How Trading Was Back Then
By Jake Vigliotti
January 12, 2008
It was only a day since my last email. It was a Friday afternoon and I was watching the old run of Politically Correct with Bill Mahr on Comedy Central. I knew it wouldn’t be there, but I figured, what the heck, why not calm my nerves and check the mail box anyway.
I walked out of the townhouse in Centreville, VA on a mild September afternoon and keyed the mailbox open. There it was: I just successfully completed my first tape trade.
In my earlier days of DMB listening (1993-94), I had just borrowed my roommate Sean’s shows (he had 4 – 3.31.94, 4.7.94, 7.21.94, and 7.22.94) and listened to those. He had a friend who then copied over another show (a Baton Rouge show from 1994), which begot another friend who procured a show from The House Of Blues in 1995. It wasn’t so much of tape trading for us, it was more of a, “can I have a copy of that show”? But that was a pre-internet time (at least for me). It wasn’t until I moved up to Virginia (on my way to Connecticut) that I realized what was really out there.
There were a number of ways to find people who had shows for trade; many fans had lists of shows available on home-made fan-sites (like a geocities site). But the grand poobah of DMB listings was on a site called Satellite Castle. It was a Craig’s List of DMB shows, just a giant want ad of shows. Someone would list a show, generally by date (which often wasn’t accurate), generation, and occasionally, set list (again, not exactly accurate).
This was the general system I used to find a show, which seemed to be pretty universal in method. I picked out venues or songs I wanted For example, if I wanted a show that had Halloween on it, I’d probably just do a search (Edit>Find – this was way before any websites had fancy searches on them) and locate a few shows that had said song. I emailed two people at a time, two different shows. And as luck would have it, each time I only received one response.
I had two shows to trade: 3.31.94, and 7.21.94 (the other two shows I did not copy – 4.7.94 was damaged, and 7.22.94 because I didn’t have another blank tape*). My strategy was simple: a tape-for-tape trade. 3.31.94 was two tapes, so if the show I sought was two tapes, I’d offer that. A one-show tape would get an offer of my very rare 7.21.94 show. A few times, if the show seemed short, I’d offer just the 1 100 minute 7.21.94 show for two 90 minute tapes of a show.
Before we go any further, there were some very specific rules to trading:
MAXELL XL II’s ONLY!!
NO HIGH SPEED DUBBING
90 MIN TAPES ONLY
Those were the law. Additionally, many would insist that you not write on the actual tapes (bad handwriting), and most requested a written set list accompany the tapes and j-cards on a separate sheet (that wasn’t always the case).
Maxell II’s were the absolute law. The came in a gold-wrapping and the tapes were charcoal in color. They were known for being a good stock, and had a market stranglehold on all tape trading. Tapes needed to be done at real-time, not high speed. High speed would lead to a more rapid erosion of the tapes, so if you listened to your tapes constantly they’d eventually rip sooner if recorded at high-speed. That also meant that if you were trading three shows to someone, you had to dub at real-time almost 5 hours work of DMB. And quite obviously, yet unfortunately not always followed, you were supposed to dub these tapes in a machine that contained two tape players. Some tapes from the early days were not dubbed as they were recorded by playing a tape from one boom box, and recording them on another boom box using the crappy little external mic. Needless to say, that don’t sound too good.
No cases was the genius of some traders that figured that if they just sent the tapes in the mail and didn’t send them Priority, you could save about $.30 a package. The J-Cards was just an easy way to secure (hopefully) the tapes inside the package. A J-Card is the insert that sits against the plastic case of a tape. Briefly, the 90 minute tape rule was a must, unless the master tape was longer (as in my case of the 100 minute 7.21.94 show)
So you have your email replied and complied, and a trade is set up. Proper protocol was to send everything away in at least 2 weeks from the email. It is from this that the taping ‘Two Week Rule’ has its origins. It was a nice touch to include a personal note of thanks and put your address on it (as a subliminal message for them to send out your tapes!).
Another common aspect of tape trading was the “B+P”. That stood for Blanks and Postage. You send blank tapes, and a stamped return envelope, and someone will send you a show gratis. In those days of tapes, it was generally accepted that you would double the number of tapes you were getting as a ‘payment’ of sorts for getting a show for free. If you were getting a two-tape show, you sent 4 tapes. And so on. This Double Up practice eventually became heavily frowned upon with the advent of CD trading, but for years this was standard operating procedure.
To some, trading on-line was akin to ordering a record from K-Tel based on a TV commercial; just because you send away for it, doesn’t mean you’ll get it. There are horror stories of people getting taken for tons of blank tapes, shows, and just about anything DMB related. The only thing I got taken for back then was a ‘B+P’ for a show that allegedly did not feature Dave (he was sick) and Boyd sang most songs except Carter singing Recently. To this day I still don’t know if that was a real show or not. No one seems to know of it now.
Another aspect of tape trading that actually survived to the ‘modern’ era of CD trading was the concept of Trees. A tape-tree was setup as, wait for it, a tree. Lets say someone had a first generation recording of 11.17.92. He would make copies of his tape for 4 other (for example) ‘branches’. They in turn would then make copies of that tape (now in the 2nd generation) for branches of their own. This was a quick an efficient way of dispersing tapes. The downfall, however, was the deteriorating generation.
