Jambands offer some of today’s most vibrant popular music. These bands blossom in live, open settings where they can create freestyle jams – hence the name of the “genre” – and have some of popular music’s most devoted fans. Unlike most musicians, many jambands follow The Grateful Dead’s model, allowing fans to legally record and trade their concerts, building even bigger audiences as their music spreads virally. Now a new generation of jambands is leveraging Internet file sharing to broaden their appeal and increase attendance at their paid performances.
Some of Our Favorite Jam Bands
The jamband scene includes a wide range of musical styles. Best known are jam rock grandaddies The Grateful Dead and Phish, as well as popular singer-songwriter Jack Johnson. Then there are bluegrass/cajun/world music inspired bands such as String Cheese Incident, rockers such as moe., jazz ensembles such as Medeski, Martin and Wood and the one-man-band Keller Williams, with both acoustic guitar and digital loops backing up his unique songs. And of course, there are bluegrass performers such as the Yonder Mountain String Band and Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, or the jazz-world-groove of Garaj Mahal.
While the music of all these artists may be radically different, what holds them together is a certain ethos about music and its place in society. These concerts are celebrations; the bands regale their fans with musicianship and virtuosity, rather than just playing the songs from their albums exactly as they were recorded. Concerts by these bands are attended by audiences full of real music lovers – people who see live concerts as more than just a lip-synced rendition of a performer’s latest CD, and look forward to experiencing something different. Since no two concerts by any of these artists are exactly alike, each concert recording can be as worthwhile as the studio tracks they were based upon.
The Beginning of the Jamband Scene
One of the founding bands in this genre was The Grateful Dead, who performed from the mid-60s until the death of guitarist Jerry Garcia in 1995. They weren’t the first band to jam when performing live, but The Grateful Dead epitomized this type of free-form music. They also allowed their fans to tape their music at live concerts, and trade these tapes as long as they didn’t make money from them. “Ultimately, the Dead chose to treat taping rationally because they didn’t want to be cops,” explained Grateful Dead historian Dennis McNally. “The Dead knew that taping was un-preventable without such drastic security measures that the show’s ethos would be ruined. In fact, in the long run, permitting taping strengthened the bond between band and audience (since the band made it clear that taping was fine so long as no money exchanged hands, tapers responded to the privilege by being honorable) and spread the word about what the Dead was all about.”
Lots of fans discovered the Dead by listening to live tapes, then went to see them in concert, turning the band into the largest concert draw in the United States. Today’s jambands use the same logic to develop their popularity, and to attract fans to come to their concerts. After all, bands generally make more money from concerts than from CDs, and for musicians who love to play, this is the best way to keep in touch with the true reason why they do what they do.
Jambands have embraced the Internet and use it to not only build bonds with their fans, but to provide their music to the greatest number. Whether they do this by providing downloadable samples of their music or by allowing fans to record and trade concerts, the result is a huge amount of free music available for your iPod. Just look at the Internet Archive’s collection of live music to see how many bands allow their fans to tape and trade.
Legality of Jamband Downloading
Wait just one minute: doesn’t the recording industry constantly tell us that sharing music is illegal? Is it actually possible that all this music is free and legal for anyone to download?
Sure. Each band has its own policy: some may allow taping but not trading, others may allow trading only of audience recordings, and others may all trading of everything that they have not released commercially. For example, The Grateful Dead’s official policy is as follows: “any web site owner is free to post copies of the group’s live recordings made by fans as MP3 encoded files but may not derive any form of revenues from the endeavor.”
But not every band is as relaxed about song trading as the Dead: historian McNally adds that “unlimited file sharing that does not respect the rights of the creators is seen as a very different phenomenon,” so before you start hunting for free concerts, do yourself a favor and make sure your bands of choice are comfortable with trading. A list of the bands that allow recording and trading is available here.
Finding Live Music Online
Once relegated to swap meets and quiet cassette tape swapping by friends and acquaintances, live concert recordings are now available across the world on Internet download sites. If you’re a fan of this kind of music, you may already know where to look for recordings, but if not, here’s a list. The Internet Archive has the largest collection of live music on the Internet, but many bands also provide live concerts on their own websites. The String Cheese Incident, for example, offers about two hours of live tracks on their website. On moe.‘s website, you can download both live tracks and videos of the band. You can even listen to their live music on an Internet radio station. And the chameleon-like jazz formation Club d’Elf serves up a fine group of songs on their site.
If you’re unfamiliar with these bands, the best way to discover new music (and quickly fill up your iPod) is to download a few concerts and check them out. Each band page on the Internet Archive contains links to concerts by year, as well as the most popular concert and the most recently added show. Try the most popular one, and see what kind of music the band plays. If you like it, come back for more.
Another way to get music is via the Furthurnet peer-to-peer client software. This program, which proves that peer-to-peer is not necessarily a synonym for illegal file trading, includes music by hundreds of bands who allow this type of trading. You can both download music and provide your collection to others who want to listen as well.
One thing you’ll find is that not all bands offer MP3 files. In fact, the two most popular formats used by jamband fans are FLAC and SHN, both “lossless” compression formats, which retain all the quality of the original music. You’ll need to use some extra software to get this music into iTunes: etree.org gives you all the information and programs (PC/Mac/Linux) you’ll need to convert live concert files into WAV or AIFF files, which iTunes then converts to your favorite format (AAC or MP3). If you’re new to this scene, however, it’s probably best to look for MP3 files; you won’t have to convert them, and they’ll already be tagged with artist, song name, and other information.
Buying Live Music
While many jambands allow you to download their music for free, you might like it so much that you’ll want to buy some of their concerts. Most jambands allow free trading of audience recordings, which are made by someone holding up a microphone during a concert. While many audience (abbreviated “AUD”) recordings sound great, they are never as good as soundboard (“SBD”) recordings, taped directly from the band’s mixing table, or matrix recordings, which are a combination of soundboards for the music and audience sounds for the atmosphere.
An increasing number of jambands are now selling their concerts, either directly from their websites or through companies who specialize in this genre of music. Disclogic is one of the largest on-line concert dealers, selling music by bands such as moe., The Disco Biscuits, Umphrey’s McGee and Ratdog. Concerts are available in several formats (AAC, MP3 or FLAC), and on DiscLogic, each format’s the same price. Since each band chooses its price, you’ll find concerts ranging from about $8 to $16. But remember, most of these shows are more than two hours long, and some are as long as four or more hours; you’re getting a lot of music for your buck.
As Doug Rayburn of Disclogic notes, “for years, people have been trading audience recordings for free, which is a great way for concert goers to re-live the experience. Music fans who are looking for a higher quality recording that are sponsored by the artists can support bands while adding to their live music collection.”
The Grateful Dead recently started selling its concerts through its own website. Avalailable in three formats (128 kbps MP3, 256 kbps MP3, or FLAC), this group has chosen to charge different prices for each format (from $19 to about $24 for a four-CD set), with the largest files (FLAC) costing the most because of bandwidth costs. The same is true with Phish, which at LivePhish.com sells concerts in either MP3 or FLAC, with concerts in MP3 format sold for $10 and FLAC files for $13.
Whether you download free music, or become a fan and buy live concerts, you’ll find that these jambands not only provide a great musical experience, but are willing to share their music with you. Take advantage of the “try before you buy” ethos; this is music as shareware, and if you’re interested in discovering new music, it’s hard to find a better way to do so.
For more news on the jamband scene, you can go to the inclusive Jambands.com website, which is run by Relix magazine, a venerable source of information on this genre. You can also check out the blog at The Music Never Stopped, which also has regular podcasts with interviews, and music with leading bands.