-Phish lineage, viz. that there is a critical gap between the space cadet dancing his flappy Snoopy dance (and his negative extreme, the one who shows up to a concert not for the music, but for a party in the parking lot) and the intellectualized at-home listener, the one who pores over show after show, hour after hour, parsing jams and placing performances historically.
Phish, from their earliest days, have inspired a devoted following of amateur tapers. As I previously mentioned, of their 1,650 concerts, nearly 85% circulate in audience recordings. (You can download every single extant recording, in lovingly encoded V0 MP3, here.) Though the taping has been constant, the function of these recordings in the society that exists around the band has changed in marked and telling ways over the years. As technology has continually closed the gap between a show and its historical record, the question of experience grows more and more central.
Phish fans took to the Internet early on. The Phish.net e-mail list began in March 1990, and two years later the first online discussion board appeared, rec.music.phish. This active online discussion, even in its earliest forms, ensured that word of standout shows spread quickly, although it could make little impact on the speed with which tapers could dub and mail recordings around the country (generally this meant waiting for a taper to return home from tour, so the wait time could easily grow to months). Recordings then became a true commodity, their value driven by the fervor of online discussion, a venue that allowed for consensus around the cream to form more easily than the word of mouth praise that circulated through the Dead community a decade or two before.
By the end of the 1990s, this process had moved online. Nugs.net, which later became the engine of the ever-expanding LivePhish machine, went live in 1999, and by the following summer was seeing more half a million downloads every month. (My first contact with Phish in fact came late in ’99, when a friend’s older brother realized that I was more Internet savvy than most kids at that point and asked me to download and burn a few shows for him.)
This online migration reached a tipping point when the band returned from their hiatus on December 31, 2002, and debuted the online arm of the LivePhish series (it had previously been a series of curated releases during the hiatus; the selections hewed toward shows widely considered to be among the band’s greatest). Every show would now be available in pristine soundboard quality within 48 hours of its completion; the consensus around a show’s quality would now arise from thousands of at-home listeners, rather than enthusiastic attendees. Over the last decade, the window from show to tape has closed considerably: recordings are now generally up within an hour or two of the last note (when I attended the band’s recent New Years run at Madison Square Garden, each night’s recording was available by the time I’d made the short train ride back to Brooklyn), and the band regularly offers video streams of highly anticipated shows (a move to counter the practice of audience members streaming shows over their phone, a practice that occasionally produces astonishingly good results). As much as this move to monetize the culture of recording that they continue to support is smart business, it’s rerouted entirely the flow of response to the band’s music.
Where the music once functioned as its own currency, an abstract intellectual economy has replaced that material one; when all the music is available all the time, its value becomes significantly more complicated to judge. There is no longer the chain of anticipation that leads from experience (original) through discussion to experience (reproduction). If one chooses, she can all hear the music as it happens, which has the strange effect of devaluing one’s presence at the original experience at the same that time it (= presence) is rendered the closest thing left to a social commodity. Tree and Infinite Love and that guy in the worn patchwork overalls are now at once irrelevant and more important than ever, as they play a small part in confirming one’s presence at an event beyond the sounds.
A note about the above track:
This version of “David Bowie,” another of Phish’s signature songs, begins with an extended jam on the Dead’s “Mind Left Body” theme, a simple 4-note progression that here leads to some of the most beautiful playing they’ve ever done. Its show, from June 18, 1994, is widely considered one of the band’s best; it was, appropriately, released as an official live album in 2012.
Bundling to Save Us All
For a great deal of time now, the industry has been facing a large challenge with the loss of revenues from recorded music. People don’t want the whole album anymore, they want a $0.99 download of the hottest single on the album. There’s no doubt that $0.99 versus $18.99 hurts everyone involved. Alas, it’s time to adapt.
So where to we go from here? If people are going to be selective about their music purchases, how does one increase wallet-share with music consumers? Part of the answer might be to re-invent the concept of bundling. David Pakman kicked off the conversation and some others have touched on the subject recently, including Hypebot and TopSpin Media. They discuss the fall of the album and consumer preference towards singles. Why not bundle a bigger experience with tickets and merchandise to entice consumers to spend a couple more bucks? It could definitely work and we may see more artists taking this approach soon.
New ideas and approaches to making money with music always remind me of the importance of tracking the impact and success of those ideas once they are implemented. Without measurement, aren’t we essentially throwing darts at an invisible dartboard? For the evolving music industry, new ideas don’t get us very far if we can’t evaluate their impact. The best tools will give you a way to measure the success of your efforts.
Today's a good day.
As some of you may or may not know, I am currently a student at NYU. I’m in CAS for journalism, with the intention of being a music journalist when I’m older (hence my blog). Well, I applied to transfer into NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, to a department known as the Clive Davis Department of Recorded Music. It’s a really exclusive program, with maybe 40 undergraduates accepted each year. The professors are people who have real connections within the music industry, and there’s even a producer-in-residence teaching a few classes (Swizz Beatz, in case anyone was wondering). I didn’t expect to get in but…I did. It’s such a wonderful opportunity and I am so excited; this could open up a lot of doors to me that wouldn’t otherwise be available. Basically, I’m one step closer to achieving my dreams. :)
Sorry if this post annoys anyone with its over-happiness. I just couldn’t help but share my good news! :)
Topic Records Great Big Digital Archive Project
The first 84 albums in Topic’s Great Big Digital Archive Project are now available to download, complete with newly-designed digital booklets, including the original sleeve notes. The digital booklets are available from the Topic website as well as iTunes.
“Each month throughout this year we plan to release another ten archive titles, each with their own digital booklet. We will also add digital booklets to our current catalogue - later this month we publish new digital booklets for each of the WATERSON:CARTHY albums; in March digital booklets for albums from the WATERSONS. In May, to coincide with the release of Wayward Daughter a new two CD set celebrating the first 21 years of ELIZA CARTHY’s career, we’ll publish new digital booklets to accompany her Topic albums.”
save your saviorTobias Kite
this song is by me. it’s called save your savior. it was about a girl. go figure.