In his first post on the Live Music Blog, Jesse Jarnow weighs in on the recent Grateful Dead / Archive.org debacle currently being picked up by many, major news/blog sites. We’re glad to have him. You can find him bloggin’ on his own site, Jesse’s Frank and Earthy Blog. If you want to send him a note of praise, you can email him at email@example.com
The Grateful Dead/archive.org situation is a complicated case — a lot of ins, a lot of outs, a lot of what-have-yous. What is clear, however, is that Deadheads are frickin’ pissed that the soundboard recordings they meticulously organized, remastered, and uploaded are now no longer available via archive.org’s popular Live Music Archive. There is even a petition filled with deliciously terrible grammar to boycott all Dead merchandise until the situation is resolved. (Please learn the difference between “your” and “you’re,” fellas, and yer case’ll be more convincing.)
Speculation — fueled by unsubstantiated posts on archive.org’s message board — is that Deborah Koons Garcia, Jer’s legendary “Black Widow,” is responsible. Sadly, it’s almost definitely not that simple. Over the summer, I interviewed Dead lyricist, Electronic Frontier Foundation co-founder, and professional righteous dude John Perry Barlow for a Rolling Stone blurblet about archive.org. He mentioned that he and Grateful Dead Productions president Cameron Sears had recently spoken about the situation, with Sears none-too-happy that the Dead’s vault was basically available for free. (see update below)
“It made a lot of sense to have things out there for free in digital format, as long as you were selling an experience in physicality,” Barlow said. “But, when you’re not, when you’ve got digital-for-money versus digital-for-free, then you’ve got a problem. This is a painful truth for me,” he sighed. “The main thing is that I want it to be possible for my grandchildren to hear the music the Grateful Dead did, and I think it’ll be a hell of a lot more possible if it’s on archive.org than if it isn’t.”
On one hand, that’s almost certainly true. On the other hand — as both David Gans (the ever-erudite host of the Grateful Dead Hour) and Christian Crumlish (whose online journal was the first “blog” I ever read regularly, in the spring of 1998) quite sensibly point out –the Dead are responsible for protecting their business. If Ram Rod is getting laid off, as Gans suggests, you know the situation is dark. That’s fine and responsible of them, but it’s also the first regressive move they’ve made in years of progressive taping policies that were based on their implicit trust of the Deadheads. And, as Barlow also told me: it’s bad karma to fuck with Deadheads, it’s too easy.
The reason the shit really hit the fan(s) this week, though, is because the Dead didn’t have anything to offer, just to reclaim. It’s great that they’re rethinking their business model, but this just seems like a poorly thought-through means of doing it, especially without an alternative distribution system to roll out (remember Round Records’ proposed ice cream trucks?).
If the Grateful Dead want to offer their music for sale online, they have to do a better job than what they are doing right now. As the folks here at LiveMusicBlog.com are fond of pointing out, people want options. Generally speaking, I don’t ever want/need to purchase complete shows ever again, though I would gladly pay money for (say) an individual “Dark Star” or a hot sequence of tunes. Of course, the iTunes music store — with whom the Dead cut a deal earlier this year — doesn’t offer individual cuts that are over 10 minutes long. Why not scale it up for the Dead, though? $1 for every 10 minutes? I’d pay $3 for a half-hour “Dark Star” without batting my third eye.
It was once a hallmark of the Dead’s brand of misfit power to make the world bend to make special exceptions for their weirdness. If they can somehow muster the energy to do that again, I think the course of the spheres might be righted.
UPDATE: Barlow weighs in at BoingBoing — Jah bless his pointy l’il ‘ead — and it’s both frightening (the drummers wanna remove all Dead from the web altogether?!) and reassuring (at least Barlow’s got his head in the right place). Also, Benjy reps the MSM at RollingStone.com.
UPDATE 2: Go Phil, go!
UPDATE 3: Audience tapes coming back online. (Note to Relix & Phil: please get permalinks on your site. It makes it easier to spread the word.)