Jamming with the superfans who dedicate their lives to recording live shows and sharing their spoils with anyone who'll listen.
“At least my apartment now has an elevator,” Scott Bernstein puffs as he hoists a suitcase containing roughly $10,000 worth of audio recording equipment up the subway stairs at Bedford Avenue. “This was way worse when I had a fifth floor walkup.”
Bernstein rolls his luggage into Brooklyn Bowl, the massive music venue in Williamsburg, an hour before the first set of the night. Tuesday is show four of Bowlive, an eight-night residency by three-piece funky favorite Soulive, who invite a slew of special guests to jam with them over the sound of pins toppling a few feet away.
Coworkers at The New York Times, where the forty-two-year-old Bernstein spends weekdays in content management system development, often see his bulky baggage and mistakenly assume he’s heading out of town on concert days. He shrugs. “Then some people want to know more about it, and I’ll tell them if they’re interested.”
“It” is Bernstein’s obsession with taping live music, a hobby he describes like a religion. Bernstein ventured into taping (“every taper remembers their first show!”) in February of 1988 at a Sting concert in Madison Square Garden with a small cassette recorder. Fast forward twenty-five years: he has a tape collection in the thousands, has transitioned from cassettes to DATs (digital audio tapes) to digital files, and is one of the most prolific, well-connected tapers in New York City.
Soft-spoken but self-possessed, Bernstein is in his element at Brooklyn Bowl. People brush by him during the show and then turn to embrace or high-five him. In response to a half-joking comment that he seems to know everyone in the room, Bernstein says matter-of-factly: “Well, yeah. I do.”
While major music festivals sometimes attract substantial crowds of tapers, there are usually only a handful at shows like Soulive’s. Bernstein says the community has dwindled since the 1990s, as sharing music over the Internet has become simpler, requiring fewer ambassadors to cover each concert. Online forums like The Taperssection connect more than eight thousand recordists seeking shop talk. Tapers tend to be overwhelmingly white, male and middle-aged, and share at least one other critical quality: a passion for improvised performance and extended jams.
“Taping is a team sport,” says Bernstein. The practice is founded on a philosophy of community and sharing. Tapers are generally uninterested in profiting from their recordings, preferring to post them to websites like The Internet Archive for others to stream and download for free. Before the dawn of the digital age, tapers mailed cassette copies of shows to fellow fans, either on their own dime or in exchange for BNP – blank cassettes and postage – resulting in a complex network of music trading. “We’re doing it because we love the music,” explains Bernstein.
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One of Bernstein’s taping buddies is Eric McRoberts, a thirty-four-year-old auditor sporting a baseball cap and boyish enthusiasm the next night at Brooklyn Bowl. He positions $14,000 worth of equipment on the edge of the stage, “beer-proofing” some loose microphones with towels and propping them on coiled cables. It’s one of eight shows he’ll be recording that week. “I’m the only one who’s going to tape all shows, and I was the only one to tape all ten last year,” says McRoberts.
His girlfriend, Alex, 27, is still nestled in her black puffer coat. Staring blankly at the empty drum sets on stage, she admits, “I really don’t want to be here.” She doesn’t hold back, even in front of McRoberts, who scurries along the edge of the stage double-checking cable connections. McRoberts estimates his total sleep over the last five days to be thirteen hours. Alex nods weakly in agreement. “I messed up multiple things at work today,” she says. “Most of the time I enjoy myself, but long runs like this are difficult.”
But McRoberts has to make up for lost time. He took a break from taping for eight years, after he totaled his car in 2003 and sold his recording gear to buy a new vehicle. He didn’t venture back into the concert scene until December 2011, after his salary was such that he could comfortably replace his taping equipment. “Once I used my [new gear] the first time, I was back full force,” he says.
McRoberts began as many tapers do, collecting cassettes of bands like the Grateful Dead and Phish in high school before getting the itch to record himself. He tried “patching”–plugging directly into the soundboard or another taper’s DAT deck–at popular jam band venues like Wetlands before he purchased his own microphones. “First and foremost I’m a music lover,” says McRoberts. “I just wanted to capture the moment, to be able to relive the experience.”
