Lists as Fandom, Lists as Knowledge

How Grateful Dead Fans Communicate Through Handwritten Tape Lists and Hyperlinked Tape-Trading Communities

Contributed by Katie Harvey Independent Scholar
June 24, 2010
Part of the Cluster:

Notes, Lists, and Everyday Inscriptions

Recording technology provided an opportunity to preserve live music and transform it into a tangible, exchangeable object.  Among Grateful Dead fans in particular, these musical artifacts instigated a community of tapers and tape traders who performed a specific type of fandom through the circulation of recordings.  These fans produced and shared tape lists alongside the recordings that qualified and advertised personal collections.  Technological development brought changes to the form, thus transforming the list from hand-written notes to hyperlinked networks.  With this transformation, the lists became public and interconnected.  Meanwhile (re)digitization techniques multiplied the number of circulating recordings and further complicated the exchange process, necessitating a naming standard and a communal list.  Through the list, collectors demonstrate knowledge and state opinions, define fandom, and reveal and hide collections.  The lists themselves contain the history and the future of this community.

Grateful Dead, the band, and Grateful Dead Productions, the company, supported tape trade, at first unofficially through non-regulation, and later officially through the inception of a taper’s section at concerts and a statement sanctioning non-commercial trade among fans.  The music industry, however, has been known to fight against this type of informal fan circulation of recordings, often chasing it with updates to copyright law.  Yet sociologist Lee Marshall argues that tape collectors “actually provide ideological support for the recording industry, helping valorize musical commodities”; he thus credits unofficial recordings as enhancements to the industry and the dialogue surrounding it.1 Dead Head tape activity, in particular, proved not only to augment official releases, but also to increase the fan base by extending the concert experience beyond the venues and into the everyday lives of fans.  In turn, the tape lists extended the discourse by initiating new relationships and offering an additional space to discuss the music.  An examination of tape lists, old and new, provides insight into the specialized knowledge of fans and how they communicate that knowledge to one another.

Listing in Analog

Pictured above is a tape list exemplifying the way fans organize information and communicate to other fans.  The left corner of the pictured list identifies it as this fan’s “Deadlist,” indicating the Grateful Dead, organized by year, and printed on August 27, 1993.  Specific shows within the list itself are then categorized by location (venue, city, state) and exact date.  Other tape lists may include the opening song, a full set list, or musical highlights.  These categories exemplify what linguist Natalie Dollar terms “show talk,” defined as a discourse engaged in by fans when talking at or about a show that demonstrates fan knowledge.2 “Show talk” includes referencing shows by venue name, calling the opener, and recounting last night’s set list using well-known song nicknames.

Fans who collected tapes extended show talk to include language relevant to the recording technology and tape trade, thus creating a more specific type of fan language I am terming “tape talk.”  The list shown includes two tape talk categories regarding completeness of the tape, “set” and “time.”  Set noted which parts of the concert are present on the recording.  Length quantifies the number of minutes of recorded music.  Both figures were particularly important when engaging in equal trade.

Tape traders communicated sound quality through “source,” “grade,” and “gen.”  Abbreviations denoted sources such as soundboard (BRD or SBD), audience recording (AUD), radio broadcast (FM), and bootleg LP (BLP).  Each source has its own benefits, such as clarity from soundboard recordings or ambience found in audience recordings.  Grade, a subjective and personal category, labeled the tape according to individual taste and collector knowledge.  “Gen” indicated the generation of the tape, or the distance from the master recording, an essential distinction in analog trade because sound quality noticeably decreased with subsequent copies.  “Notes” provided a space for the collector to elaborate on any item, to engage in show talk and tape talk with potential trading partners.  Finally, the “from whom” column kept a record of personal trades and the circulation of specific tapes.  [This type of list served as a quick reference; for examples of more extensive analog notes see http://dicklatvala.com/notebooks.htm.]

