21 November 2018 | Jesse Jarnow | Wired
MOST TIMES, ERIC Pier-Hocking will get to the venue before you do. It’s not because he wants to be in the front row, grab some limited edition merch, or even meet the performing musicians. But all of those sometimes occur in the line of duty.
This evening at Trans-Pecos near the Brooklyn-Queens border, he is in the front, though only because the room is small and the exact center of the stage in front of the performer is the most convenient place to set up his microphones. Plus, there’s a booth alongside the nearby wall where he can sit.
And he will be acquiring something rare, in that he’s about to make a high-fidelity recording of an exquisite performance by acoustic guitarist Daniel Bachman. And, in fact, he does meet the artist, as well. “Mostly just to say hi,” Pier-Hocking shrugs. The show isn’t empty, but it’s far from a sell-out. In time, though, more people will be able to hear Bachman’s performance. Pier-Hocking is there to preserve the music and share it. In the process, he has become a valuable part of the 21st century musical ecosystem.
For most of the artists he records, he’ll make sure to secure permission in advance, but like an increasing number of touring musicians, the Virginia-based Bachman is fine with audio-obsessed fans like Pier-Hocking. In this case, Pier-Hocking doesn’t even ask, just sets up his recording gear.
“I’m all about it,” Bachman says, understanding that high-quality recordings of his performances are good calling cards to have out there, his music spreading further when Pier-Hocking posts it online. “I actually record other musicians myself,” the guitarist says. “I’ll just pull up the voice memo app on my iPhone and record an entire set. I do it on the road a lot so that I can listen back to friends or other people I get to perform with.”
‘I know when I die, my recordings will still be there. Which is comforting, I guess.’
Wearing a black denim jacket covered in pins, Pier-Hocking is not a professional audio engineer. The 37-year-old works by day as a production manager at a publishing company. With short hair and a neatly cropped beard, it’s easy to peg him for the enthusiastic indie music fan he is. But to call him an amateur wouldn’t be accurate either. What he does goes far beyond recording on an iPhone.
Tonight, Pier-Hocking is running a pair of MBHO KA100DK omnidirectional microphone capsules (via a 603A capsule attachment) into “a home-brewed” PFA phantom power adapter by way of a set of newfangled “active” cables, wired up by a colleague on a web forum for live-performance recording aficionados. (Most still refer to them as tapers.) Along with a feed from the venue’s soundboard, the microphone signal runs into Sound Devices MixPre-6, a digital multi-track recorder.
But, once getting his gear set up and he’s sure his levels are OK, Pier-Hocking mostly just sits and listens attentively to Bachman’s performance. Occasionally, he glances at the MixPre-6, just to make sure it’s still running.
Capturing the music from the two different sources—his own mics and the sound-board feed—as a pair of multitrack WAV files, Pier-Hocking will later align the two recordings in Adobe Audition CC. It gets pretty geeky. “Usually the mics are milliseconds behind the board feed,” he says. “I zoom in on the WAV and look for a sharp point I can isolate, like a drum hit, and then shift it all over.” He corrects the EQ with Izotope Ozone 5, tracks and tags them with Audacity, and outputs them as high-def, lossless files known as FLACs. Once Bachman has gotten back to him with approval and corrects the track listing, Pier-Hocking will post the show as FLACs and mp3s to NYCTaper.com, a website established by Dan Lynch in 2007.
Sometimes, with an artist’s permission, Pier-Hocking will also establish a page on the Internet Archive’s Live Music Archive, where visitors can listen to shows right in their web browsers, and where files are backed up regularly to locations in Egypt, the Netherlands, and Canada. “I love Archive,” he says. “You upload it once, and it sets it up for streaming and all the formats. It saves me a lot of work. And I know when I die, my recordings will still be there.” He pauses for half a beat. “Which is comforting, I guess.”
