Early Dead Trading on the Internet
The internet has been a dream come true for Deadheads and fans of live music in general. Nowadays it's possible with a broadband connection to download a two or three hour concert recording in less than half an hour. This page is a brief attempt to explain the history of Dead recordings on the internet and the current state of exchanging and obtaining live Dead recordings in cyberspace. I know I'm forgetting a few things and will probably mangle some facts - this is as best as I can recall. Any corrections are greatly appreciated.
As I understand it, the first exchange of live Dead over the internet occurred via FTP, mainly through the etree.org gateway. Subscribers to their mailing lists would be notified of private, individually operated FTP servers offering live Dead recordings. Although this was cumbersome because of limited bandwidth, waiting queues to log on, etc., it did the job of getting lossless digital copies to the masses. This eventually gave way to bittorrent, which spread the bandwidth load more or less equally amongst the downloaders, speeding up delivery and propagation of recordings. In addition to bittorrent (again, mainly via etree.org), there were the alt.binaries.gdead.* newsgroups and the db.etree.org database, which allowed people to list their recordings and arrange trades person to person, mainly via snail mail. Direct download via HTTP was also available for some shows via Sugarmegs and gdlive.com. The recordings flowed and all were happy
The LMA Miracle and Debacle
In 1996 archive.org was born, with the object of literally archiving the entire internet - websites, documents, sound, video, pictures, the whole lot. Part of that included the Live Music Archive, or LlaMA, which hosts live recordings for streaming and/or download of almost 3000 artists who have given their written permission, and according to any conditions they stipulate. Since the surviving members of the Dead, via their website, had already given a general permission for the nonprofit trading and hosting of their shows over the internet, the LMA seemed like a natural home for live Dead. A small group of people decided to take them at their word, and working with the good folks at archive.org began putting shows up on archive for download and streaming. This was done in good faith, in consultation with various members of the Dead organization, and for a while all went smoothly. From 2003 to 2005 literally thousands of Grateful Dead recordings were made available via the LMA. It soon became the leading source of acquiring Grateful Dead recordings, with literally thousands of downloads a day. One show, 6/10/73 at RFK Stadium in Washington, had over a quarter million downloads. Activity on the bittorrent sites and newsgroups dwindled to almost nothing.
THEN... on November 22, 2005, Deadheads awoke to find all Grateful Dead recordings removed from the Live Music Archive. Information was sparse at best as to why it happened. Confusion gave way to rage on the LMA message boards as it was learned that the Grateful Dead organization had requested that the soundboards be pulled from the LMA. In an honest misunderstanding, the LMA administrators went beyond the request and removed all the recordings, boards and audience as well. For two or three days there was little or no information coming from the band as to the reason. Dennis McNally, the spokesman for the Dead, said it was because the one-stop shopping nature of the LMA didn't foster a sense of community among Deadheads. Rhythm guitarist Bob Weir said that it had to do with the copyrights of other artists' songs the Dead had covered in their shows. Later it was found out that certain parties were negotiating with the Dead to purchase the rights to commercially release their live recordings, and stopping the download of boards from LMA was a condition for the talks.
The decision to pull the recordings caused a deep rift between the band and many Deadheads. Over the following days there were threats to boycott all Dead-related shows and merchandise, including an online pledge to do so signed by over 4000 fans. The sturm und drang even made it to the New York Times. Even band members were split about the decision, with Phil Lesh, the Dead's bassist stating on his website that it had been made without his knowledge and that he was saddened by it. Shortly after drummer Mickey Hart put up a statement on his site supporting Lesh. Fellow drummer Bill Kreutzmann remained silent and Weir defended himself as the one who made the decision, expressing derision toward the boycotters ("See ya"). After a week of back and forth over the internet and in the press, the Dead finally gave permission to the Live Music Archive to restore the audience recordings (which they said they'd never asked to be removed) and to host soundboard and FM sources on a stream-only basis. This managed to calm the storm somewhat, but left a scar of bitter feelings, especially toward Bob Weir because of some of his comments, that time has dulled but not erased completely.
Where We are Today
In the wake of the LMA fiasco, Deadheads looking for soundboard recordings were forced to look elsewhere. Faced with a challenge, Deadheads did what they did best - they formed communities. Recently created bittorrent sites such as Lossless Legs, as well as older ones such as bt.etree.org or The Music Never Stopped Project, later Jerome's, now GD Vault, had new life breathed into them as they were literally flooded with new members and torrents. After several months of uncertainty, even paranoia, within these groups, it became clear that a modus vivendi had evolved. The Dead organization would allow the continued circulation of boards via bittorrent provided that once a show was commercially released any board and FM recordings of that show would no longer be traded. This seems to be mainly due to the impermanence of bittorrent links and the ongoing interaction between site members this necessitates. The bittorrent sites that have scrupulously followed that rule have survived and thrived - most of those that have not have been shut down by the Dead. Given the vast quantity of circulating boards of shows that haven't been commercially released, these are rules that most fans are happy to abide by. The Dead organization, for their part, has left sites that adhere to these rules alone.
The LMA earthquake has had two other significant effects. The first has been to introduce thousands of Heads to some of the better audience recordings available and to open their minds to the fact that many are even preferable to boards. Many trace their newfound respect and appreciation for how good an audience recording can sound to the boards being removed from LMA (yours truly is one such convert).
The second effect is an increased sense of community among Deadheads on the internet. More than a few have admitted that the "all you can eat" nature of the LMA was a bit sterile, lacking in the cameraderie and relationships fostered via one-on-one trading. Instead, fans that come to bittorrent sites looking for live Dead soon find themselves diving into board discussions, reminiscing about shows, debating politics, even sharing personal triumphs and tragedies in their daily lives. Also, in the uncertain months following the LMA crackdown there was a sense of urgency to get as many shows in circulation as quickly as possible. There were year-by-year projects seeding out existing recordings as well as cooperation between several bittorrent sites to pool the talents of the more technically capable members to seek out, digitize and disseminate new sources. Literally hundreds of new soundboard and audience sources, many of them masters, have come to light thanks to the efforts of people like Charlie Miller (praise be unto him), the Green Mountain Boys, Joe Jupille, the GEMS and MOTB crews, just to name a few. Every day, it seems, new recordings are made available to Deadheads thanks to their hard work. Whether McNally was being genuine or not in his comment about the necessity for community, it's inarguable that shutting down the boards at archive has increased community spirit among Deadheads exponentially. In hindsight it may even be seen as a harsh but effective pruning that spurred the growth and strength of Deadheads and their beloved recordings, rather than weakening them. As was frequently quoted in the early days after 11/22/05...
...WE WILL SURVIVE!!!