The Trees

Music trading in cyberspace

The Trees
Illustration By Nathan Jensen

Return for a moment to grade school and a basic lesson of biology: Trees grow from the ground. Branches grow from the tree trunks. Leaves grow on branches.

Now, reverse that. Leaves grow from branches. Branches grow from tree trunks. Trees grow from the ground. Voilô: You've learned not about nature, but about how music is distributed via the communities of cyberspace.

Unrest in the Forest

For the past several years, "treeing" has been the preferred method of distribution for fans of live music, rooted deep in cyberspace and devoid of record-company intervention. In music communities, listservs (electronic mailing lists on a particular topic), and Web sites across the Internet, CDs are being traded as fast as they can be burned and in incalculable numbers.

The tree system is the ultimate do-it-yourself method: The "trunk" gives the music to the "branches." Branches then burn the music to discs, and send them to the "leaves." If 10 branches burn 10 discs each, 100 CDs have gone out. If each leaf plays the CD for two people, that's 300 pair of ears. And if even 25% of those people show up at the next gig ...

In a sense, this is an ultimate promise of music on the Web: all the concerts you couldn't attend, shows you couldn't afford, places you couldn't be. Taken from soundboards or the audience, live recordings hold special appeal for fans and collectors. A band with decades of touring history, like the Allman Brothers, Pink Floyd, or Grateful Dead -- three of the most widely traded -- have an almost endless wealth of material. Once, these were reel-to-reel jazz gigs bootlegged to vinyl. Then, they were punk rock cassettes. And whether you love Steve Earle, Queens of the Stone Age, or PJ Harvey, the wealth of live recordings available through fan lists is nothing short of phenomenal.

So far, "treeing" isn't on the RIAA radar, in part because it hasn't been lumped in with downloading MP3 files or bootlegging. In its truest sense, it's neither: It's about the not-for-profit exchange of live shows, alternate tracks, and out-of-print music. Trading, as with most cybercommunities, has its own standards. Breach them, and you'll be blackballed.

David H. lives in England and is a regular on the popular Texas Psych list that trades heavily in Austin bands from the Sixties like the 13th Floor Elevators. He's typical of collectors who differentiate between trading live concerts, "which otherwise wouldn't be available," and downloading MP3 files, "which I never do." He expresses the prevailing opinion that acts know traders/collectors always buy official releases, yet are hungry for additional material.

"I would never have heard Donna the Buffalo or Jenny Stearns if it wasn't for the fact that they actually post complete concerts for fans to download," he e-mails.

Steve C., in upstate New York, is an original member of the Texas Psych list, having traded tapes with list owner Kiloh Smith since the Eighties. He's explicit about what bootlegging is and isn't, defining "bootleg" as "any recording that isn't officially released by a record company." True bootlegging is undermined by the presence of traders, he avers, because "the bootlegger can't compete with free."

"Traders exchange music, not money," he writes. "Bootleggers are in it for profit, and they charge more than 'legit' labels. Downloading is for people who want to sample new music, or who'd like to hear an album, but not so much that they'd go out and buy it. Trading is for obsessive completists. They want everything."

Established acts with long histories of touring account for a lot of trading. Classic acts like the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones are perennial favorites, as are R.E.M., Nirvana, and Madonna. Locally, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Eric Johnson, and Stevie Ray Vaughan are also popular to trade, but so are Spoon, the Butthole Surfers, and Patty Griffin.

Honor Among Leaves

Is trading the latest lethal arrow to the heel of a music industry that's lumbering like a wounded dinosaur? It would seem so, with artists far and wide allowing the taping of their live shows and authorizing their trading.

While record companies aren't facing extinction just yet, their attack on fans is wounding the industry at its source of income. Their sky-is-falling history of campaigns, such as the Eighties' "Home Taping Is Killing Music," has left consumers snickering and skeptical.

"Some official releases are diabolical in quality," observes David H. "I think bands are pleased their music is being heard the way it was meant to. Many artists have lost the rights to their music and are now benefiting from a wider circulation of it. I can't imagine that the [13th Floor] Elevators or Roky Erickson gain in any way from most of the dross sold in their name from major record stores."

Warner Bros. Vice-President Bill Bentley points to the Dead as a happy medium.

"It partly involves where a band is in the marketplace: the top, maintaining, or someone like Roky, who's almost invisible. For someone like that, it can really help," says Bentley.

"A band in the middle like the Dead have the best of both worlds. Their fans trade the live shows and the reissues Warner Bros. puts out. An artist like Britney Spears lives for the sale of new material. In the music business, there's got to be a little room for everything."

Working on the assumption that both the Texas Psych and Syd Barrett list, the Laughing Madcaps, are not bootlegging, are there copyright issues involved with trading live shows?

"Not if the recordings aren't previously released, and a band is being compensated for it," explains Bentley, who adds that "room for everything" also means a lot of gray area.

"If a band is under contract to a label, it gets dicey. If one of our bands were being sold this way, and we were also promoting their new record, it gets cloudy. They're under contract to us so no one can put anything out on them. Sometimes you can't tell what's exactly right and what's exactly wrong."

Bulls of the Wood

From June 1967 through March 1969, Danny Thomas was the 13th Floor Elevators' drummer, recording on Easter Everywhere and Bull of the Woods.

He recalls that the band's label, International Artists, cut him a weekly paycheck as an advance against royalties for record sales. It was the music industry equivalent of minimum wage for a 40-hour workweek. Thomas, who today drives delivery trucks, says he's made no money from the Elevators since 1969. He's got no problem with the trading of music he recorded and performed with the 13th Floor Elevators on lists like Texas Psych.