Like every other part of the music world, taping has changed utterly in the digital age. Once dismissed as mere bootlegging, the surrounding attitudes, economies, and technologies have evolved. It’s been a long haul since Dean Benedetti recorded Charlie Parker’s solos on a wire recorder. In the ’60s and ’70s aspiring preservationists snuck reel-to-reel recorders into venues under battlefield conditions, scaling down to professional quality handheld cassette decks and eventually to DATs.
The myth and popular image of “the taper” persists, even though there haven’t really been tapes since the early 2000s, when most tapers switched from DAT to laptops and finally to portable drives. But old terms are hard to dismiss. Many now prefer “recording” or even “capturing” to “taping,” though recent headlines are a good reminder of just how durable “tape” really is, and most just use the term unconsciously and don’t have a preference about the terminology one way or the other—as long as you don’t ask them to leave.
Unlike most every other part of the music world, taping has not only thrived in the 21st century but come into its own, from advanced cell phone gadgetry (like DPA’s iPhone-ready d:vice MMA-A digital audio interface) to compact handheld recorders (like Zoom’s varied line of products), from high-speed distribution to metadata organization. Despite constant radical change, taping has never been disrupted. Rather, it has positively flowered.
Innovations have occurred within practically every area of the signal chain. Some nights, Pier-Hocking uses Shapeways’ 3D-printed mic arrays, custom manufactured on behalf of Pier-Hocking and his compadres so they can more easily set up their mics in various live situations, from the small rooms like Trans-Pecos to big arenas like Madison Square Garden.
The “active” cables Pier-Hocking favors, which have been around about a decade, are very discreet. Connected to a phantom power source, these cables allow tapers to use the kind of capsules that once required a full microphone body. Mics powered by active cables can more easily be hidden in a hat and smuggled into the front row, making them a boon to “stealth tapers,” who do their best to record without being noticed. “I’m too nervous to stealth,” Pier-Hocking says. “Most of the time.”
He gets his cables right from a taper who doesn’t sell them publicly. “You can buy active setups commercially from Schoeps, Neumann, MBHO, and probably some other microphone manufacturers, but they’re often very expensive,” Pier-Hocking says. “Tapers have reverse-engineered these active-type setups and have even had their own capsule attachments manufactured in some cases.”
Continuing one of many tech practices pioneered by Deadheads, others have tapped—somewhat invasively, no doubt—into the private signals of wireless in-ear monitor systems used by Radiohead, U2, Bruce Springsteen, and others. The power of editing software has allowed fans to then combine them together—sometimes with audience recordings—to make virtual live multi-tracks. (No one has yet used the same FM system to override an in-ear signal and broadcast messages direct to Bono to thank him for Songs of Innocence, but it would also theoretically be possible.) Deadheads, meanwhile, have moved onto creating 5.1-channel surround-sound mixes, sometimes combining the band’s official releases with fan-made tapes of beloved shows to make vivid remasters, as with the band’s May 8, 1977, concert at Cornell University.
An invisible hit parade has acted as an alternative to the mainstream music industry since the moment consumer-grade wire recorders became available in the 1940s. The creation and exchange of unofficial recordings has survived the commercial rise and fall of 45s, LPs, CDs, cassettes, and even mp3s, as well as countless record companies. No matter your tastes, your favorite artists almost unquestionably possess shadow discographies that (mostly) can’t be found through official channels like streaming services and record stores, with landmark recordings in nearly every genre. Along with tapes of performances, fans have long coveted studio outtakes, illegal remixes, hip-hop mixtapes, live DJ sets, radio sessions, and other veritable field recordings from the legal grey area known as the real world. But that is perhaps all that remains the same.
BITTORRENT NATURALLY SERVES as the backbone of the serious-minded 21st century taper network, with recordings spread across torrent sites like Dimeadozen, Lossless Legs, and the Traders’ Den, with the music spreading to other services from there. In fact, BitTorrent creator Bram Cohen has said he explicitly developed the peer-to-peer file-sharing platform in 2001 for the pioneering taper project known as etree.