The Path to Digital

In the year 2000, a group of collectors embarked on a project to digitize and share their collective set of recordings.  It started when one collector, known as Raoul Duke, donated his personal CD collection to the group in order to load the CDs onto hard drives, organized by year of recording.  These hard drives were to be vined through the group (an old form of distribution whereby one member copied the drive and then mailed it another member and so forth) and sent to Sweden where they would be made accessible to everyone through an FTP server known as TOL.  With this project, referred to as “The Music Never Stopped Project” (TMNSP), the exchange group successfully outlined and implemented standards widely utilized today among all live music collectors.

To efficiently use hard drive space and speed up Internet exchange, these collectors needed to compress the music files.  At the time consumers of the music industry had begun to turn to MP3 technology.  Instead, Dead Heads strictly enforced lossless compression formats such as shorten (shn) and free lossless audio codec (flac) to ensure high quality.

When downloading from TOL, traders wanted to browse the hard drives at a glance without taking the time to tediously open the text files and identify specific recordings.  So, Matt Vernon, a member of TMNSP, designed a naming standard that would identify the recording in the file name itself.  The format includes: two letter band abbreviation, date, information regarding the recording process, the last five digits of the SHN id, sound boundary error reference, and file format.  An example file name result would be:

 gd73-07-01.fob-SonyECM22p.kaslow-todd-motb.88528.sbeok.flac16

In this example, “gd” represents the Grateful Dead.  The recording was made on July 1, 1973 in front of the soundboard (fob=front of board) using a Sony ECM22P recorder.  Harv Kaslow and Craig Todd taped it, and an editing group named Mouth of the Beast (MOTB) digitized, edited, and seeded it.  The recording is a FLAC file seeded in 16-bit format.

The SHN id serves to identify this recording transferred through a particular set of technologies and edited by a particular people.  If the same master tape were to be redigitized and re-seeded, it would receive a new SHN id, given by the SHN id authority, etree.org.  The naming standard, and especially the SHN id, became a necessity to identify specific files and prevent duplication as more and more individuals seeded their own personal collections onto the Internet.  Therefore, current hard drive lists look like this:

Sbeok,” or, more rarely, “SBEfail,” refers back to a conflict within the community of traders regarding digital audio and tracking.  One method of tracking actually created digital noise.  So, when a small group within TMNSP, known as Jerry’s Kids, labored to transfer Raoul Duke’s CDs, they checked for “sound boundary error” and labeled the files accordingly.

The Music Never Stopped Project and Jerry’s Kids defined a standard.  Their work laid the foundation for not only the Grateful Dead community but also the larger network of non-commercial circulation of live recordings.  Their system is still in use.

Unfortunately, TOL was eventually shut down.  Thankfully, Matt Vernon had already found a more permanent home for the newly-digitized public collection at Archive.org’s Live Music Archive (LMA), where the collection is still available today through downloading and streaming.  Fans, no matter their age or level of experience, can access LMA and hear the sounds of the Grateful Dead while reading statistics and composing personal reviews.

Documenting Culture

In addition to the Archive.org collection, individual collectors and exchange groups circulate their music through a variety of other FTP servers and bit torrent sites such as etree.org, Lossless legs, Workingman’s Dead, and dime-a-dozen.  These online social networks and communal archives also serve as repositories for conversation, for modern day tape talk.  Fans swap stories and annotate archival information. They recommend recordings and trump each other’s opinions.  They critique, correct, and relive the experience.

Importantly, this banter can, at times, bring light to the true source of a recording as the listeners discuss the nature of the content and the quality.  As an example, LMA holds five different recordings for the Grateful Dead concert on September 18,1970.  One file displays a very short song list, a small portion of the music played on that night.  There are three reviews attached to it (pictured below).

The first comment (the most recent) annotates the online document with experiential knowledge of the show itself:  the weather, (torrential rain), noteworthy audience members, (Tim Leary and Mayor Lindsey), special guests (Dustin Hoffman and Harry Kellerman), cultural history (Jimi Hendrix’s death), personal history (friend waited outside), and a testimony (life altering experience).