In 2000, while studying at Boston University, McRoberts got lucky. He met a wealthy live music fanatic and collector online and started taping shows for him with borrowed equipment. His benefactor’s preference was jazz, but his funding covered all the shows McRoberts captured through 2003. At jazz clubs, McRoberts stealthily made recordings by stuffing microphones into his hat and snaking the cables down his ponytail, under his shirt and into a fanny pack. The stint ended shortly after McRoberts relocated to New York City and just before his car accident.
Brooklyn Bowl owner Peter Shapiro, who opened the venue after operating Wetlands from 1996 until its closing in 2001, takes a different stance. “I feel a responsibility to make the venue friendly to taping,” he says, emphasizing that effective communication between the tapers, venue and bands is critical. It helps that his predecessor at Wetlands, Larry Bloch, was a Grateful Dead fan.
Nearly anyone familiar with taping subculture will cite the Grateful Dead as its origin. Nick Paumgerten, in an extensive feature for The New Yorker last November, points out that the Dead can probably best any other artist for most recorded music in circulation, despite only having one Top 40 hit in their thirty-year career. Devoted to the band’s live shows, fans and the band’s engineers captured more than two thousand Dead shows, and tapes were widely distributed. By October 1984, the band reserved a designated “tapers section” in the audience.
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On February 16th of this year, a sizable crowd gathered at The Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, New York, to see the Grateful Dead live—sort of. An $8 to $10 ticket garnered buyers a faux show: a stage set for an invisible band, while light beams danced to a recording of the Dead’s performance at the venue in February 1971.
Grateful Dead cover bands like Dark Star Orchestra also make use of the Dead’s extensive archive to recreate individual sets from throughout the band’s evolution.
“Going to a Grateful Dead show was like attending a master class for me,” says Jeff Mattson, the Jerry Garcia of DSO. Not everyone looks like their counterpart in the band, but Mattson’s wavy, long locks and glasses merit a loose comparison. He takes his time speaking; long pauses punctuate his ideas as if he’s rewinding deep into his memory before answering. Mattson saw his first Dead show in September 1973 (a show DSO has yet to replicate) and had been collecting their tapes even before. The son of a jazz musician, Mattson says, “[The Grateful Dead’s] sense of improvisation really appealed to me. You never knew what they were going to do. Sometimes they performed songs they had never rehearsed before.”
In a meta turn, tapers sometimes record DSO’s versions of Grateful Dead sets, which are based on recordings. The band also makes a handful of shows from their tour available on hard disc and on LiveDownloads, a popular site hosting recordings from top jam bands like Phish. However, those sales don’t make up a substantial portion of DSO’s income. “People who are making big money from albums are an elite group,” says Mattson. “Maybe if you’re Rihanna.”
Tapers don’t pose a financial threat to most bands they follow precisely because those groups rely heavily on live performance rather than hot-selling albums.
Ryan Montbleau and his self-titled band straddle the line between jam and genres like folk and blues, but Montbleau’s heart—and tour schedule—are in the jam world. He played about 150 shows last year and has done more than two hundred per year in the past. “Tapers are a great middleman to get your stuff heard,” Montbleau says. “If you believe in your live show, it’s a great way to get yourself out there.” Since last year, Montbleau’s band has committed to recording and streaming all of their shows themselves, taking their own soundboard and sound engineer on tour. Fans can access the live content at RMB Live, and the site employs a pay-what-you-want model. Montbleau believes that in an era when consumers digest music in multiple formats and through a variety of platforms—vinyl, CD, streaming, digital download, YouTube—it’s wise to offer as many options as possible to fans. “If you’re lucky enough that someone wants to listen to your music, get it to them however you can!”