Established as a mailing list in 1998 to collate information between FTP sites, etree took its name from the Usenet-era Deadhead practice of organizing “tape trees” for efficient distribution, where each participant was responsible for copying the recordings for several others. With a little foresight, a recording could spread from one Deadhead’s master tape to dozens of copies without losing much fidelity. BitTorrent’s basic premise—that all downloaders redistribute data to all other downloaders—is a digital extension of the Deadhead ethos that everybody might share for free with everybody else, each according to their Mbps.
“For the first three years that BitTorrent existed, etree was the only site listed on the official BitTorrent FAQ,” says Tom Anderson. By the time BitTorrent launched, Anderson had already developed a database to keep track of etree’s recordings in circulation, perhaps the most irreplaceable part of etree’s suite of fan-developed sites.
“In 1998, I traded through the mail for a Dead show, and I already had two copies of it,” Anderson says. “That was pretty frustrating.” Wanting software to keep track of his own collection and already being a somewhat picky professional database developer, Anderson found the available options for tape collectors lacking. So, naturally, he built his own using a dynamic domain hosting service and importing setlists from an existing open-source Deadhead project. Anderson made the new database expandable and flexible and finally emigrated the project into etree by the end of 1999.
Predating the torrent tracker, “db” (as Anderson abbreviates it) is a quietly landmark achievement in fandom. Containing metadata for some half-million different sets of files representing some 44,000 artists, the database is the closest thing to a definitive index of live recordings circulated by fans. The Grateful Dead, Phish, and other jam bands dominate, but it also contains secret histories for acts large and small, from ’80s Philadelphia power pop band The A’s to British prog act Zzebra. And it affirms that—yes—the tapes do exist.
Db has been Anderson’s laboratory for years. “Being such a long-lived project, I’ve done a lot of living within that period,” he says. “Db was always there for me whether I needed to learn a new library such as Scriptaculous or just needed something to do. I explored many different paths in programming including a Lucene implementation in pure PHP, better database design which I would take with me to new clients, early work in caching and templating engines with Smarty. I’m much better at vim [a text editor for coders] thanks to programming on the live site in real time.”
He says he’s proud that “the database structure is correct enough that it’s lasted,” but he acknowledges its front end could use an upgrade. To that end, the site has recently released an API, a tool other tape-loving coders can use to query the etree database and build new portals to etree’s culturally invaluable set of metadata. Anderson sees the site’s future in the API.
A decidedly part-time labor of love for the site’s overseers, it has been subject to surprisingly few outages over the years. “Four consecutive days once, around 2005,” Anderson says. But the site’s consistency, its openness, and the totality (and permanent incompleteness) of its data, are all emblematic of the invisible hit parade as a historical entity.
Anderson, Pier-Hocking, and countless others are participants in something broader than themselves, vital players in an ecosystem of audio obsessives, mystery-loving historians, and completist fans. Virtually the opposite of streaming services like Spotify, the ad-hoc network is wildly decentralized and noncommercial.
At least in the world of traditional tapers, there is a premium placed on recording quality, but it is equally the domain of debased and marginalized formats, from wire recorders to reels, from cassettes to minidiscs, and the never-ending race to preserve the music contained on them. Where Spotify can barely muster songwriting credits, recordists slather on detail, often posting obsessive data about mic placement, signal chain, tape lineage, song performances, audio imperfections, and other ephemeral and contextual information.
Sanctioning an official section in the audience for tapers in 1984, the Grateful Dead became known as the most taper-friendly band in the world. By then, Deadheads were already modding microphones, building their own preamps, experimenting with DATs, publishing phone book-length tape catalogs, and exploring internet-based distribution networks. More than anybody else, it was Deadheads who built the infrastructure on which the modern taping world operates. And, perhaps, it was the Grateful Dead’s enormous and resolutely nontraditional success—and critical rediscovery in the early 21st century—that provided one tipping point for taping’s new acceptance.
Attitudes have shifted, perhaps in part because record stores aren’t overflowing with obscenely priced “import” CDs containing unauthorized recordings. And more to the point, musicians don’t make much money these days selling their recordings. “So you may as well be giving your live recordings away,” says Nancy Baym, a Microsoft researcher and author of the new book Playing To the Crowd: Musicians, Audiences, and the Intimate Work of Connection. “If your economy is attention, this is going to get you more attention and more die-hards who want to come to your shows and buy things that create revenue.”
