11/17/10

The Making of Jerry Jams

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Brad Serling of Nugs.net

Brad Serling of Nugs.net, live-download pioneer and compiler of the Jerry Jams for Rex  CD.

Like many a young Dead Head, Brad Serling started following the band and taping their shows at the age of 14. By the early ’90s he’d return from tours to find so many outstretched hands that endless duplication took over his entire waking life, and many, many tape decks.

“I would have multiple tape decks running at all times, even in my office when I had a real job,” he says now. “I genuinely wanted people to hear the tapes I had made, and it was always a great exchange–I was young and single at the time, so I could spend the time doing this and go out on the road and follow the Dead and make these recordings. I’d be trading tapes with people who were older and had kids, who couldn’t get out to see the shows; they would send me their older tapes, and I would send them the show that just happened.”

As the process became all-consuming, Serling realized there had to be a better way. An early Internet adopter, he hit upon the idea of making his audience recordings available for download online. In the course of some discussions with the Grateful Dead organization about another matter, Serling asked if it would be OK to do “tape trading” this way, and got the word “do whatever you want as long as it abides by our taping policy and it’s a non-commercial thing.”

Nugs.net was born and quickly became a hotbed of music sharing. Other bands–Phish, Widespread Panic, and more–and their fans were also uploading and downloading shows.  As the millennium turned, there were 3 million free music downloads a month from the site, and the bands were starting feel deeply conflicted–as Serling puts it, “On the one hand they felt ‘maybe we need to shut you down, because you’re becoming so popular.’ On the other hand they saw that what I was doing worked, and I wasn’t ripping them off, and the fans loved it.”

After pondering this conundrum in 2000, Phish, who’d just gone on hiatus, was particularly intrigued by the possibilities. When the band returned two years later with a New Year’s Eve show at Madison Square Garden, the show was available for online download at LivePhish.com, a partnership of the band with Nugs.net.

“It was the first time any band had sold downloads of their performances, let alone downloads right after the band left the stage,” Serling recalls. “The premise was, the band’s playing on New Year’s Eve; it’s the first time they’ve played in two years;  as soon as possible after the show you’ll be able to download it on livephish.com, a professionally recorded, professionally mixed recording, not an audience recording. But we never said you have to stop taping! People still tape today, and that is how some people choose to enjoy the show.

“Phish was very conscious of not wanting to step on the tapers’ toes, and not being perceived as something that would stop people from doing what they like to do. It was, here’s a way to serve fans with what they really want, a great recording.”

The experiment, for which Serling lugged massive amounts of audio equipment into Madison Square Garden and hovered anxiously over the recording, was well received, and soon the band was offering downloads of all its live shows. Within six months Serling had left his day job; more artists, including Dave Matthews and Metallica, signed on for their own download sites, and the next year Nugs.net launched Livedownloads.com, offering a similar service to independent bands. “This was all before iTunes existed,” Serling says, “so there was no model to go by; we were making it up as we went along.”

Today, Livedownloads.com boasts 600 bands and artists, and the company hosts 20 private-label sites for other bands, as well as LiveBonnaroo.com and other festival sites. Among the artists who use the site is Everyone Orchestra conductor and Rex board member Matt Butler, who, along with Rex Executive Director Sandy Sohcot, approached Serling. Says Sandy, “We were seeking to pay tribute to Jerry, and showcase the talents of today’s musicians who are helping to keep the music going and supporting another legacy of Jerry– the Rex Foundation.”

Jerry Jams for Rex was born, and the rest is history.

Rex Foundation: How did this project come about? How did you connect with Rex?

Brad Serling, Nugs.net: I certainly was aware of the Rex Foundation as a fan; I remember all those Rex Foundation benefit shows that I’d buy mail order tickets for.

Sandy and Matt Butler had reached out to me. Matt was aware of Nugs.net because we sell some of his music with a variety of the bands he’s worked with.

I had done five years’ worth of podcasts called the Nugscast–whatever I thought was recent, great live music. A couple times a year I did segments called “Under the Covers,” of bands covering other songs. I’d done Grateful Dead segments before, so I knew right away there were so many good covers, many of which wound up on the Jerry Jams disc.