The two previous reviews serve to correct information connecting this recording to the actual event.  One reviewer points out that Dark Star was not played that night and suggests that other listeners and fans check their own notes on this performance. The other reviewer, having already listened to other recordings of this concert, recognized that this version of Sugar Magnolia was not the actual version from the show.  To solve the mystery, a curator from LMA added his own notes (pictured below).  

As you can see, the curator clarified the source of the file song by song while claiming that he himself built this configuration and circulated it among friends beginning in 1997.  These types of compilation recordings surface in public archives.  Due to SHN ids, and the malleable, publicly accessible archive, items such as this can be (re)documented accurately and circulated accordingly.

The avenues through which tape collectors find and interact with one another have changes drastically.  Building analog trading networks required patience.  Tape traders copied tapes in real-time and waited days, weeks, or months to receive copies of other tapes via snail mail.  They searched for specific recordings through monthly fanzines and early online bulletins. As technology shifted, from analog to digital and from paper to electronic, Dead Heads constructed new forms of trade and faster avenues of communication.  These mediated tools allow fans instant and widespread communication.   Listening to a show and immediately discussing it with an extensive social network of other collectors and fans has become commonplace.  Recording technology brought the music away from venues and live concerts; now, fifteen years after the band has stopped performing live, these fans still listen to and comment on the music of the Grateful Dead as part of their daily lives.

Beginning in the 1980s, the first academic wave of fandom studies worked within the dichotomous structure of fans vs. fan object, where fans, though seen as “beautiful,” remained disempowered “others.”  Drawing from Pierre Bourdieu, the second wave identified fan cultures as a reflection of societal structures and habitus.  More recently, in the introduction to Fandom:  Identities and Communities in a Mediated World, Johnathan Gray, Cornel Sandvoss, and C. Lee Harrington highlight that “changing communication technologies and mediated texts contribute to and reflect the increasing entrenchment of fan consumption in the structures of our everyday life.”3 Instead of waiting for the tour, the new fanzine, or the letter, Dead Heads are now able to connect with one another in real time, to gather, share, and celebrate the music and those who labored to preserve it.

In today’s musical environment, in the long-wake of Napster, iTunes, and copyright law reform, the decision of this band to support this activity of their fans should be hailed as an alternative model to the power dynamic designed and implemented by large record companies and their control over the flow and access of recorded sound.  With the Grateful Dead, the fans produced the written and digital archive of the band (before the band had a chance to do so).  And they built it upon a foundation that they themselves constructed through analog trade.  Today, the fan base itself continues to grow as new fans, regardless of age or experience, discover the Grateful Dead and find at their fingertips hours and hours of recorded sound, along with set lists, guided commentary, and technological knowledge communicated and documented by Dead Heads themselves.  Fan activity exists as a living archive, a living culture in which the lists and hyperlinked communities not only demonstrate the values and opinions of the community, but become cultural documents in and of themselves.

  • 1. Marshall, Lee, “For and against the Record Industry: An Introduction to Bootleg Collectors and Tape Traders,” Popular Music 22, no. 1 [Jan 2003]: 57-72.  Please note:  Grateful Dead tapers are NOT bootleggers or pirates.  Bootleggers sell live recordings. Pirates sell previously released commercial material.  Grateful Dead tape traders collect, share, and trade live recordings of Grateful Dead concerts often produced by the fan themselves.
  • 2. Dollar, Natalie, “Understanding ‘Show’ as a Deadhead Speech Situation,” in Perspectives on the Grateful Dead:  Critical Writings, ed. Robert G. Weiner [Westport:  Greenwood Press, 1999], 89-100.
  • 3. Grey, Johnathan, Cornel Sandvoss, and C. Lee Harrington, eds., Fandom:  Identities and Communities in a Mediated World [New York:  New York University Press, 2007], 3.
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Comments

dancohen's picture
Response from
Dan Cohen

August 18, 2010

Re: Lists as Fandom, Lists as Knowledge

This is a great example of how systems of amateur metadata, ontologies, and standards arise without central coordination or imposed structures. Similar systems can be seen in other fan environments, e.g., as when the avid readers on LibraryThing do a better job categorizing books than the professionals at OCLC do.