Of course, nearly every audience member has a tape deck in their pocket. Though the new iPhone XS and XS Max include stereo mics, most serious tapers scoff at those holding their phones aloft during performances, regarding them as disruptive to musicians and fellow audience members alike. To serious tapers, “phone recordings” are synonymous with incomplete, inconsistent, and rarely enjoyable documentation.
“Put in a little effort if you’re going to do it,” says Pier-Hocking, who would love to see more serious tapers. “If you need to secure a spot, get down to the venue early. Don’t be a jerk to others. Don’t do something that’s going to affect other people’s enjoyment of the music.” He emails me one night after a Neil Young show, still stewing at the video recordist who gave Eric and his wife guff about blocking his camera’s view, and then proceeded to not even record complete songs anyway.
And sometimes those holding their phones up aren’t even recording anyway. They’re live-streaming the show on Facebook Live or some other platform. Baym sees the rise of easy phone streaming as endangering tapers. “Now there are so many people live-streaming that when you go to YouTube it’s all live-streams that have ended and aren’t there anymore. I feel like streaming on phones has maybe eliminated the preciousness of it, and I don’t mean ‘preciousness’ in a coy way.”
But when done with care, live recordings can provide rich and intimate ways for fans to experience the music of their favorite artists and even discover new ones. In the current corporate vernacular of the music industry and startups everywhere, it might be thought of as organic, listener-driven engagement. But, if so, it is organic, listener-driven engagement that platforms and labels can never control, only attempt to feed.
At their best, live recordings might be seen as a musical equivalent of a product drawn directly from the earth, rather than something sold in the store. “Farm-to-table” is an overdone comparison, but these recordings do exist in a space several steps closer to the music’s creation. Providing access to a cultural landscape where media giants hold little domain, the invisible hit parade remains an authentic musical underground in a freemium world, a hideout where listening habits go unmonitored and unmonetized.
There are still sketchy releases—in a few cases available on Spotify and the iTunes Store—often based on the old-fashioned loopholes of European copyright law. But even that practice has taken modern turns. The site Music Mafia sold leaked tracks by Kanye West, Chance the Rapper, and others via Bitcoin auction, only taken offline in September 2018. And there’s been an uptick of grey market LPs to go along with the new vinyl revival. But those are the exceptions. Mostly, there has been an explosion of access points.
The ever-populist YouTube contains streams of uncountable unofficial recordings, including multiple canons of classic bootlegs, and as a primary source for new recordings. Of course, it doesn’t constitute a permanent archive, with any video apt to disappear at any moment depending on the whims of rights-holders or the algorithms acting on their behalf. (And it’s not exactly non-profit in YouTube’s case. Somebody profits from all those clicks, just rarely the musicians or tapers.) Beyond that, though, there are easily shared links to public and private file-sharing sites, email lists, blogs, Facebook groups, and at least as many other backchannels as there are messaging services.
The ease of access doesn’t appeal to all musicians, or their labels. While taping might sometimes seem ubiquitous, musicians and others have any number of valid complaints about the practice that have nothing to do with profits lost from being “bootlegged.” Some artists, for example, would prefer to exert some control about whether a particular performance might enter the permanent record. (While Prince was alive, fan-made recordings were apt to disappear from the internet in puffs of purple smoke.)
Another concern is that the music was made for the people in the live audience, and only the people in the audience. Still another point of view entirely is that live recordings are something special that are fun for serious fans to exchange but also contain a certain magic that disappears when those recordings are made available for instant clicking, more digital sugar to be passively consumed, passively regurgitated, and actively forgotten. And, as Nancy Baym notes, “a lot of times it can be discouraging to look out an audience and see telephones instead of faces.”
