Live and loving it

These days, everyone is talking about online music services such as Napster and the iTunes Music Store as ways to distribute music digitally and legally. But when it comes to live music, there’s way more than just the big sites. Many bands sell pristine soundboard recordings of their concerts, and thousands of high-quality concerts from a variety of bands are available for you to download for the low, low price of free. Best of all, it’s completely legal—so the RIAA’s lawyers won’t ever knock down your door.

Gigabytes of Gigs

If you’re a fan of a band such as Metallica, Phish, Primus, the Steve Kimock Band, or the String Cheese Incident, you can follow the tour without ever leaving your room. These bands all offer concerts as digital downloads, and most give you the choice between MP3 and the high-quality FLAC format. You can expect to shell out around $10 for MP3 and $13 for FLAC versions of a typical show.

As Metallica tours, it’s releasing every new concert on its site—and the band says the decision was a no-brainer. “As soon as we sat down and kinda looked at it for about two seconds, we thought, ‘Of course,’” says drummer Lars Ulrich. “And we looked at it as being the ultimate souvenir, taking the show home with you.”

According to Ulrich, having high-quality digital recordings available for fans is a way to provide the equivalent of a live album for each show on a tour, eliminating the need for fans to bring their own recording equipment (something the band encouraged in the old days): “It’s a little easier than having to schlepp all your shit into the arena.”

Like Metallica, Phish sells every show from the last few tours on its site (the band called it quits in August 2004). Downloads have been so successful that the band dropped its live CD series in favor of digital downloads. The site now offers many shows from the ex-band members’ solo projects.

A decade-old company called nugs.net enterprises handles both bands’ download services (as well as those of many other groups). Originally a site that provided free MP3s of live shows, nugs.net now handles distribution and money matters for bands who want to get in on the live action.

“Generally speaking,” says nugs.net founder and CEO Brad Serling, “the larger artists already have a sound engineer on the road who does the recording and mastering, then does the encoding and uploading to us.” And because Serling works with these bands on a regular basis, shows are usually available for download no more than 48 hours after the house lights have come on (thanks in part to high-speed Internet access in hotels or even in a neighborhood Starbucks while the bands are on the road).

The third-annual Bonnaroo Music Festival in Manchester, Tennessee, this past summer was even more high-tech. “We had a whole process in place where six different stages were being recorded multitrack with lines running back to our production area, where we had four separate live-mix rooms running around the clock,” says Serling. “Then the audio guys would literally hand us hard drives filled with music, and we’d take it from there, do the encoding, and put it up on the Web.”

Although everything was ready to go online right away, the record labels—and bands unfamiliar with the process—caused delays, and nugs.net instead rolled out shows over the course of the summer.

The LiveBonnaroo site now has recordings of 27 performances from the 2004 festival, from bands including Dave Matthews & Friends, Galactic, My Morning Jacket, Burning Spear, and Guster, as well as the first live download release from the Dead ($4.50 to $13 for MP3, $6 to $21 for FLAC).

Although these sites are charging for music, just as the iTunes Music Store and others do, there’s one big difference—digital rights management (DRM). Neither MP3 nor FLAC uses any, which means people can hand out the downloads they buy like candy on Halloween. Fans are basically on the honor system—and it seems to work pretty well. “Look, the minute you decide to [offer downloads], you gotta…let control and your perception of ownership go,” Ulrich says. “But I feel that people are respecting [copyrights], and once in a while when it comes across my radar, people certainly seem to encourage others to respect it and do the honor thing.”

But Sterling thinks FLAC’s days are numbered because of its lack of DRM and other reasons (in fact, some of the lossless material from the Dave Matthews Band is in WMA format, which does employ copy protection).

“Apple has captured a large percentage of the market with the iPod, so if I’m in the business of selling music downloads, I should go with the player and formats that are native to the iPod and iTunes,” he says. He’d like to see Apple license its FairPlay DRM “because we get requests from artists that want to use DRM, but they want it to work on the iPod.”

Even with most people paying for downloads, Ulrich says, “this is not something that you do to make a profit.” He says the band charges “a minimal fee” to cover expenses (such as the high cost of bandwidth).

The MunckMusic site —which sells live CDs of concerts by the Dead, Ratdog, Dark Star Orchestra, and the 2004 New Orleans Jazz Fest—also sells downloads of many of its shows in MP3, WMA, AAC, and FLAC format. Rather than setting a separate price for lossless downloads, the site adds a surcharge for FLAC files, but it doesn’t disclose how much that is anywhere (you need to go through the checkout process to find out).

Gimme, Gimme

If there’s one thing peer-to-peer (P2P) networking has taught us, it’s that people expect things to be free—and in some cases they still are. Take, for instance, the Internet Archive, founded in San Francisco in 1996 to preserve digital collections of images, texts, and sounds. Luckily for music fans, the Internet Archive has convinced more than 650 trade-friendly bands to archive their concerts permanently in its Live Music Archive (LMA) and make them available for free download.

The result is more than 16,000 concerts from tons of jam bands such as the Disco Biscuits, the Derek Trucks Band, moe., Robert Randolph & the Family Band, the Steve Kimock Band, and the String Cheese Incident—not to mention more than 2,600 recordings of Grateful Dead shows. The LMA (affectionately known as “The Llama”) also includes artists such as 311, Billy Bragg, the Butthole Surfers, Cowboy Junkies, G. Love and Special Sauce, Jack Johnson, Martin Sexton, Mermen, Michael Franti and Spearhead, Mogwai, and Ryan Adams. Shows are available in either SHN or FLAC lossless formats, and often as Ogg Vorbis (OGG) files and MP3 files and streams.

For people who like to share as they download, bt.etree.org uses BitTorrent to distribute shows by bands that allow taping and trading. BitTorrent, a swarming P2P system, allows individuals to offer shows by bands including the Funky Meters, Guster, John Mayer, Pearl Jam, Wilco, and Yo La Tengo for limited periods of time. Since everyone downloading a show also uploads bits to others at the same time, BitTorrent is an incredibly efficient method of letting one person get a show out to hundreds of people simultaneously (a process known as seeding). Shows are distributed with the understanding that you won’t sell or otherwise try to make money off them. Nobody may be watching, but the trading community is good at self-policing—and, as they say, karma is a bitch.

Another P2P system, Further Network, uses Java software to help distribute live shows. And other Web sites, such as www.dimeadozen.org and www.thetradersden.org, also offer live BitTorrent music downloads, although the content isn’t always from bands that have given the OK on trading their shows.

So whether you buy a live show or just download freebies from the Web, you can recapture that live experience or just get to know a band’s music better—all without breaking the law.

JONATHAN SEFF has collected thousands of live concerts (purchased or free) from his favorite bands—no joke.

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