Digital Flashback: Phishing For Tapes On Web

Like the Grateful Dead, jam-band Phish allow their fans to record and trade live concerts noncommercially.

Eight years ago, in a now-almost-forgotten corner of the Internet, Phish fans gave birth to the jam group's diehard online following when it opened an online bulletin board (rec.music.phish).

The forum was only the fourth band-specific discussion group on the Internet space known as Usenet, following boards dedicated to Bob Dylan, the Beatles and the Grateful Dead.

Like the Dead, Phish allow their fans to record and trade live concerts noncommercially.

In March 1992, shortly after the band signed with Elektra, Phish tape-trading made the jump onto the Internet, with fans posting messages in the news group about concert tapes they had and those they wanted. Fans who found a match contacted each other by email and then traded cassette tapes by snail mail, swapping sets that included tracks such as "Guyute" (RealAudio excerpt) and "You Enjoy Myself" (RealAudio excerpt of live version).

Later, when the MP3 digital-music format arrived, online trading shifted into groups such as alt.binaries.phish, which allowed large digital-music files to be posted in multiple pieces, which could be downloaded and then reassembled into complete songs.

Since 1992, dozens more artist-specific news groups have opened, covering everything from pop stars such as Mariah Carey and Debbie Gibson to Internet-friendly singer/songwriters such as Tori Amos and Ani DiFranco. But most digital-music trading is now done using the World Wide Web or software such as Napster, leaving Usenet something of an arcane relic from the Internet's early days.

Last year, Phish began selling live shows in the MP3 format through EMusic.com. EMusic spokesperson Steve Curry said the band's 1990 Halloween show is one of the company's top-selling downloads. On Wednesday (March 29), EMusic also began selling by download early Phish material known as The White Tape.

Curry said there was no competition between the concerts for purchase and freely traded shows because most fans "do right by the band" by no longer trading commercially available sets. "The great thing about this community is that the fans really ... police themselves," he said. "They understand and appreciate that the band trusts them."