But while ubiquitous, people recording on their phones aren’t tapers in the traditional sense. What makes this perhaps the golden age of the invisible hit parade isn’t merely the quantity of the recordings, their quality, or even the speed with which they hit the internet. It’s the totality and ubiquity that now allow listeners to absorb these bodies of work as their own indisputable cultural histories, preserved by fans and their unofficial institutions.
Beyond db.etreedb.org, there are countless sites that make it their music-loving business to curate and organize unofficial recordings, such as the Albums That Never Were and Doom and Gloom From the Tomb (disclosure: this writer has contributed), culling threads and collections of unreleased material from a variety of artists. In this way, home taping isn’t killing music (as the British Phonographic Industry once notoriously declared), but keeping it absolutely alive.
“It’s a fugitive format by nature,” says Michaelangelo Matos, a mix columnist for Mixmag and author of The Underground Is Massive: How Electronic Dance Music Conquered America. “There are always things being [deleted] without warning.” He cites the Deep House Page, which for a time in the late ’90s became a staple repository for vintage DJ sets. “I download what I can of what I like,” he says, “sometimes through third-party sites.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, these third-party services designed to rip audio from YouTube and other platforms have become the Recording Industry Association of America’s latest target.
Archiving can be a form of activism, the late historian Howard Zinn once asserted. He was speaking of government records, but in this ephemeral 404 century, the act of preserving endangered music (or any other type of media) might well qualify too. If music fans constitute a series of interlocking communities, then these unofficial recordings often constitute a significant part of its collective memory.
“Pirate archivists view official media preservation as a precarious business,” says Abigail De Kosnik, author of Rogue Archives: Digital Cultural Memory and Media Fandom. “A very small percentage of television has ever been officially archived, a little more film has been saved—but still, just think of all of the amazing silent film that has been lost forever.”
Though she acknowledges “many people who pirate media do it for convenience of access rather than preservation,” she also notes that “pirate archivists certainly do not pirate because it is ‘free,’ they pay quite a bit of money for Virtual Private Networks and other types of masking technologies, they usually donate to the torrent trackers they use, and they pay a great deal for their high-capacity servers.”
One veteran taper who works as a programmer once spent a weekend (while his wife was out of town) reverse-engineering the way livestreams work and figuring out how to capture them. Keeping these professionally shot and mixed videos on an external drive—an hour-long set preserved in its original format is usually between 750 megabytes and 4 gigabytes, depending on the bitrate of the webcast—he uses an Oppo Blu-ray player to browse and watch them from a media library, though a Roku or any other media server peripheral would also do. Occasionally uploading some for friends on special request, his is mostly a private collection. It is here, perhaps, that “taping” becomes like the old boogey-beast of old. But how else are you going to find a pristine capture of Beyonce at Coachella?
Others see the future of taping as going legit. Frank Zappa infamously re-bootlegged the bootleggers, and Pearl Jam has been releasing every show on CD since 2000. More recently, sites like Bandcamp have also allowed artists the flexibility to post live sets for sale as they see fit, as electronic artist Four Tet did this fall. For the past several years, Cafe Oto, the renowned London venue for jazz and experimental music, has sold selected live sets as part of its Otoroku series. Others have used live-streaming as a promotional tool, from bar bands with selfie-stick-mounted iPhones to global stars.
But Brad Serling, founder of the archival and streaming service nugs.net, has taken it several steps further. In the early ’90s, Serling—a Dead taper since 1990—shared samples of his tapes with potential traders by posting .au files on an FTP site. Once out of college, he scored a job working for ex-MTV VJ and early internet media entrepreneur Adam Curry. Over Labor Day 1995, he became one of the first to stream a concert online, when—on behalf of Curry’s OnRamp—he multiplexed eight phone lines to create a 128k signal, webcasting Metallica’s Molson Ice Polar Beach Party live from the North Pole. He marvels at the increases in processing power and bandwidth that have allowed his business to flourish.
