For more than a century, concertgoers have gone to extraordinary lengths to record live music.
The world's first "bootlegger," Lionel Mapelson, was no exception: He preferred opera live and without a safety net. In 1901, the librarian of New York's Metropolitan Opera Company hauled a gramophone onto a catwalk 40-feet above the stage to make personal recordings of arias. Mapelson's primitive medium of wax grooves has since been replaced with microphones and tape, but modern-day bootleggers still undergo perilous adventures - chief among them, the risk of having unusually bulky underwear frisked by concert security - just to capture live souvenirs of shows.
All that is about to change.
In an initiative that would render bootlegging unnecessary, the country's largest concert promoter is set to make CD recordings of shows available to concertgoers within minutes of the last note. The project, dubbed "Instant Live," could encourage bands to tour more often because of the lucrative revenue possibilities.
But it is audiences who may register the most applause. Since a CD of a show is more likely to last longer than a T-shirt with a three-rinse life span, the initiative could create an appetite for live albums not seen since the era of "Frampton Comes Alive" and Cheap Trick's "Live at Budokan."
"It is almost an impulse buy," says Don Jorder, chair of the Music Business and Management Department at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. "You walk home with a memento of the concert. You had a great feeling coming out of it and, for $20, you can put it on again anytime you want."
Clear Channel, the media corporation behind Instant Live, has spent months testing its product in small clubs around Boston. This summer, it took its banks of CD burners to a few shows by The Allman Brothers Band. Now, in its largest experiment yet, an Instant Live crew is touring with moe., a five-piece jam band whose onstage improvisations can make a three-chorus song last as long as an episode of "The Simpsons." That makes each show unique, an ideal selling point for Instant Live.
At Boston's 2,800 seat Orpheum Theater, fliers advertising the initiative briefly distract the eye from faux-marble columns and a series of spray-painted candelabra that would make a "Trading Spaces" decorator blanch. It's not long before a large huddle forms near a table where tokens for the live CDs can be purchased in advance. Fifteen minutes before the show, the cash drawer is at least $4,300 heavier. But the revenue stream doesn't end here.
"We're taking roughly 1 out of every 4 shows and doing limited retail. Our partner is [New England music chain] Newbury Comics on this," says Steven Simon, the Clear Channel executive spearheading the project. "In addition, when the tour is over, we'll pick two prime shows or maybe do a compilation and go to retail broadly with that."
That business model makes some industry observers uncomfortable. "If Clear Channel is going to do that, they're moving closer and closer to becoming a record label," says Mr. Jorder.
The corporation already dominates a large sector of the other side of the music industry: It owns more than 1,200 radio stations in the US and boasts that it "owns, operates, and/or exclusively books 135 live entertainment venues, including 44 amphitheaters in the US and 28 venues in Europe." If Instant Live takes off, there is speculation that it may encourage the corporation to push bands to participate on Clear Channel terms if they want to play their venues.
"They have an awful lot of power ... and their potential to bully bands gets pretty great," says Jim Farber, music critic for the New York Daily News.
Then again, profits from the Instant Live discs could provide a major financial boost for smaller, unsigned acts. The unknown factor, thus far, is how record labels will react. They'll be sure to want a cut of royalties from live discs produced by their artists.
But Simon believes labels will soon embrace the idea and hints that several large bands are in negotiations to try Instant Live next summer.
"To me, it's a no-brainer, because it's a free revenue source at the show and somebody provides them with free mastered recordings they can take to retail," he says.
The audience demand for such live discs seems assured. Outside Clear Channel, artists such as Pearl Jam, The Who, YES, and Peter Gabriel, have recently started selling scores of live recordings from recent tours. The crucial difference is that those discs are made available only days or weeks after the show.
At the Boston gig, fans say they like the instantaneous availability. "It's a good thing you can get the show right afterward, so, yeah, I'm a fan of it," says Kevin, who is wearing a "Gathering of the Vibes" T-shirt.
The money he has paid for his concert memento is most likely laundry money.
Students form a large constituency in the moe. fan base but there also hippies old enough to remember their first Grateful Dead gig, too.
"We came up from Delaware and listened to the Instant Live show from Texas. Fantastic quality," says Bill Martin, standing next to James Paddock, a veteran of 86 moe. concerts.
Each is taking advantage of moe.'s policy of allowing hobbyists to make amateur recordings of shows.
Mr. Paddock is setting up a pole the size of a small beacon with two microphones mounted on it. His rig looks sophisticated enough to pick up the signal for HBO or perhaps the distant rumble of a Swiss Alpenhorn.
But he concedes that the Instant Live masters, a blend of a venue's mixing board and microphones that pick up crowd noise, sounds better.
"Normally, in the taping community you get a lot of audience noise and people screaming or clapping, so this is a much better sound quality," says Paddock, before the band takes to the stage.
Two-and-a-half sweaty hours later, a crowd of roughly 300 gather at the Instant Live distribution point.
The line is so long that it winds up the stairway of this pre-Civil War building where Ralph Waldo Emerson used to lecture. But within minutes, the gloved hands of the Instant Live team begin exchanging the three-CD package for the tokens.
"It wasn't a hassle at all," says Daniel Maniatakos, an HVAC technician. "We got out and basically within 15 minutes we had it - and I was toward the end."
He says he was dazzled when he put it on his home stereo.
"It sounded like a live recording you'd buy in a store."