Steal Your Face! The Grateful Dead disproves the notion that sharing is destructive

Get a load of this. Sometimes, I actually enjoy these little screeds that turn up now and again about copyright and the great internet menace. I especially like the parts where the writers pretend like anybody on the industry side really gives a shit about artists. Does anyone really believe the RIAA, MPAA or publishers’ interest in stamping out what they call piracy has even the slightest thing to do with protecting artists? That line is the media conglomerate equivalent of the great political deflection “won’t somebody please think about the children?” These are, after all, entities that have done some amazing work creating innovative accounting tricks specifically to screw over the various artists they claim to want to protect. In reality, their position can be far more accurately described as, “How dare you steal from the people we’ve been stealing from!”

But that’s neither here nor there. Those folks are the real crooks in this debate and just about everyone who doesn’t have a direct financial interest in allowing the continuation of their money grabs from actual content creators knows it. What I’d like to discuss is the principle reason I simply don’t believe that sharing is piracy, and further, why I don’t believe it’s harmful but in fact can be beneficial. All I have to do is look at the wall of shelves filled with cassette tapes in my house, and I see right through the corporate bullshit that has defined sharing as a steeply punishable crime, and re-christened the activity with the much more ominous and deceptive term “piracy.”

Admittedly, cassette tapes are very much a technology of the past, but this is the past I’m talking about here, how casual sharing has always existed ever since there was a widely available means of reproduction accessible to regular people. Far from destroying legitimate markets for creative goods, sharing has been very likely the principle means of discovery for consumers, and I believe it has done more to create demand for artistic works, as well as putting money into the pockets of both artists and media companies, than all the marketing dollars in the world.

To begin, there is absolutely nothing illegal about any of the two thousand or so tapes in my home. Every one is a copy of a live concert recording of bands that explicitly allowed that activity. Every one was either given or acquired by me in a straight trade of other concert recordings with no money changing hands, a behavior also sanctioned by the bands in question. It’s a large and varied selection of some of the best musicians we’ve ever produced, and all indisputably the result of legal, sanctioned sharing. I say this to head off anyone throwing accusations of piracy at me for this collection. But sanctioned or not, I still don’t believe it’s piracy, and I know that it’s far from destructive to the artists.

By the time I graduated from high school, I had been turned on to the Grateful Dead by a good friend when he gave me a few copies of some bootleg tapes of their concerts. This set off a life-long interest in music for me that has directly led to my spending tens of thousands of dollars on CDs, concert tickets, books, tee shirts, even digital music, thus far. I’ve been so appreciative of that act that I’ve returned the favor many times over by giving copies of some of this music to many different people over the years, turning numerous people into fans (and paying customers) for a wide variety of bands.

A few years ago, I turned a friend of mine on to a bluegrass jam band called Yonder Mountain String Band by giving him a copy of a concert recording I had acquired. Yonder also allows taping and the free sharing of such recordings. Since then, he’s bought their CDs, bought tee shirts, hats and seen them perform live at least three dozen times at venues up and down the East Coast, tripling the amount of times I’ve seen them myself. And that’s just one instance with one person and one band. I’ve turned hundreds of people onto hundreds of bands over the years. None of it would have happened if not for that first person handing me that first Grateful Dead tape twenty years ago. I can’t even begin to estimate what the total dollar figure that resulted from my sharing of this material would be, but my best guess is well into six figures, possibly more. Without that first tape, without that sharing, none of that spending exists.

Let’s discuss the Grateful Dead for a moment because, above all else, they are a fascinating case for how open sharing can generate buzz and a paying fanbase, turning a band that the mainstream music industry had little use for into one of the most widely recognized, influential and highest grossing music acts to ever grace a stage anywhere.

The Dead released 22 total studio and contemporary live albums during their 30 years. By contemporary, I mean live albums released as they went along in their various incarnations at the time. They’ve since released over a hundred live recordings from their archives, but the 22 albums I’ve sited are the only ones fitting the standard music industry album release pattern. Of those, only one ever reached the top ten on the charts, that being the 1987 album In The Dark, which peaked at number seven. Only three others even hit the top twenty. As for singles, the Dead had a grand total of one Top 40 hit, Touch of Grey, from In the Dark, which peaked at number nine. Not exactly the kind of success you’d expect to see from a band that ended its run as one of the highest earning bands ever. And unlike the current top grossing bands who charge absurdly high ticket prices, the Dead’s concert tickets were always affordable. I still have my stub from the very last show they ever played at Soldier Field in Chicago in 1995. I had field seats, row 30 from the stage that day, generally pretty fantastic seats. The price printed on the ticket was $33.50. Today, those kind of seats for a major rock band would easily be ten times that, maybe even more.

So if mainstream commercial success was virtually non-existent, how were the Dead able to build the empire they did? They built a large, enthusiastic community of followers unmatched in music history. Name one other band that had a following of tens of thousands of fans who would tour the country with them. Every show. Every tour. Every year. A Grateful Dead show produced a literal village at every venue they stopped at. Bands like the Dead-inspired Phish from Vermont, managed to replicate some semblance of that, but no one has ever fully embraced the notion of community like Jerry Garcia and the boys. It was those bootleg tapes I referred to earlier that were instrumental in building that community. They ended up with a large group of fans who were virtual archivists. I, myself, have over 500 Dead concerts on tape spanning the late ’60s right up to their final show. Honestly, that collection is one of my prized possessions. I’ve since digitized many of them, and I very rarely listen directly to the tapes themselves anymore, but I still can’t bring myself to part with them, and I’m pretty sure I never will. At least not willingly.

Dead fans were a unique group, most possessing an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the band and its music. All of that stemmed from the enormous community they cultivated. And that community, in turn, grew out of the free and open sharing of their material. The Dead became immortalized not by selling records, not by an association with a giant record company, and not by any massive marketing effort. They did it by cultivating a community of fans based very much on the concept of sharing.

While it’s very true that times were different then, and that there are some very real issues with downloading that need to be addressed, I’ve always believed that their approach held many lessons that directly apply to today’s artists, musicians and writers. For instance, the Dead would allow the free distribution of concert bootlegs under one condition–no one tried to make money from them. I saw nearly twenty Dead shows in my time. Only twice did I ever see anyone trying to sell tapes in the parking lot. In both instances, the seller was essentially shamed into shutting down by the fans themselves. The band built such a strong community that they didn’t even have to police the distribution of those tapes, the community did it for them. How many of today’s artists have that kind of mutually beneficial relationship with their fans? I can’t think of one.

Sharing isn’t piracy, and it doesn’t have to be destructive. The Grateful Dead have proved that. Completely outside of the recording industry machine, they built a stunningly successful commercial entity. They did it by building a community with their fans, encouraging the free and open non-commercial sharing of their work, keeping the prices for their material affordable and by retaining all the rights to their recording masters and publishing rights. Seems to me like there’s a lesson or two in there that might apply these days, don’t you think?

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