A veritable network of on-demand live music, both video and audio, nugs.net evolved from a free fan site. Serving the jam bands one would expect with a name like nugs.net, including Phish and the various post-Jerry Garcia offshoots of the Grateful Dead, the site now also distributes live recordings for decided non-noodlers like Pearl Jam, Bruce Springsteen, and Metallica (who themselves have had a tapers’ audience section since 1991). Serling laughs at the time Coldplay contacted them, inquiring about how to stop recording at their shows.
“We added a CD business in 2004, which we still do to this day, which is kind of amazing,” says Serling. “People really like collecting stuff. They like having a shelf filled with every tape. Pearl Jam is a big part of our CD business. Bruce Springsteen is a huge part of our CD business.” The latest act to partner with nugs.net are the New York alt-jammers Sonic Youth, whose celestial guitar noise could find a new audience among the jam-oriented fans browsing the site.
Of all the 21st-century innovations in taping, Serling’s might be the furthest out, especially with acts starting to bundle their ticket sales with nugs.net’s official recordings. “It’s the ultimate in the whole evolution of taping,” Serling enthuses. “You bought a ticket to the show, and you scan that with your phone and get access to a professionally mixed recording of it.”
It’s probably not a coincidence how often tapers become involved in other aspects of the music communities around them. For nugs.net’s Serling, it became a vocation. NYCTaper.com founder Dan Lynch’s day job as a criminal defense attorney, meanwhile, led him into a new relationship with many of the small venues he was visiting, shoestring spots often run by 20-somethings with a love of music but little eye for legal details. Decades older than many of the musicians and venue operators, Lynch came to fill the non-metaphoric role as the responsible adult with legal expertise when they found themselves in legal trouble for any number of minor infractions. With music once acting as an escape from the burden of his court cases, it took over his daylight hours, too.
“I saw what was happening to the [do-it-yourself] venues,” he says, “and I volunteered in 2008 to represent pro bono all the people who had been given summonses or tickets as a result of a raid on the [venue] Market Hotel,” a place he’d made recordings. “And I eventually represented people from maybe five or six other DIY venues in a variety of other ways, having to do with raids by the police.” When the Market Hotel was shut down seemingly for good, Lynch found himself on the board assembled to bring it up to code and legalize it. He is likewise involved with Trans-Pecos, where Eric Pier-Hocking had recorded Daniel Bachman.
Tapers are everywhere in the music business. The founder of Daniel Bachman’s label, Cory Rayborn, began as a taper, recording (and booking) shows around North Carolina. “It was always a good entry point with bands,” he says, “a great way to introduce myself and be able to generate something high quality for their archive.”
In an age of streams, algorithms, and media consolidation, participation in the invisible hit parade remains a way to connect with music and the worlds it builds. With media and data available virtually free and music itself absorbed into the background of the landscape, it is a way of finding value in an area where financial and cultural worth have been turned upside down, and reinvesting it with meaning.
In the ’90s, Pier-Hocking initially started trading tapes on Prodigy’s forum for the band Nirvana. But soon realized it helped to have tapes few others possessed, so he started making his own, first of the Washington DC punk band Girls Against Boys. “I listened to them all over and over, no matter how bad the quality was,” he says of his earliest recordings. When he connected with NYCTaper more than a decade later, after he’d stopped taping, he discovered that one of the site’s main contributors—Jonas Blank—was someone he’d traded with years before. They reconnected. And give or take other life obligations, like children and jobs, the various NYC Tapers can often be seen hanging out even if only one of them is necessary to make a recording, easily spotted forming a collective tapers’ section, like a school of fish.
“I was enamored with this thing that I had made out of vibrations in the air,” Pier-Hocking says of his Girls Against Boys tapes, remembering the feeling of being the nearest time traveler to the music, picking up the sound at its moment of creation for future listeners, an act of creation by itself. “I wasn’t responsible for the music,” he marvels. “But I was responsible for something.”
Jesse Jarnow (@bourgwick) is the author of Wasn’t That a Time: The Weavers, the Blacklist, & the Battle For the Soul of America (2018), Heads: A Biography of Psychedelic America (2016), & Big Day Coming: Yo La Tengo & the Rise of Indie Rock (2012). He hosts The Frow Show on WFMU.