Ryan Stasik, the bassist for Umphrey’s McGee, a band Rolling Stone has compared favorably to jam giant Phish, echoes that sentiment. A past collector of Pearl Jam, Phish and Grateful Dead tapes, he says of his band, “We’ve always been givers. I was never a worrier, even when Napster entered the picture and everyone panicked.” Umphrey’s has played more than 160 shows in a year and now averages about a hundred (“We’ve got kids in diapers,” Stasik explains). Umphrey’s began recording their sets in 2006 and gradually shifted from selling copies of shows on USBs and CDs to offering downloads online. “We’re not on MTV, we’re not on the Top 40,” says Stasik. But word of mouth proves a powerful tool for selling tickets, which brings in the majority of their revenue.
While Montbleau and Umphrey’s still make some money from selling albums on iTunes and at shows, Montbleau believes the days when artists got rich from recorded music are mostly over—except for a select few. The concept of touring as a publicity tool to promote a record has flipped, he says. Now, as has always been the case for jam bands, the live show is becoming a musician’s main course, while the record is a take-home treat. “The jam scene is ahead of the curve in certain ways, and other scenes are catching up,” says Montbleau.
Like Montbleau, Umphrey’s is exploring creative ways to offer live recordings for little to no cost, in fresh formats. Stasik is excited about “couch tours”—video webcasts of concerts that often go for under ten bucks a show. “There are no smelly people next to you, you’ve got beer in the fridge…it’s great!” Stasik says, touting the luxuries afforded by new technology. When it comes to the digital realm, “you’ve got to keep up or get left behind,” he says.
“This new age of technology is taper-friendly,” adds Peter Shapiro, citing the growing number of concertgoers uploading YouTube clips of Brooklyn Bowl performances. “With iPhones, everyone is kind of a taper.”
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At Brooklyn Bowl, McRoberts greets a short fellow in a dark sweater and jeans who approaches the corner of the stage and proceeds to set up a handheld video camera on a tall stand. “Are you LazyLightning55?” asks a nearby jammer sloshing a beer in his hand. He is. The beer-toting man raves enthusiastically to LazyLightning55 about his YouTube channel as if he has just met Spike Lee. LazyLightning55, who goes by Scott Merenstein outside of YouTube, is exploring what might be the new frontier of taping: video. Sometimes he records the entire set himself and uploads it for other fans. Perhaps more impressive are the videos he edits together from other tapers around the room, creating a multi-camera shoot from amateur footage.
Collaborating with other videographers for more angles, and incorporating high-quality audio from friends like Scott Bernstein, Merenstein takes the community aspect of taping to a new level. Apps like Vyclone—a platform for creating spontaneous, communal videos—hint that this could be the future of interactive concert-going in the smartphone age and not just a hobby for a subculture of superfans.
Over the past two years, Bernstein has been revisiting his non-digital recordings, combing through for gems and uploading them online. “I’m going to die before I finish transferring my library,” he says from the couch of his Upper West Side apartment. “It’s not physically possible. I’ve done the numbers.” His 100th post was a tape of the late singer-songwriter and guitarist Jeff Buckley from 1993, when Bernstein had no idea who Buckley was. Bernstein claims it is the only known recording of Buckley with his band in this particular transitional phase, performing as a three-piece outfit.
“That’s the thrill of taping,” says Bernstein, his eyes wide behind his wire frames. “Maybe it’s an average show. Maybe it’s a terrible show. But maybe you get an awesome show! The best version of a song! The first time they play that song! Something historic!” He’s almost breathless with excitement.
“That’s the most animated he gets,” his wife laughs. “You’re looking at it.”
Bernstein runs his fingers over a drawer full of tapes, arranged chronologically and alphabetically. He gets lost in the memories packed in the handwritten labels—a stealthily-taped Tom Petty show, a Phish recording that has never been circulated, Stevie Ray Vaughan captured right before he passed away.
“This is going to be my legacy,” he says.
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Jessica Bal hails from a two-stoplight town in Massachusetts and now resides in a city with too many lights to count, where she produces media for an arts education organization and looks for any excuse to write, photograph and film stories that she’s curious about.