No more than two dozen patrons have filed into the upstairs concert hall of Montreal’s La Sala Rosa for an evening of live jazz. Among the dedicated few sits Mark Crawford, a beer in his right hand and a focussed yet unassuming countenance on his face. Positioned front and centre, Mark is preparing a medium-sized microphone stand that is wired through a pre-amplifier, digital to analog converter, and power supply into his digital recorder. Mark will leave the show with a personal recording of the performance.
Mark is a member of the small-yet-vigilant Montreal “taper” scene. He has been trading live concert recordings since the late eighties and has recorded performances at Metropolis, Le National, and Le Divan Orange, among other venues in Montreal and across North America. He claims that the Salle Wilfred-Pelletier theatre at Place des Arts has the best acoustics in the city.
“I have a need to hear bands evolve, a need to hear the bands I like explore,” Crawford says.
A taper profile
The tapers comprise a subculture of music fandom. A mix of obsessive-compulsive music documenters, former party animals, tape collectors, and hobbyists, it’s difficult to pin down the taper subculture to a single personality type. The lowest common denominator is simply a true love for music.
Most tapers arrive at the show early enough to be the first admitted, gear in hand and mind focussed on constructing their rig. While the band is finishing its sound check, the tapers are busy searching for the room’s “sweet spot,” assembling and stabilizing their microphone stands, clamping and connecting cables, and making sure their recorders are fully charged for show time.
A taper might invest over $10,000 in equipment. A set of high-end Schoeps or Neumann brand microphones cost about $5,000 alone. Factor in preamplifiers running as much as $6,000, digital recorders for up to $2,000, digital to analogue converters, power supplies, cases, cables, and clamps, and most tapers have gear valued around the price of a well-running used car. Some, like California-based taper Ian Stone, have gone as far as running their own private server.
“I was going to Rochester Institute of Technology in New York and I had just gotten a new computer. I had a T1 Internet connection in my dorm room, so I took advantage of it,” says Stone.
The tape collections range into the thousands, often consisting of several hundred recordings documenting a taper’s favorite acts. Crawford estimates that he owns between 600 and 800 recordings of the recently reunited improvisational rock band Phish alone.
“There are some people that don’t care if they tape the show, because they are happy playing their CD 50 times in a row and waiting until next year to hopefully see the band again,” says Crawford.
The word “dedication” as a description is an understatement. New York-based taper Ray Ackerman recalls a stealth taping experience that required some smooth talking and a disguise. The show was a 1985 Neil Young concert at the Rochester War Memorial, a minor league hockey arena in upstate New York.
“I basically dressed up like I worked for a television station to get my equipment in,” says Ackerman, who has taped every concert that he has attended since 1983. “I quick-talked the person at the door and they let me come in with this giant hard shell case with all of my recording equipment in it, and then I set up my stuff from my seat to record the concert.”
A document of everyday life
Speak with any taper who has been at it for more than 20 years and odds are they will tell you that it all goes back to one band – The Grateful Dead. Although the Dead allowed its nomadic fan base to record as early as the mid-sixties, on October 27, 1984, the band officially created a special area of the audience known as “the tapers’ section.” Generally positioned adjacent to or behind the soundboard, from this point on tapers could freely transport and set up their rigs without hassle from venue security. As a result, taping emerged from the shadows and into the public eye.
“[The Deadheads] were really the hardcore music fans,” says Ackerman. “The Grateful Dead were really one of the only bands back then that were constantly improvising so that every show was different.”
These recordings provided free publicity for the band, as well as a method for fans to document the show. It was a way not only to collect, compare, and share the music, but also to revisit the concert experience from the night before.
So it should come as no surprise that a taper will opt for an audience tape over a doctored soundboard recording without question.
“There is something about a good audience tape that makes the perspective a lot better. You get a less sterile, more venue-oriented sound,” says Crawford. “You can get it in your mind exactly where the mics are in the room. You actually know how the sound is bouncing off the seats; you get the whole feeling of how the sound was in the venue – more of the way that it is supposed to be portrayed. The whole recording idea is to capture the show exactly as your human ear would capture it – it’s getting exactly what the band is trying to throw out into the particular room.”
The tapes provide more than just the music. The listener can gauge the audience’s energy and other sounds that are normally undetected by a soundboard recording.
“It’s cool getting the ambiance in the room – hearing the tinkle of the bar glasses or hearing people slam the door, or playing pool in the background. You get more of a feeling or picture of what the night was other than just the sound,” says Crawford.
A community culture
While the technical jargon can be daunting, the taper section is a tightly knit community within music fandom that looks out for one another and is generally willing to lend a helping hand to the “newbies.”
Before making a major investment, most tapers learn the hobby by purchasing only the recorder and “patching in” – a practice where one taper, most likely the most experienced and invested, allows other tapers to patch in to their microphone rig. This creates a chain of recorders all stemming from the single microphone configuration. Tapers must beware, however, because if one battery in the chain dies, all of those following it also lose their connection.
