Must-have gadgets for your holiday list
As Phish recently prepared to hit the road for their annual summer tour, I found myself digging in the dark reaches of a closet to locate a binder I'd filled with dozens of CD recordings of the jam band's live shows.
Every show is a spectacle unto itself, an ever-changing setlist that never repeats, lasting between two and three hours, and featuring improvisational jams that can stretch upwards of 20 minutes. Each one is unique, and if you're a fan, you want to hear every possible version of your favorite song, and to collect them all. As a fan of the band for the last 23 years, I've been hell-bent on trying.
But it's more than just the memories. Hauling out the overstuffed binder, I thought of the band's open-minded recording policy — trading is okay as long as the shows are audience recordings (as opposed to soundboard recordings) and no one profits — and how it's helped create something special. In Phish's 35 years and counting, their fans have done the remarkable: They've used technology to turn their favorite band into one of the quieter successes of the streaming music revolution.
Piles of dusty tapes and CDs like the ones in my closet are now nostalgia-inducing relics of the past. We're living in a time when anyone can listen to just about any Phish show with just a few taps on their phone. And it's all thanks to a forward-thinking fan base and a band willing to experiment in the digital space.
So, about that binder.
Yeah, that's a lot of CDs. But fans who traded shows in the early days had to deal with even more unruly stacks of cassette tapes.
In the late '80s and early '90s, getting your hands on a Phish show was difficult. You were often limited to trading with other fans in parking lots before shows, or you might luck into finding a friend with tapes you could copy.
It was a meticulous process as well. Attention to detail was a key factor for fans looking to build their collections, because there were so few ways to get your hands on copies, and you wanted the one that sounded best.
Then came the internet, which changed just about everything.
Phish is hardly the only jam band to have a fan-friendly taping policy. The Grateful Dead developed theirs years before Phish even formed, and plenty of other artists, from Umphrey's McGee to Pearl Jam, have similar policies.
But Phish is unique in the way their fans were early digital pioneers, using this new way of communicating to flex their ingenuity via message boards like etree.org and fan-run websites to build online communities to facilitate these trades.
As digital technology has improved and gotten even cheaper, fans have continued to use their savvy to figure out better ways to share the band's shows far and wide. Case in point: all those damn CDs of mine.
Writable CD drives became increasingly affordable throughout the late-1990s, as did high-speed internet — especially on college campuses, where jam bands like Phish were especially popular. Since shows were recorded on digital equipment before they were transferred to cassette, fans were now able to copy the recordings directly to their computers, where they could be burned to CDs or stored digitally.
Fans of Phish and similar bands (the Grateful Dead, Widespread Panic) used these new tools to share shows across the web using File Transfer Protocol (FTP) sites (a forbearer of BitTorrent) and fan sites, even as Napster and MP3 sharing were still fledgling parts of the internet. People could now easily find and procure high-quality recordings of the shows without having to spend a fortune on postage and blank tapes.
This all coincided with a few other events that would help push Phish's popularity to new heights — and kickstart the band's own efforts to take advantage of this new tech.
Phish's long jams and their blend of rock, jazz, prog, and a dash of bluegrass helped the band organically build their own following. But they also welcomed Grateful Dead fans into the fold after the 1995 death of Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia brought that band's touring to a halt.
In the the late 1990s, Phish was also going through a creative peak that coincided with the band's first major flirtation with the mainstream. This brought an influx of new, younger fans (myself included) who were hungry to dig into the band's back catalog, which included hundreds of shows. Thanks to those aforementioned technological advances, it was now possible to do so with relative ease.
One of the sites that fans visited frequently for access to these shows was Brad Serling's Nugs.net. It accrued such a large following that representatives from the Dead and Phish would eventually make a fateful decision that left Serling playing a big role in the bands' digital future.
Serling told me the original response from the Grateful Dead to Nugs.net was pretty open: "Do whatever you want, just don't rip us off." But the site's popularity changed things.
Nugs.net circa 2002, just before Brad Serling went to work for the bands he loved.
Image: mashable screenshot
By 2000, according to Serling, his site was doing 3,000,000 downloads a month of free Grateful and Phish shows. At this point, the bands reached out to Serling.
"I got a call from the lawyer that represented both Grateful Dead and Phish at the time, who said we either need to shut you down or go into business," he told me. Given the chance to work with the bands he loved, Serling happily sent in a business plan and was eventually brought on to help the bands transition to the digital era.
In the fall of 2001, Phish had gone on hiatus. To fill the void, the band announced a series of archival live CD releases, called Live Phish. In December 2002, the band announced their return to the road and Live Phish Downloads, one of the projects Serling was hired to help build, was unveiled.
