The Relentless Communicator: A Tape Trader’s Lament

Look, I’m not a Luddite.

I don’t hate progress, or technology.

I may not worship at the shrine of efficiency, but I sure don’t think it’s a bad thing.

That said, I really really miss tape trading.

I know, I know, the phans these days, they’ve got it so good! It’s true. When I was cutting my teeth in the scene, “Couchtour” could only mean one thing…. you followed your favorite band, and they were named “Couch”. Now, you’ve got live streams, from the phans and the band. The real-time Phish experience has grown global. Can’t be at the show? No problem, there’s a kid with an iPhone who’ll sneak you in!

More than anything though, those great live shows around which this entire Phish “thing” is built, have gone from being an underground commodity to being readily available online at a click. Anonymously download the source of your choice. From the band’s LivePhish releases, to a dwindling pool of tapers, it’s all out there, preserved in internet eternity. I shook my head in amazement when I returned home from First Niagara Pavilion Star Lake Amphitheater, my “hometown” venue, last summer. Two hours after the show ended I had an email from LivePhish urging me to go download the show. Two hours. Read Icculus.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I love the convenience with which the music is delivered from the band to my ears. I work in sales, so I spend a lot of time in my car. When the band’s on tour, my ritual is to hit the office at 8am, download last night’s show and by the time I’m on the road to see some clients, I’m grooving to tunes that aren’t even 24 hours old yet. I mean, if I have it so good, why am I lamenting days gone by?

Because, like the Tweezer, this new process is cold, cold, cold.

I don’t treasure my Phish shows like I used to. I have a whole hard drive full of them, and I’ve backed them all up. I don’t want to lose them, but if I do, what of it? It doesn’t matter, all those ones and zeros still exist out there in the ether, so I can track them down again if I have to. To get tapes, let alone listenable ones, that took some doing. You had to network, both in person at shows and afterwards online. Every overstuffed bubble mailer that arrived at your door represented some sort of minor miracle.

When I was a senior in High School I got sent a pristine First Generation (remember “generations”, no more, thanks to digital) copy of 10/22/96, Madison Square Garden, within a week of it happening. That was a big damn deal! I must’ve dubbed a hundred copies of that show and made enough trips to the post office to know the clerks by name in order to spread the jams. It really took some doing.

My tape collection still has more personality than anything I’ve ever downloaded. Each package would arrive in the mailbox, and there was this moment of excitement. What could it contain? Is this the perfect show?! Some tapes would arrive with almost no information. Annoying yes, but somewhat like a game to figure out what you were listening to. Some of the best ones would come with full-on artwork that rivaled an official release. But some of those other tapes really had character! Out of the blue, there’d be god knows what, like stickers, pictures and other ephemera. It was kind of like a grab bag of Phishness.

The sound was a grab bag too, what with all that imperfection caused by an arsenal of tape decks, each one sounded different than the next. I’ll be the first to admit that some of them sounded downright awful. Those usually got shoved into a drawer and forgotten. Every so often though, there would be a copy that sounded juuuuuuuust right. The vocals and guitars cut through, the boom of the room was kept to a minimum, and there was just the right amount of crowd noise to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.

Every trader was different too. Some folks would have you your tapes to you in no time! Other folks took forever. Some folks never sent you tapes at all. Now, it’s not an efficient system, but it kept you guessing.

To get good tapes, you had to find good people. Over the years I made a bunch of connections and this process led me, online and off, to build relationships that last to this day. That’s what I miss the most.

I remember in Summer of ’98, I toured with a taper. Wasn’t that something! Get back to the hotel/campground and fire up that night’s show! Living the dream! I’ll never forget when my taper pal decided to take a show off that summer. Hell, he deserved it. He was working hard to capture the music for everybody else and wanted a night off to get schwilly with the rest of us. That show? Virginia Beach ’98. Possibly the single most amazing moment I’ve ever witnessed at a Phish show, and it wasn’t captured, at least by our crew. I know you’ll think I’m crazy, but in some ways, it made it better. The band was working hard to give us this music, and we had to work a little harder than we do now to hang onto it.

Oddly enough, more than anything else these day, I miss the weight. A tape is heavy. It has a substantive feel to it. You are holding something. Something worth having. Something worth caring about. Something great. I’ve never gotten that feeling from a bunch of ones and zeros, no matter how portable they may be. Their acquisition is easy, and their destruction easier. But a tape? That’s a relic of a bygone moment, which is exactly what we’re looking for when we’re cueing up our favorite Phish show. Just like the shows themselves, a tape is built to last. Which brings me to my final question: know what I should do with 500 tapes? I sure don’t.