“For the most part, everyone knows each other … we are all in it together – we are all going to protect the gear together and keep the drunks away,” says Stone, who by his own modest estimation has taped approximately 2,500 sets of live music. “It’s a bonding thing – you can talk about the gear that you have and say ‘Oh hey, I think I saw you at this show or that show.’ It’s kind of a hidden connection that we all share.”
Even with the community-oriented attitude, taping still benefits from healthy rivalries.
“It’s more or less friendly competition, but we are all trying to make the best recording,” says Crawford. “Sometimes we tease each other like ‘Oh man, your recording was a little left channel heavy, what the fuck are you doing?’ But that comes with the territory. Most of the time it’s all for fun.”
A hazardous hobby
Safety is always a concern in the taper’s section. With several thousand dollars worth of equipment set up in the middle of 20,000 dancing fans, the tapers watch protectively over their gear.
On the jamband scene, this means looking out for the Wookies – a Star Wars reference affectionately reserved for dreadlock-sporting neo-hippies with a striking resemblance to Chewbacca. An umbrella will stop the rain, but sometimes nothing can stop a Wookie.
“Wooks are always the ones that want to do the most damage and they will be the most ambivalent to what you are doing,” Crawford says. “They are so spun out that they won’t realize what the hell is going on.”
Most tapers have their share of horror stories. They offer tales of 10-foot microphone stands and several
thousand-dollar pieces of equipment that come crashing down from above into a puddle of mud, spilling entire recording decks across the ground.
So a good taper can’t go far without a flashlight. Tapers shine a light on the gear to let passersby know they are there in order to avoid catastrophe.
The golden rule
The tapers know that recording the shows is a privilege. Therefore, there is one sacred rule that trumps all others in the taping world: tapers do not profit monetarily from any of their personal recordings. Respect the band’s wishes and the band will help accommodate you.
“I think that most of the bands that allow taping do so with the implication that people are not going to sell it or profit off it in any way,” says Stone. “And that’s an important thing to think about – tapers out there do this for non-monetary gain. They do it because they like it. They share it with others because they are generous and they like the bands enough that they want to help promote them.”
As a result, tapes are traded or offered to others simply as a gift. Today many tapers will put their recordings up for download on websites such as archive.org or etreee.org, but there was a time when tapers would connect exclusively through the mail, arranging trades at concerts or by responding to want advertisements in the back of fan magazines.
Crawford remembers when his wife arrived at work one morning to find several Grateful Dead tapes in her desk, a kind gesture from her boss after he noticed the Grateful Dead tattoo on her leg. “A couple shows from Santa Barbara in ’78 – a really smokin’ soundboard version on cassette,” recalls Crawford.
Eric Kushmeder, a taper from Western Pennsylvania who records mostly bar bands, tells people to e-mail him and he’ll send the recording, free of charge.
“Most of the time they don’t even get back to you,” says Kushmeder. “But if they do, I say, ‘Hey, give me an address, I’ll send you a couple disks in the mail, on my dime.’ Two dollars worth of CD-R and postage – it goes a long way to put a smile on somebody’s face – to know that they are going to enjoy listening to that show.”
With the free trade emphasis, the word “bootleg” has become the most dreaded term in the taper’s vocabulary. An expression that originally surfaced during the American prohibition to describe how one might smuggle liquor by strapping it to their “boot leg,” bootlegging indicates that the recordings are illegal and being sold for a profit.
A real change
On February 4, 2008, Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, and Mickey Hart, three surviving members of the Grateful Dead, reunited for a show at the Warfield in San Francisco to support then Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama. Ian Stone taped that show, and a few weeks after uploading it to the archive.org, found that over 100,000 people downloaded it.
HeadCount, a voter-registration organization focussed on mobilizing fans of live music, came to mind as a potential outlet for putting the new found exposure to good use.
“I just started thinking about the possibilities and HeadCount is an organization in our scene – they didn’t have any download service – so wouldn’t it be cool if 100,000 people were going to HeadCount’s website, and what if 50,000 of them registered to vote because of this one show?”
After using some connections and pitching his idea, Stone has since become the official HeadCount taper, with responsibilities that include maintaining a blog and offering free monthly recordings to registered HeadCount members – compliments of his personal collection.
A final encore
“There is no profit in it – there is no fame in it,” says Stone. “So regardless of whether 100 people download it or 1,000 people download it, those tapers will still be there doing their thing.”
For the tapers, everything about the practice always returns to the music. In a music world of major record labels and high-powered management, the tapers exist in an industry grey area by supporting the bands through unconventional means.
It makes no difference if the recording is of an international touring act or a bar band that may never leave its home city. If the music sounds good, the tapers believe that it is important to document and share it.
“I see nothing but good coming from getting the music out there,” says Crawford. “It is important for our culture to have memories of what has been produced and the better parts of our culture are song, dance, and music.”