An Insider's Guide To Tape Trading
By Jessica Brandt
We're addicts. We spend hundreds of dollars a year on it. We sneak around when we do it. We buy certain special supplies. We have a language, a lingo. We visit the post office weekly with heavy packages bound for exotic places. Most of the people we have contact with are into the same thing. What are we? Bootleg tape traders.
Now the uninformed will say "Bootleg? Isn't that illegal?" But really it isn't. Many bands don't care if their shows are taped and distributed, because they find it flattering or they think it's a good idea as well. Tape trading has become incredibly popular now thanks to the internet, which makes it easier than ever to communicate with other traders around the country and even around the world. In fact, only one of the six traders I interviewed for this article had been trading before he got online, and he did it through his job at a record store.
The history of bootlegging goes back to Shakespearean days when theater-going bootleggers would quickly scribble down words to The Bard's plays as the actors spoke them. Then these phony scripts would be distributed through town. Then there came the Grateful Dead and their legions of recorder-weilding fans. But enough with history. If you really want to know more about this, check out Clinton Heylin's book Bootleg: The Secret History of the Other Recording Industry and read about it yourself.
Many tapers today have been trading for only about one or two years. My brother, Robert, and I have been doing it for almost five years now, but today it's quite different. To begin our collection, we had to tape concerts off the radio, or buy tapes for outrageous prices at record conventions. Recently, however, we've been able to tape our own shows live and trade through the internet.
So do you think you're interested in getting hundreds of tapes in the mail each year, filled with live fottage of your favorite bands? Do you think you have what it takes to stealth a recorder into a concert hall? Can you handle monster trades and produce high-quality tapes? Read on to learn the specifics and secrets of the real underground music scene.
A good taper needs good supplies. To be a good taper, a good tape deck is a must. Greg Radawich of Boston uses four decks for dubbing his tapes, all with only one "side" or "well." "I don't really like dual well decks," he says "They don't allow adjustments of tape levels when dubbing." My brother and I use two dual-well decks, but only use the right side of each. Greg can do a number of tapes at one time, while we have to suffer with just one at a time. Analog (regular) decks cost anywhere from $200 to $1000, while DAT decks (digital) are more pricey.
Once you have your decks, you need other supplies, which include blank tapes and bubble mailers. Most traders will insist that you use either Maxell XLII or TDK SA blanks, both of which are high bias tapes (as opposed to Type I, which is normal bias). They will also insist that you do not use Dolby Noise Reduction, and high-speed dubbing is a no-no. Blanks are pretty pricey when it comes down to it. Usually, a 90-minute tape will cost at least $1.50 a piece, and will become more expensive as the length increases. If you do heavy trading, you might want to check out wholesale clubs where you can buy a brick of 8 tapes for $8. Unfortunately, if you want 100 or 110 minute tapes, you have to buy them by the twos or fives. Blank videos should also be of good quality, and will run you about $2 unless you buy them bulk. As for mailers, most tapers prefer to "recycle." That is, when you get a package full of tapes, you save the packaging and use it for something you'll be sending out in the near future. Once a bubble mailer (that is, an envelope that already has bubble wrap in it) has been used 5 or so times, has been across the Atlantic and back, and it now nothing more than a few bubbles and a lot of packing tape, it's time to get a new one. So, you'll end up spending some dough on new mailers as well, which can be found in all sorts of sizes at Office Max, and I like to buy those in bulk, too. As for extras, some traders, like Dustin Moskowitz of Connecticut, have a program for their computer which will print out tape covers and help keep track of trades.
However frugal you are about trading, it's going to cost you money. Personally, I have been spending as much as $100 a month on blanks, mailers, and postage. Dustin only spends $10 in an average month, while Greg and Robert, as well as Alan Munshower from New Jersey, spend about $50 on average. Steffan Donath, from Karlsrhue Germany does most of his trading overseas, so postage ups his ante to about $60 a month. In order to be a good trader, you probably have to have at least a part-time job to support your habit. Even though trading is technically just a barter, things will end up costing you a lot of money.
HOW DO I START?
The internet has an abundance of trading resources. Personally, I find that if you subscribe to a band's online newsletter, or visit a newsgroup, you can quickly find traders. Also, there are sites set up like the Tape Trader Network, as well as trader indexes for certain bands which are set up by fans. You can find a list of some good trading links at the bottom of this article.
