I recently read Searching for the Sound: My Life with the Grateful Dead, Phil Lesh’s memoir of his career as the base player for this legendary band. It was a fun if sobering romp through the 1960s and beyond. Lesh catalogs the highs of a joyous, free spirited time, and the lows as he watches friends and fellow musicians die before their time, ravaged by drugs. If you are a fan or just want to learn more how this band became legend, it’s worth a read.
But, I’m writing about Lesh today because before I passed the book on to a friend–she is 30 years younger than I am but a stalwart Dead fan–I grabbed the one quote that I noted as I read. It concerned the Dead’s willingness to let their fans tape the show and share those tapes with others. The band not only tolerated it, but eventually let a few of the “tapers” plug into a second sound board. Famous for never repeating the same show twice, the band seemed unconcerned, and Lesh remembers that Jerry said, “As soon as we play it, we’re done with it. Let ’em have it” (p. 174). That’s not completely true, Lesh writes, as the band itself taped their shows for their own review and some of those tapes made it into the trading streama as well.
Lesh muses about the potential impact of those networks: “It’s interesting to speculate about the influence of these trader networks on the programmers who designed such file-sharing peer-to-peer software as Napster, Lime Wire, or Kazaa–software that does the same thing digitally.” I wonder how this sharing culture also influenced new ways of thinking about copyright that led, eventually, to the Creative Commons movement that gets beyond corporate control and back to grassroots connections that seemed at the heart of ideas about the early Internet.
The Internet Archive has become the online library of not just Grateful Dead shows, but also lots of other live music from Bela Fleck and the Flecktones to New Riders of the Purple Sage. The archive describes the bands who allow their live music to be shared via the platform as trade-friendly. The webpage defining this concept includes a quote from Lesh’s memoir: “On balance, allowing taping was maybe the smartest business move we ever made” (p. 266).
I did not have the opportunity to hear the Grateful Dead while I was at William and Mary as I believe the 1978 show, which coincided with Parents’ Weekend, may have been their last, just a couple years before I arrived. Fortunately, I can listen to those shows and lots and lots and lots of others as part of the Grateful Dead collection at the archive. As the band sings in Franklin’s Tower: If you get confused, just listen to the music play.