Rex: How did you decide what versions, since there were so many?

Nugs.net: The thing I thought would be the biggest draw was Phish performing “Terrapin Station.”

That was summer ’98, and any Phish fan will tell you that summer ’98 was one of the best tours they ever did. Something that was unique about that tour was that they were just playing a ton of covers. For whatever reason, they just kept pulling covers out of thin air, songs they’d never played before, and featuring one at each show.

And then on August 9, 1998, the third anniversary of Jerry’s passing, they played “Terrapin Station” as the encore.

Even to this day, when I talked to people in the Phish organization about getting approval to use that track, they all said the same thing: “People in the audience were CRYING.” It was an emotional moment, because it was very much a fresh wound at the time.

Phish had worked so hard through the ’90s to differentiate themselves from the Grateful Dead, because the comparison drove them nuts, but clearly there was no band that had influenced Phish more than the Grateful Dead, musically and business-wise. Trey [Anastasio]’s the first to admit it.

I remember Trey saying to me once that the thing he admired most about Jerry was that he didn’t want it. He just wanted to play his guitar. He didn’t want any of the fame, any of the bullshit or all of the trappings, all he wanted was to play his guitar. And he was successful in spite of all that.

Trey always admired that and felt that way about Phish; he wished that it could be that way, but it’s so hard once the band grows. Trey was telling me this on the eve of the band breaking up in 2004; it really weighed heavily on him. That’s why he was breaking up the band, because he felt he needed to break it up and get healthy, because look what happened to Jerry. The machine kept moving and … So it was meaningful in ’98, the first time Phish really paid homage to Jerry musically.

That “Terrapin Station” was the very first thing that came to mind for this compilation. I thought it might be a longshot, because I knew the band had never released it, but this was something that really hit a nerve.  When I went around to each band member, everyone said “Yes, absolutely, no doubt about it, unless there’s something completely screwed up on the recording we should be putting this out.” Everybody was on board, and I had a response from everyone within two days–and Phish was on tour at the time. I felt that this would be the centerpiece of the compilation and draw attention to it.

Bruce Hornsby immediately came to mind. I wanted to do something from the “Comes a Time” benefit, and “Standing on the Moon” was a real tearjerker. But Bruce really wanted to do something from his last tour because he’s really happy with his current band, the Noisemakers, and sent me a track–so there I was with “Terrapin Station” and “Lady With a Fan”!

Bruce had worked so hard on this I didn’t have the heart to go back and ask for something different. So I thought, hey, let’s open it with “Lady With a Fan,” which is just Bruce on piano doing the intro part, and then close it with the full “Terrapin Station.” That kind of sandwiched the whole album.

I knew there was this awesome version of Railroad Earth doing “Halfstep”–at the Stone Pony, the classic rock venue. It’s a great performance and they don’t play that song a lot.  I knew I wanted to do a [Steve] Kimock “Stella Blue”; Yonder had been doing a great version of “Reuben and Cherise,” and there was this one from this past New Year’s Eve with Darol Anger on fiddle–that’s one of my favorite tracks.  I wanted to include something that was a Jerry Garcia Band song too, so it wasn’t just Grateful Dead related.

I went through and figured out which songs musically would round out the compilation, and then get performances from different bands to round out the kinds of bands that were on there, get a good representation of different bands.  We had some rockin’ stuff and some acousticky bluegrassy kinds of stuff, like the Waybacks doing “Dupree’s,” which I loved the first time I heard them do it. We had a beautiful recording, so that was perfect.

Rex: In the post-iTunes era you hear a lot about the album as a formal work being dead, that it’s all just random tunes. Do you agree? Or is Jerry Jams intended to be heard as an album?

Nugs.net: I put it together, certainly, as an album. Not at all intended to be single tracks. We’re not selling it as single tracks. I can’t control what iTunes does, and they don’t allow you to not sell single tracks; we don’t want to miss out on iTunes sales to the general public, so, well, what can we do. But on LiveDownloads.com, we want you to experience the whole thing start to finish.

I’m thrilled to be on board, glad it was such a success, and hope we can do future editions next year.