This week, the Live Music Archive collection at the Internet Archive reaches a milestone – 20 years since the collection was started. The roots of the Live Music Archive collection are visible right in the URL – etree. Did you ever wonder what the “etree” in the URL references? In 1998, the etree music community was created to promote the online trading of lossless audio recordings of live music performances. With the advent of more widely available broadband (by 1990’s standards, mind you) internet connections and the creation of lossless file compression formats (Shorten at first, followed by FLAC), the community established protocols to ensure the preservation and archiving of these original audio recordings. Preservation and archiving. The very ethos of the Internet Archive.
In July 2002, Jon Aizen, a software engineer at the Internet Archive and live music enthusiast, proposed to Brewster Kahle the idea of archiving live music recordings. Brewster was enthusiastic and so on July 23, 2002, Jon reached out to the etree community via their email list to make an offer. The Internet Archive was offering to provide “unlimited storage, unlimited bandwidth, forever, for free” to ensure the preservation and easy distribution of these live music recordings. The reply came back: “We don’t believe you. But if you could, that would be our dream.” And we were off to the races to create the first library archive of lossless, legal, live audio recordings. The first order of business was to get explicit permission from the artists to not only preserve but also make available easy access to their recordings. Aizen and others starting emailing bands and documenting their responses. It would be a great story to have the first item as part of the collection to be some rare Grateful Dead recording from 1968, but it is actually an unassuming Rusted Root audience recording from August 24, 2001 uploaded to the new Live Music Archive collection by Aizen on August 12, 2002. You can listen to it here. Of course, there has to be a Grateful Dead connection as the show features a guest appearance by Mark Karan, guitarist (at the time) for Ratdog, one of Bob Weir’s side projects. Perhaps the fact that it is unassuming is more in line with the goal of preservation and archiving. Preservation of all, not just the shiny fancy gem. Permission from the Grateful Dead came a little while later, through Brewster’s connection to John Perry Barlow, who worked together on the board of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
As the Live Music Archive was established, the etree community jumped in to help get things rolling – dedicating hundreds of hours to cataloging, uploading, and verifying recordings of shows. In those days it would take 6-12 hours to upload a show via FTP. Jon Aizen describes grabbing shows off etree’s FTP server network as well as from hard drives and other sources and uploading them to the Live Music Archive. Aizen also worked in the early days to create the curation process to enable volunteers to ensure that uploads were permitted by the artists. The Internet Archive team also worked on the “deriver” software which would convert the lossless recordings to MP3 and other more accessible formats (which came after heated debate amongst the etree community, for many of whom the notion of lossy distribution of recordings was anathema). Today’s uploading experience is a web interface that takes most folks 10-20 minutes to upload a show and have it almost immediately available to the world. There were many people involved in the early days and I’m sure we will miss some, but we’d like to thank the following notable contributors:
Brad Leblanc recalls doing all the tasks manually – validating checksums, moving files to public download areas, running derivation routines to create mp3/ogg files for streaming. Brad, Jon, and all the others were curating this new collection, bit by bit, as well as building software to automate the process. The Live Music Archive volunteers today still refer to themselves as curators. An amazing task with incredible results.
A grand offer followed by a positive, yet skeptical, response. And then a lot of hard work by both Internet Archive staff and engineers as well as volunteers from the live music taping and trading community. For 20 years, we have kept curating, uploading to the Live Music Archive about 1,000 recordings per month with the total now at 240,000 recordings in total – by far the largest collection of live music recordings in the world. We should reach 250,000 by next summer. More than 8,000 artists have given permission to have recordings of their shows archived on the Live Music Archive. Those recordings have been listened to more than 600,000,000 (yes, 600 Million) times. And many of those are not even the Grateful Dead, giving visibility to artists that might otherwise have less exposure. The Grateful Dead remains the cornerstone artist of the Live Music Archive, but there are many other options on the Live Music Archive – jambands, folk singers, bluegrass, rock, pop, jazz, classical, experimental, mainstream artists, and every combination you can think of.
Beyond listening to the music, what impact has the Live Music Archive had on the artists? The recordings allow their fans to hear the shows they were at or couldn’t make it to or the one across the country that happened yesterday. Building and fortifying a fanbase through the community of live music recordings. Not just for the fans, but the appreciation from the artists as well. One of our curators was having a conversation backstage before a show with a musician friend. It was an “in the round” type show featuring four songwriters alternating to perform their songs with the others playing or singing along. One of the other artists was on the couch trying to take a nap before the show. As soon as the conversation turned to the Live Music Archive, he popped off the couch to say, “I love the Live Music Archive! That place is great. I go there to check out music all the time.” From a nap to excitement in a second. The Live Music Archive is a resource both personally and professionally for musicians. A new musician joins the band? Send them to the Live Music Archive to check out some shows to learn how the songs are played live, the seques occur. A recent text one of our curators received was an artist looking for a recommendation, “What is a good recent recording I can send to some musicians? I love the Tahoe and Eugene recordings from earlier this year but need something more recent.” It was certainly enough to put a smile on a curator’s face.
From trading tapes (reel to reel, cassettes, DATs) by mail months/years after the show occurred to CD’s to FTP server networks to hearing the show hours after it ended on your mobile device – a transformation of a community. No longer hundreds and thousands hearing the show, but hundreds of thousands.
The Live Music Archive curators are not just archivists, but tapers and music fans themselves. Here are some suggestions for curators past and present.
From Jon Aizen:
“It’s hard to pick one, but I think Sim and Uniit at the State Theater in Ithaca in 2002 is an amazing example of the power of the Archive. If it weren’t for the Archive, this recording would be sitting on a tape somewhere, probably lost forever. This small act, never to be repeated (Sim and Uniit are friends, but not a regular act) is a moment in time perfectly captured.”
“Some of my favorite recordings are from the most intimate settings – especially house concerts and in store performances. Close to the performer in a more informal environment, without a big PA or sound system. Musician, instrument (usually acoustic), microphones, and a couple dozen fans. In this recording, the in store occurred in the afternoon prior to the evening performance at a local club. JJ Grey walks to the small area in the corner of the store, sees the microphones set up in front of him and asks, ‘Whose are these?’ I raise my hand and a big smile rises across his face and I get a ‘That’s great!’ A short 5-song set promoting the newest CD. There were still hours before the evening show, so I head home and upload the show to the Archive before heading to the club. I think I had more fun at the free in store than the main event.”
If you want to listen to some of the most popular recordings of all time on the Live Music Archive, here are some selections.
The most listened to item of all time. OAR has quite a following, and this one might have been embedded on their Myspace page to get 2.7 million listens:
The most listened to Grateful Dead recording (no, not Cornell 1977, although that is second):
An interesting show in the top 20 of all time, from a pizza/brewery in Asheville, NC, recorded by curator Gordon:
Whichever show you choose to listen to, whether it has been listened to 500,000 times or a backyard show from last weekend listened to 50 times, they have value to someone and it is not measured by the number of listens. The tapers are still out there capturing the moments from artists, new and established, doing covers or originals. Capturing, archiving, preserving.
From all the listeners, artists, and tapers, thank you to the Internet Archive and etree for taking that leap of faith in 2002 and pushing it forward. Who knows where we can take it from here? Let’s keep it going! Let’s start planning that party for the 25th anniversary – who’s in?