Twenty years after their last performance as a band, the remaining members of the Grateful Dead are playing reunion shows in California and Chicago this summer. Fans are reportedly paying as much as $116,000 for tickets on Stub Hub, a development that seems particularly shocking since the band has always been known for a relaxed approach to the commercial side of the industry.
During their heyday, the Grateful Dead stood out for allowing fans to record their concerts and trade the tapes. Long before the rise of digital sources of free music, many in the business saw fan-made recordings as simple theft. But, in a 2003 paper for Popular Music, sociologist Lee Marshall argues that the relationship between bootleg tape-makers and the record industry was never so simple.
First off, Marshall writes, there are two kinds of underground music collectors. Tape traders make recordings of concerts or obtain studio outtakes and exchange them with other collectors. Bootleggers distribute the same kind of recordings on a larger scale for a profit. Both are different from counterfeiters who copy commercial albums.
“[T]he music released by bootleg collectors and tape traders has never previously been released on a legitimate label,” he writes.
Someone with a casual knowledge of a band might buy a pirated copy of their biggest album. The audience for underground recordings, on the other hand, is mostly die-hard fans who already own everything they’ve officially released.
Marshall argues that unofficial recordings appeal for two main reasons: because rock music is driven by live performance and because fans want to experience a meaningful relationship with the artists they love. Tapes of live shows are appealing because of their “honesty.” A lot of their value lies in mistakes or offbeat choices the artists make on stage, or early versions of songs that end up radically changed before the official album is released.
To collectors, the music industry’s fundamentally commercial outlook throws up barriers between fans and artists, while trading live tapes tears those barriers down. And yet, Marshall writes, the world of bootlegging and tape trading reinforces the appeal and popularity of particular musicians as fundamentally “authentic.” He notes that most underground recordings are of rock bands with a particular Romantic image of authenticity—The Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, and a host of Grateful Dead-inspired jam bands, among others. Pop and rap aren’t judged by the same metric, and there is little bootlegging or tape trading in those genres.
In rock, Marshall writes, “being bootlegged often has a critical kudos attached to it that will improve a band’s standing in the commercial world.” Meanwhile, letting fans make recordings puts artists “on the side of the rock outlaw rather than the corporate suit.”
In the case of the Grateful Dead, it helped build a reputation that, two decades after Jerry Garcia’s death, is still worth a jaw-dropping amount of money.