Unlike CD’s or mp3 files, a copy of an analog tape (video or audio) is inferior to its original. It is a flaw in the design of the tape that will create some hiss on the copy. A 1st generation tape (taped from a ‘master’ recording of a live event) will sound tremendously superior to a 5th generation tape. But that is what we had to deal with during those days.
In 1996, the internet was very much intimidating to me. I was convinced that everything was a scam, so I was extremely apprehensive to even attempting a trade. My friend Matt – it was his house I was ‘crashing’ at while awaiting my appointment to Connecticut – convinced me that the internet was my friend. “How could something that offers free looks at naked ladies be that bad?” Sound reasoning indeed. The reasoning isn’t nearly as sound when you consider Matt is actually blind, so he doesn’t really get free looks at anything, but that really didn’t dawn on me at that time.
I did, however, actually receive the Elvis record I ordered from K-Tel when I was 5, so if K-Tel can pull it off, why can’t the internet! On the advice of a blind man using a sight reference and a record dealer that sends plastic records through standard mail, I was prepared to accept the internet trading lifestyle.
The Satellite Castle listing was just too much for me. It was fun to look at, but I felt that I needed something a bit more secure to ease myself into this new world. The site I chose to be the honored recipient of my first query was a nifty site dedicated to the ‘old days’ of DMB (it was 1996, ‘old days’ meant 1992). The site was Blue Water Baboon Farm, run by a guy who seemed very knowledgeable in his DMB lore; Matt Mahoney. I wrote him an email that was slightly longer than this article to this point (close to 1300 words) describing in great detail the 7.21.94 show. All I wanted in return was a copy of a ‘show’ listed as 1.2.92, The Rutabega Demo. I clicked on the ‘send’ button after a scant three read-throughs, and a proof-read from Matt’s wife Meryl. About two hours later, I signed on to the internet, waiting patiently as the modem made those grinding and squeaking sounds, as I watched AOL try to connect to those servers in nearby Fairfax. After a brief two minutes, the internet and I were one.
I wasn’t planning on checking my email. After all, I just sent it two hours earlier, and I figured it’d take at least 3-4 hours to get all the way to where that guy was, Baltimore. Amazingly, he had replied! This internet thing is great!
He replied as followed: I don’t have time to do a trade now. Try me again in a few weeks. Matt. I felt like I just got dumped! Or worse, I asked the girl out and the bitch said no! I went though the usual responses, ‘That’s OK, I didn’t really want that show anyway’, and ‘My show is too good for that show anyway’, and ‘I think I’ll have a drink now.’ It took a while to recover from that rejection, but I eventually got over it.
My next shot was at someone who referred to himself as “VoodooB”. He had his own site (on something like geocities or AOL), and in his naïveté, actually had his physical address on his site. I reasoned that at least I knew where he lived, so if he screwed me over… well, I didn’t really know what good it would do. Not that I’d really drive to the New York/Connecticut line and pound on his door and say, “Give me back my tapes!” So, again, I was at the mercy of the Deus Ex Internet. I shortened my query to a salutation, brief description of the show (3.31.94), and kindly requested two tapes: 12.4.92, and 10.1.93.
He complied, and the deal was done. I hoped to soon be hearing two DMB songs I had not heard yet; the alluring Blue Water Baboon Farm (from 12.4.92), and Any Noise/Anti Noise (from 10.1.93) – an early working of Say Goodbye. Everything else was gravy.
So there I stood, staring at the mailbox. For a scant second, I pondered if I hadn’t just worked out a deal with The Unabomber, and I was about to blow my hand off. Throwing caution to the wind, I bravely retrieved the package and ran (yes ran – embarrassingly enough) back inside. I ripped open the envelope (for the record, VoodooB was not the Unabomber – he was already caught by then) and stared for a moment at my prize: two Maxell II tapes. I listened to 12.4.92 first, and listened with a bit of disappointment to Blue Water Baboon Farm for the first time. That was it? All that hype for a depressing song? Where are the Baboons? Where’s the Farm? After all I’d been through, this was it?
For me, the hunt was the exciting part. Just securing the tape was enough. Sure, after my initial review of Blue Water Baboon Farm I came to appreciate the song for its genius and structure, but it was the task of finding those songs I hadn’t heard, Hold Me Down, Spotlight, and #40, that made up initial tape trading. It was an ordeal to hunt down the song, find someone to trade with, actually complete the trade, and listen to the prize.
Now, we can use Bit Torrent to get pretty much any shows we want. B+P’s are reserved for shut-ins, persons serving house arrest, or multi-millionaires who employ their own B+P staff. Tapes are as foreign to today’s fans as the 8-track is to .mp3’s. Life sure is a lot easier today than it was, and I’m not one of those “Back in our day…” fellows, but I guess I just have a great appreciation for any show I can just click and download, and appreciate any show from pre-1999 that is still around and has survived to our modern age.
Looking back at it, it’s amazing that any DMB shows made their way around.
* When I left Alabama, I copied over the two shows I liked the best from Sean’s stash, 3.31.94 and 7.21.94. I wanted to copy 7.22.94 also, but I only purchased a 2 pack of tapes and a single 100 minutes tape because the store only had 1 100 minute tape. As luck would have it, 7.22.94, the show I did not copy, does not exist in trading circles today and Sean lost his copy shortly after he graduated college.
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