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Monday October 4, 2004 12:27 pm

Legal Concert Downloads: A Look at the Tech

Posted by Andru Edwards - Categories: Features, Music

Concert Tape Trading Free Dave MatthewsSo we are now in the maturation phase of the online music world, past the infancy when there was a mad rush to Napster, Kazaa and their brethren. Although those P2P options still exist, there are now legal download options such as iTunes, legal Napster and several others. Even audiobooks have gone MP3, with sites like Audible.com offering the newest novels in formats ready for MP3 players. But I want to look at a niche that has been flourishing since the beginning of the web, and still is an incredible, legal and mostly free option when you want to hear some great music. I am talking about downloading the concerts of bands that are "taper-friendly", which means the band allows fans to record concerts and distribute them freely. So we'll take a look at the history of this concept, what it looks like today, and how to get your hands on some great shows.


The obvious beginnings to recording shows came with the original "taper-friendly" band, The Grateful Dead. Although people were recording concerts prior to The Dead in small numbers, The Grateful Dead revolutionized the process. Basically, The Dead gave their permission for fans to bring recording equipment into concerts and tape the entire concert. In later years, "tapers" were even given spots near the mixing board, where the audio sounds the best, and power hookups for their equipment. You may be asking yourself, what did The Dead get out of this? Well, the most obvious answer is that as these tapes were copied over and over, more people heard their music. Lets just say The Grateful Dead were never very "radio-friendly", with their twenty-minute jams and all, so "tape-trading" gave them another outlet to get their music to the masses. Another positive for The Dead was that "tape-trading" gave their fans a sense of community, a sense of being a part of the band, which didn't exactly hurt their following. Once other bands saw the effect "tape-trading" had on The Dead, many quickly followed suit.


One of the big downsides to trading actual audiocassettes is that as each audiocassette is dubbed, the copies get further in audio quality from the original. People who received copies of copies of copies of copies, of a recording that wasn't even studio-quality to begin with, started to wonder if their wasn't a better way. Tapers were stuck until the advent of the Internet and digital taping equipment. Quickly following the thousands of pages of "XXX" and "Make Money Quick" websites, FTP servers were at the forefront of web usage. Suddenly you could dub your Dead cassettes onto your computer, and share them with friends without shipping, without re-dubbing, and without audio loss. But then came a new problem, the audio files were huge and the recordings were still being done on cassette, a format that does not lend itself to pristine audio quality. In the late 90's, it all started to come together for "tape-traders". The advent of the DAT, and then the mini-disc made taping at digital quality possible. The audio could then be moved to a computer without any audio-quality lost. With the only problem now being large file size, tapers started to tinker with .mp3's, but .mp3's are a lossy compression, meaning that when you get an audio file that small, you have lost some audio quality. Although that doesn't seem like a big deal, when you copy a copy of a copy, it starts to multiply. So two new formats have been developed, with both having their positives and negatives, and both having their fans and detractors.

.SHN vs. .FLAC

The first of the formats to catch hold was .Shn, or Shorten. Basically, Shorten files are completely loss less, and result in .Shn files that are 50%-70% smaller than the original .wav file. Shortens were quickly being traded over ftp, or burned on to CD-R's and traded by mail. Popular trading websites like Etree.org are very large advocates of Shorten files, and has become a meeting place where people can trade Shorten files. More recently, Flac files have taken the momentum away from Shorten, because of Flac's claim to be completely lossless and 5%-15% smaller than their Shorten counterparts. Almost all new concerts on extremely popular Archive.org, are available in Flac format, and new audio players are being released with Flac support, such as the Rio Karma and The Squeezebox, something Shorten cannot claim. Switching these formats to wav files for cd burning, or to mp3 for further compression, will require separate software, which can be found at both format's respective websites. Popular media players like WinAmp will play both formats effortlessly, but you may have problems with other media players. But what you will find is both formats are alive and well in the trading world, and both offer completely loss less audio.


One of the great things about the trading world is that these artists have requirements that concerts available for free can never, ever be sold. Bands that allow taping have rules for tapers, and selling concerts is always a no-no. But beware, bands like Dave Matthews Band and Phish allow the trading of many of their concerts, but also release some of their concerts themselves commercially, and sell them on their website or in music stores. You may be asking yourself, how do I tell the difference? Well, any of the concerts on the sites I am about to tell you about are completely legal and free for all. Websites like Archive.org, which in March 2004 passed the 10,000 concert mark, and allows super-fast free downloads of all of their shows. Archive.org even recently added a feature so that you can stream the show, without downloading the files. There are band specific sites like antsmarching.org, which has a large database of downloadable concerts by Dave Matthews Band, which may be a better resource if you are looking for concerts from a specific band. Another resource is the website of the actual band, with many having forums on which you can arrange a trade with a fellow fan. But as long as you download these concerts legally, and do not sell them yourself, you are completely in the free and clear. So if you are looking for a legal, free way to get your hands on a show that you went to, or just wish that you had, give concert trading a try.

- Greg Norton

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