Since this is "trading," how do you start out if you have nothing to trade? 2:1 is a standard, which means that you send a person who has shows you want two blanks for every one show. That extra blank covers postage and wear-and-tear on his/her machine. Another method is a blank for every show and appropriate postage. It all depends on the trader you deal with, so be sure to check with them. Some people will refuse to do 2:1 or blank/postage because they only want shows in return.
MY OWN TAPES
Most of the traders I surveyed had never made their own recordings. This was a shock to me because it makes you think....Where do those shows come from? If you'd like to make your own recordings, you can easily tape concerts off the radio, or off the television. If you get daring, you can sneak a hand-held recorder (with or without external mics) into any show you go to. Some venues and/or bands will even let you bring in large mics and stands, as long as you don't obstruct anyone else's view.
WHAT SHOULD I COLLECT?
The most popular bands to collect are bands like Phish and the Grateful Dead who have almost every show documented on tape because they encourage taping. The Black Crowes also began allowing tapers' sections later in their career. You can find bootlegs of virtually any band ever, even local bands who may only have played a few shows.
I suggest taping as much as you can. Then again, you can get tapes regardless of if you have your own shows or not. Two of my favorite tapes I have are mine, and it's always nice to have a tape of a show you were at.
Try to be diverse in your collection as well. It's easier to get some obscure things you want if your list can appeal to a lot of different people. Again, tape stuff off the radio, or if someone asks you about a trade, and they don't have anything you'd specifically want, try to pick out some things you'd sort of be interested in, or something you've never heard. Usually this is a great way to expand your musical horizons.
WHAT DO I DO NOW?
Once you've got a good sized list, put it up on the internet. The best topic for a homepage, in my opinion, is a trader list. Your list should include information such as: band name, date of show, venue, city, length, mode of taping, and grade. You have to listen to your tapes and grade them on what you think they sound like. Sometimes, a trader will send you a tape that they think is A+ quality, while you might find it to be lower.
A list should also include your own rules for trading. Rules should state what kind of blanks you use, how a show should be dubbed, your 2:1 policy, video policy, and what you're looking for as far as music goes.
If you want to get fancy, you can also add setlists or show reviews to your page. This is a real attraction for traders. It is also an easy way to let people know the setlists instead of writing them down when you send them.
TAPE TRADER LINGO
There's quite a bit of lingo associated with tape trading. "Newbie" is someone who is new to trading, usually a person who will ask you for a 2:1. "2:1" and "B&P" are different methods of newbie trading. Methods of taping include "aud" (audience) "sb" (soundboard) and "dat" (digital audio tape), as well as the self-explanitory "TV" and "CD." Grading scales can either be "EX+, EX, EX-.....P+, P, P-" (Excellent to Poor), or a number system (usually 5-1) or a grade like at school (A-F). "J-cards" are those pieces of paper that you write the "setlists" on. (Some people make fancy j-cards on their computers, while most just send you blank j-cards along with a sheet with the setlists on it.) "Virgin tapes" are tapes that have never been recorded on (preferred 10-1 for blanks). "1st gen, 2nd gen...etc" mean first generation, sedond generation, etc. If you have made a tape yourself and then dub it, it's a first gen. If that person dubs it, then it's a 2nd gen., and so on. "CD-R" is a fairly new thing, where people make their tapes into CDs by using their computers. There is much more taper-lingo, but these basics will get you through.
PROS AND CONS
Tape trading can be a really good thing or a really bad thing. Trading with other people whom you've never met is sort of risky but you must trust these people. For most, the worst thing about trading is when you send off your tapes and never hear from that person again, meaning you never get tapes in return (Never fear, it doesn't happen much. When it DOES happen, you get to smear that person by putting them on your "Bad Trader List" and telling all of your taper buddies about them.) Alan Munshower says the worst thing about trading is "People who refuse to spread the wealth. People who trade specifically DAT tapes have a disposition about trading that is horrible." (DAT is relatively new and not too many people trade these kinds of tapes, or if they do have some they will make them analog. Others only trade in DAT and are very specific about quality.) Robert Brandt thinks the worst things are "Big trades and people who lie about what they are giving you." Big trades are tough, because it costs you a lot of money at one time and it's very hard to get them out quickly.