"The music industry has gone to hell already, due to the participation of record executives who would not know music from dog feces," he states via computer. "If it were left up to the greedy record executives, all of our American music heritage would stay locked up in the vaults unless there was a dollar to be made."

The trading of the 13th Floor Elevators' music on Texas Psych is typical of those lists that combine trading and cyberinteraction. Texas Psych was established on Yahoo! by Kiloh Smith (see "High Baptismal Flow: Kiloh Smith," p.54) in April 2001 and now lists over 651 members. A site for "Texas psychedelic music discussion," it promotes discourse among fans of the Elevators, Golden Dawn, Sweetarts, Bubble Puppy, the Red Krayola, the Moving Sidewalks, and other Sixties relics. It also acts as the primary source of trading on the Elevators' music, with more than 22 volumes of music offered on the list's Web site.

While most lists B&P -- "burn and postage," meaning trades are made for an exchange of blank CDs and the cost of mailing -- Texas Psych distinguishes itself by requesting that traders make a $3 donation per disc directly to the Roky Erickson fund via the online payment system PayPal. Smith doesn't run the fund or otherwise assist with its accounting and distribution; that's handled through Roky's brother/ caretaker Sumner Erickson. Though the lively trading of Elevators' music isn't officially authorized by either Erickson, the Roky Trust does accept donations from those who trade.

For other Sixties bands such as Golden Dawn and the Sweetarts, music trading has opened up an outlet for long out-of-print music that wouldn't otherwise exist. Ernie Gammage of the Sweetarts remembers his band as contemporaries of the Elevators.

"I'd hoped to get this stuff licensed commercially," he explains, "but that would never happen because of copyright problems. Some of the owners are dead, some are missing, some I'm just not sure of. This was a way to not release commercially but still get the music out."

George Kinney of Golden Dawn finds himself in a similar situation.

"Technically I don't know who really owns my music," e-mails Kinney. "Thus, when Kiloh presented me with the opportunity to make those songs available, it looked like a win/win situation. I have no regrets about it and hope he continues to make it available."

In England, David H. is an important part of the tree process for Golden Dawn discs.

"The raw recordings are sent to me here in England, and I tidy them up, apply a bit of digital processing -- noise reduction, clean fades, equalization, hum removal -- and prepare a new master disc. I also convert the files into .shn format ['shorten'], which is a lossless compression format, as opposed to MP3, which is lousy. I return the discs to the group moderator, and he begins the treeing process."

David continues the sharing process by sending copies to an Austin list member, who places the .shn files on his server. Group members with a broadband connection can then download them directly. He also creates CD art that can be downloaded and works closely with George Kinney, who "actively helps with getting track details correct."

The art and details included with trades are often created with as much professionalism and care as a high-resolution commercial release, and many times better. Isn't this just what every fan, let alone collector, really wants?

Dead Wood & Rotten Apples

At its root, the tree system is a simple process, but in practice, it requires honesty and commitment. When it works, it's a remarkable example of democracy in action. When it falls apart, cybercommunities splinter.

Ernie Gammage's overall experience issuing CD-Rs of the Sweetarts has been positive. Casual fans are often confused by the trade process, but "the hardcore fans see that as a cool way to get lots of music."

But not everyone thinks so. Johndavid Bartlett was labelmates with the 13th Floor Elevators and Golden Dawn in the late Sixties. Bartlett has no affection for treeing.

"Trading songs isn't the way to do this," he writes. "I don't really have a better plan, but there has to be one. Making the music available on the Net for people looking for it is the way. We just haven't found the market format to let it happen. This is the closest artists have ever gotten to controlling the distribution of their own work.

"But traders are just an ego sham: 'I have this, do you want it.' The 'Send Roky $3, it's more than he's ever gotten,' however well-intentioned, is just a sham. Roky should control his own music, and how it's released. Access to the music on the Net, controlled by the artist, is a viable alternative."

Though Sumner Erickson did not return repeated attempts at contact, two Roky Trust board members commented privately that they supported trade and were confident that Roky did indeed receive money sent by traders. And Elevator Danny Thomas, for one, doesn't want the job of overseeing his own music.

"Not my job," he replied flatly.

Ernie Gammage sees it both ways.

"For traders and niche music aficionados, it's probably great. For mainstream commercial bands, I don't think so.

"I've owned a boutique label [Gambini Global], and you sell records the usual way -- at gigs, at Waterloo Records, and by licensing the CD overseas. This doesn't fit into the commercial record business and shouldn't."

Stillwater Runs Deep

The dispute between the record industry and fans of music in cyberspace is ongoing and without apparent resolution. Cases are being made in court against college students and grandparents over downloading, but music trading continues on its merry way.

Does trading work for all genres? Would a musician such as Joe Ely with a long and eclectic career benefit from it? Are Willie Nelson fans hot to trade Farm Aid shows?

Take Ernie Gammage's mid-Seventies band Plum Nelly, for example. Might this be a way to distribute Plum Nelly's music? Gammage hadn't really considered the idea, but his response is typical of someone who has been won over by the endless possibilities of cyberspace.

"If someone will tell me where to find the fan base for hippie, bluegrass, psychedelic redneck country rock of the Seventies, I'm there!"

And if anyone has that Stillwater show from Cleveland '73 to trade ... end story

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