LivePhish.com as it appeared in early 2003
Image: mashable screenshot
The site offered downloads of every live show the band played on that tour, available immediately after each show concluded, as well as additional live shows from the band's archives, all crisp and clear soundboard recordings. (Shows on all subsequent tours have also been made available after their conclusion.) The shows were DRM-free and could be downloaded as MP3s or, for audiophiles, Free Lossless Audio Codec (FLAC) files, which offered a higher quality sound.
Serling developed similar sites for bands like Metallica and Red Hot Chili Peppers. His old site, Nugs.net, continued to evolve, eventually becoming a silo where jam bands like Umphrey's McGee, Widespread Panic, and Grateful Dead spinoff Dead & Company could offer shows under a brand already familiar to jam band fans. The site also includes artists known for unique live experiences like Bruce Springsteen and Pearl Jam.
The evolution of Nugs.net brought in dozens of additional bands, as seen in 2014.
Image: mashable screenshot
"Certainly in the jam band world where Nugs.net is servicing all of these bands that operate in the same universe with the overlapping fanbases, you can't expect the same fans to subscribe to multiple services," Serling explains. "So we quickly realized while Phish can stand up and do its own thing, for all the other bands, we pretty much have to put them together under one roof."
But Phish continued — and still continues — to take the streaming game to new levels, finding the perfect balance between fan service and business savvy.
Phish broke up in 2004 but reunited five years later in March 2009 (a separate story unto itself), thrilling fans and revving up the business side again. A year later, ahead of their 2010 summer tour, the band launched the first version of their LivePhish app, which brought the services of the website to smartphones and garnered praise.
Then, in October 2014, Phish changed the game again, announcing the LivePhish+ service, which gave subscribers access to the entire LivePhish catalog — including every live show starting with the band's return in 2002 and subsequent tours; all archival Live Phish releases; studio albums, band members' side projects; and the band's LiveBait compilations.
A new feature also allowed fans to download free copies of shows they attended by scanning their ticket's barcode (this service was switched to free streams in 2017).
The standard tier for LivePhish is currently priced at either $9.99 per month, or $99.99 per year. There's also a HiFi tier for subscribers, much like Tidal, Serling notes, higher-quality lossless streams for $19.99 a month, or $199.99 for a year.
As for subscriber and revenue numbers, a rep for the band said they didn't release that information publicly and the band declined a request for an interview.
"High-res audio has always been something that's important to me as a consumer," Serling says, "so I've made sure it's part of everything we do."
A look at some of the offerings on the LivePhish iOS app
Image: mashable screenshots
Serling notes that the demand for that higher quality audio format is pretty consistent from fans seeking the best possible recordings of Phish. "We know the demand is there because when we're selling just downloads, 30 percent of our download sales are people buying CD quality or higher, and I would say maybe 10 to 15 percent are opting in for higher than CD quality," he says.
He adds, "That is a premium service. We look at it — to over-simplify it — like a velvet-rope Spotify for live music."
And the service is always adding new elements. While webcasts have been available to purchase via the desktop or over-the-top versions of the app (i.e., Apple TV), in April 2018, LivePhish added an archival video component, making a rotation of classic shows available to rewatch.
Serling says the plans are "to blow this out with hundreds of more full-length concert videos."
The service is a dream for Phish fans who remember how difficult it was to put together tape collections during the pre-Internet days.
But what if you don't have the means to pay for this access or just don't want to shell out the subscription fees? There are still ways to get your hands on pretty much every Phish show ever played. It doesn't cost a penny, and it's still legit.
The way in which Phish fans have shared and tracked audience-recorded versions of the band's live shows has also evolved with technology.
First and foremost is the famed Phish Spreadsheet. Updated by Kevin Hoy, the sheet is a scrupulously organized collection of downloadable links of just about every Phish show, plus a large chunk of side projects and solo efforts and other tangental Phish recordings, all abiding by the band's taping policy.
But the evolution has spilled into streaming as well, with sites like PhishShows and PhishTracks that offer up on-demand streams of the band's shows. There's even PhishJustJams, a site that strips away the verses and choruses of songs, streaming only the improv jams.
And a few fans have been able to take their streaming sites from the web to the phone, building mobile apps that give fans on-demand access to streaming from just about anywhere.
Daniel Saewitz was in college and working hard on building a website that could stream legally-shared versions of Phish shows when PhishTracks rolled out.
"I remember seeing it and being like, oh my god, this is the exact idea I've been working on," Saewitz recalls. "[PhishTracks creator Jeff Lang] clearly had been working at it longer than me, so it wasn't such an original idea. I was a little bit bummed to see that someone else had beat me to the punch, although it was very cool."