There is definitely a good side to tape trading. If there weren't, then no one would do it! Steffan, from Germany, thinks the best thing about trading is "Getting in touch with interesting people and expanding your tape collection." The others also agree that meeting people and sharing music are definitely high points. Plus, having a lot of tapes of your favorite bands is great, because you get to hear all the weird improvs and between-song dialouge that isn't on their CDs.
Record companies will argue that taping is a bad thing because it takes away from the profit of the band. Bands, however, usually are more lenient on this matter, especially lesser-known bands. They will agree that bootlegging is a great way to get themselves heard. Steffan Donath thinks that it "Depends on the bands. The bigger they get the less they want tapers taping their shows. Normally it is more the management that is too greedy." Greg Radwich says "I think bands are starting to realize that having music floating around is getting them heard by more people. If I'm going to go out of my way to collect live shows from bands, I'm also going to by all of the
studio releases." Personally I have asked such bands as the Squirrel Nut Zippers and Michigan ska band Mustard Plug if they mind if I tape their shows, and not only did they think it's cool but they also asked if I could send them the tape! "Usually I don't remember the show once it's over," said the Zippers' Tom Maxwell, which is why he asked if I'd send him all the Zipper tapes I had. Lots of bands, such as Ben Folds Five, will have a taping policy on their websites or their FAQ sheets. Look around for those and then if you try to tape a show, you can have proof that the band doesn't mind.
WHAT HAVE WE LEARNED?
There is definitely no profit in tape trading, except for a musical profit. It's a wonderful hobby, but it can also be addicting. The more tapes you have, the more tapes you can get, and so on. Also, the more you have the more you want. Taping and trading is not slowing down, and many many new people are discovering it. Bands are becoming more lenient and the whole process is becoming easier thanks to the internet.
Greg Radawich sums it up this way: "I think people should stop taping if it stops being fun. Too many traders
have a business attitude. It is important, however to try to preserve the
live feel the best you can to tape. Shoving a micro cassette recorder down
your pants is never going to produce a good tape. If you have a recorder with a mic input, use it ... any mike will make a better recording then the built
in mike on a recorder. If people want to make good recordings, you can get a starter setup like a Sony Professional WM-D3 recorder, that includes a decent mike for around $200 dollars. It would make recordings that you could be proud to trade.. its not going to compare to the recording people are making with DAT decks, and thousand dollar mics ... but we all gotta start somewhere."
If you want to get a start with trading, or you're already a trader and would like some more info, here are some helpful links:
The Tape Trader Network
Searchable indicies, and probably the best tape trader stop on the 'net.
The Ben Folds Five Trading Station
Alan Munshower's trader index. If you want Ben Folds Five tapes, this is where to get them.
Dave Matthews Band Trading Links
A really well done page for Dave Matthews Band trading.
Robert Brandt's tapelist. "Prog rock, prog rock, and more prog rock."
Cousin Jess's World Wide Mess
My personal homepage, where you can access my lists (Ben Folds Five, Squirrel Nut Zippers, Dave Matthews, Pearl Jam, Dead Milkmen, and more.)
MeandMrRay's Tape List
Greg Radawich's tape lists (Ben Folds Five, Modeski, Martin and Wood, Miles Davis, jazz, funk/soul, and more)
Ben Folds Five
Steffan Donath's tapelist, a very comprehensive Ben Folds Five list.
Dustin's Ben Folds Five Page
These aren't all the links there are. You may have noticed that most of the links are for Ben Folds Five tapes, but that's just because the traders who helped me out with this article are all fans of that band. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of sites for trading, this is just the tip of the iceberg. If you visit these sites, you will be able to get more info on other places to go.
Dustin Moskowitz's personal homepage, where you can access his list (Ben Folds Five only)
I am by no means an expert on the subject of trading. As I stated earlier, I have only been trading for five years or so. I am not trading at the moment (taking a well-needed taping holiday) but I will gladly answer any questions you may have about taping or trading, as will any of the people who's addresses are linked here. Thanks to Robert, Steffan, Dustin, Alan, and Greg for their help. See you in the circle!
Yes, I stole the title graphic straight from the Maxell Homepage, but I think that I have spent enough money on their products to own a little piece of their company, no?