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Gig-tapers take their microphones on a mission

By Nicola Stanbridge
Today programme

Crowd at a Kooks gig

Next time you are at a gig, do not be surprised to find yourself standing by someone with a microphone recording the show - sound blasting from the stage, crowd noise and all.

If they have got permission from the venue and the artist, they are likely to be one of a growing online community of "tapers" recording the concert and posting the audio online.

Distinct from bootleggers, they are bound by a code of conduct that forbids them profiting from their recordings. Their hobby is all about recording shows for posterity.

Permission is required and not all bands are taper-friendly. But as the music industry tries to adapt to the many opportunities to download something for nothing, this taper community is being embraced by more and more musicians.

BBC Recording Equipment 1944
The miniaturization of recording equipment has helped tapers

In the 1960s the Grateful Dead encouraged audiences to tape shows. Their followers, known as Dead Heads, documented almost all the band's performances, and the underground taping community stuck at it in to the digital age.

The band Low Anthem upholds the tradition, with a message posted on their website. "If you are a 'taper', you will find safe harbor at Low Anthem shows, so long as the venue is not cruel and unusual," it says.

Backstage at the End of the Road festival in Dorset, Ben Knox-Miller from Low Anthem said that the band actually encouraged tapers to set up microphones at their gigs.

All of the recordings that I make, I feel that I am recording something of historical benefit
Alex, taper

"They are these guys who are obsessed with music and have been obsessed for years," he said.

"You get a lot of people who follow the Dead around, who just have these huge catalogues of shows they've been to. They love music so much, it's just good to be around them.

"I've never taped a show myself. My friend Dan Lefkowitz used to play in the band. He left us three years ago and I wish I had that memory. I wish that somebody had captured that."

On a neighbouring stage Mark Hamilton, a former taper turned singer-guitarist in the band Woodpigeon, divulged the secrets of his hobby.

"I joined a tape trading mailing list and we traded tapes through the mail with all these people who were around the world.

Ben Knox-Miller
Ben Knox-Miller, of The Low Anthem, embraces his taper fans

"That was 18 years ago now - we were trading lots of grunge."

Hamilton was mainly involved in the mailing list of tapers who recorded the band The Smashing Pumpkins. The people who set up the mailing list, he said, ended up working for the band.

"If you talk about it in a philosophical way, you are dealing with the people that are most interested in what you are doing," he said.

But not all bands are so friendly. One taper's equipment was destroyed by a security guard at a Bob Dylan concert in the 1970s.

A few well-known names in the music industry are avowedly anti-taping, but such an attitude might not be in their favour, according to music industry consultant Keith Jopling.

Smashing Pumpkins on stage
The Smashing Pumpkins hired those who started their taper mailing list

"Bands need to look at communities like this and say 'these are super-fans. They are really real enthusiasts, even obsessed about our music - maybe there's a way in which we can collaborate with them'.

"This is essentially a ring-fenced community, so we're talking about hundreds, maybe into the thousands of enthusiasts.

"Not multi-millions of people who are cynically file-sharing tracks just because they are free."

He said some bands were making the most of their super-fans.

In one example, the band Radiohead used mobile phone video footage of a concert in Prague, edited it together with a recording of the music, and made it available for download.

Indeed, the record industry does not appear to be acting punitively against the majority of tapers.

"If you look at these sites, you can see some of them are very respectful to artists' needs," Jopling said.

The Astoria
Moments on stage at the Astoria have been saved by the tapers

"They have a list of artists who have set down what their policy is - the kind of concerts that you can tape, those that you can't and there are some bands that obviously say no taping at all."

Forty-year-old Alex, who goes under the online name Humbug, has been taping for eight years without any problems from record companies.

He uploads his recordings to sites such as bt.etree and The Archive.

"All of the recordings that I make, I feel that I am recording something of historical benefit," he said.

"They're unique events. The atmosphere in some of these little clubs in central London is absolutely amazing.

"It is a real shame that some of them have closed recently - The Astoria, the Mean Fiddler, the Metro and also that one of the most historic, the 100 Club, is now under threat.

"It'd be a real shame to see it go."

You can hear Nicola Stanbridge's report on tapers on Radio 4's Today programme on Monday morning, between 6 and 9am.




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