Instead of scrapping the project, Saewitz transitioned to making his site a place to stream Grateful Dead shows. It was originally called ListenToTheDead.com and pulled from the deep library of shows available on the Internet Archive's audio site.
Enter Alec Gorge, who had already created PhishOD, an app that lets fans could stream shows, add reviews, create playlists, and search across the library of Phish songs and shows available on PhishTracks.
The ReListen app
Image: mashable screenshots
Soon, Saewitz had expanded his site to include other bands whose shows are streamable from the Internet Archive and rechristened the page as Relisten. Gorge decided to build a new app for Relisten, one that could be more flexible in hosting multiple bands, reusing a lot of the code he had used for PhishOD. The app is even available on Sonos now.
"It was like ping-pong, back and forth," Gorge said of the collaboration, "because each thing that we did inspired or motivated the other person to take the next step."
While PhishOD originally pulled shows that were on PhishTracks, with the blessing of that site's creator, Jeff Lang, PhishOD now pulls from another popular streaming site, Phish.in.
Phish.in's creator, Justin Craig-Kuhn, had worked with Jeff Lang on PhishTracks but decided he wanted to do something a little different. With Lang's blessing, he used parts of the code base from PhishTracks and utilized shows available on the spreadsheet to create Phish.in.
Phish.in, a terrific website for streamin Phish shows
"I wanted to add features Phish Tracks didn't have at the time," Craig-Kuhn tells me. "I wanted other stuff like the map, the ability to log in and like stuff, and to build playlists."
Eventually, Gorge found Phish.in and worked with Craig-Kuhn, utilizing Phish.in's thoroughly documented application programming interface (API) which makes building software off of the site much easier, and used Phish.in to feed the PhishOD app.
It's become so popular, even Phish frontman Trey Anastasio has copped to using PhishOD, telling Rolling Stone in 2016 he sometimes listened to parts of shows on the app.
Like Saewitz and Gorge, Craig-Kuhn is driven by the simple desire to share the sounds he loves with others. "There's some really beautiful music there," he says, "I just want to have more people experience Phish."
Per the band's policy, he can't accept money or donations for the site, but he's happy to pay out of pocket to host the shows online: "It basically costs me a hundred bucks a month to host it, and it brings me a lot of joy that a lot of people get to enjoy it."
Serling is, understandably, conflicted — a fan who once shared music online who's now on the business end, focused on protecting the band's bottom line. "I think a lot of those apps are great," Serling says. "But by attracting users and doing stuff with the band's trademarks and the songwriters' intellectual property, it's a little dicey."
Indeed, as Serling notes, it's all up to the band. "Do I wish [the streaming sites] didn't exist? Yes," he continues. "But am I gonna shut them down? No. It's not my prerogative to shut them down because I don't own the content."
Phish has consistently managed to be one of the best-selling touring acts in America. In 2016, nearly 35 years after their debut, they were still a top-25 grossing tour. And the band has managed to set trends, with fan support, in another area as well.
In the mid-1990s, Phish began throwing its own music festivals. Tens of thousands of fans descended upon places like an abandoned air field for multiple days of music (just Phish), food, and other entertainment, ranging from a Ferris wheel to movie screenings. Their eleventh festival, Curveball, will unfold this August in upstate New York.
As Pitchfork noted, these festivals served as precursors to the current music fest model, including Bonnaroo, which began life as a jam-band-oriented affair before diversifying its lineup.
At the core of all this success is a two-way street of admiration, respect, and loyalty that goes beyond your typical band-fan relationship, especially given the size of the fandom. It's hard to picture Taylor Swift or Jay-Z being able to similarly communicate their appreciation for the proactive nature of their fanbases.
But for Phish and its fans, it's definitely tangible. The band continues its taping policy (taper tickets are still available for purchase at their shows), and fans' show their ongoing devotion by following the band across the country or subscribing to LivePhish and purchasing webcasts when they can't.
Relisten's Saewitz acknowledged the role each group in the ecosystem contributes to make his and other sites and apps possible.
"It really wouldn't be possible without the bands," he says. "It's also really important to give credit and respect to the tapers, the people who are spending thousands of dollars on mics and hard drives and and tapes and who are going to all of these shows. And there's always an audience to consume that music."
As for me, well, after unsuccessfully leafing through that heavy binder for the show I wanted, I shrugged and threw it back in the closet, grabbed my phone and searched LivePhish for the show. When I couldn't find it there, I located it on PhishOD, put in my headphones, and hit play.
Tens of thousands of fans will be likewise glued to their phones this summer, checking their apps for the latest shows from the road. As they do so, they can be grateful for the work of fellow phans who helped to share Phish's music — and for the band we all love, who made it possible for all of us to always be part of the show, no matter where we are.
Must-have gadgets for your holiday list