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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Learning The Ropes To A Forgotten Trade

Way back when, if you decided that you were going to collect Grateful Dead concert tapes, it wasn’t something that was extremely easy to do. Back in the days of analog music preservation, it was not all that common for someone to have two cassette decks, and having two decks was only the bare minimum required in the secret door knock that would get you into this club. It certainly didn’t stop there. Once inside, there were many feats of strength you had to perform in order to be granted a seat at one of several tables that warmly understood you were a welcomed comrade ready to trade. It was barely enough to just be a lover of the Grateful Dead, who then felt something snap in your head telling you that you had to figure out a way into the club. You had to learn the rules. Now in general, everyone had some kind of help. Since you couldn’t easily stumble upon the world of Grateful Dead bootlegs without someone “turning you on” to tapes, you would generally know someone who had at least a faded and patched together map of the road in.

While the kindness of deadheads is a historical fact, being allowed to copy your friends tapes (or relying on your friend to copy them for you if you didn’t even have your second deck yet) would only get you so far. Eventually you’d run out of his tapes. By then, you were probably a full blown addict, and getting deeper into the club was now a necessity – life without more of those Summer ’73 tapes was just unthinkable. So, you had to wrangle up two cassette decks and start trading.

Deadhead tape traders were (are) a detail minded bunch, and there were many facets to tape trading that could either smooth or obstruct one’s way into the world of building a tape collection. Once inside door number one of this club, you would be quickly directed down a particular hallway based upon just which kind of cassette decks you owned. If you could afford it, or rigmarole some means of acquisition, possessing two Nakamichi tape decks could get you into the first class lounge of this tape trading Moose lodge (never do it without your fez on). Folks who went “all in” to this club were spending a pretty chunk of change to get set up with two Nak decks. Even as tape decks were speedily going down the path of the black and white TV and 8-track player, Naks were fetching top dollar, and this long after they went out of new deck production. There were some models that represented the crème de la crème, one of which was the Nak Dragon, a deck that would run you a minimum of $900 “used” in the 1990’s. This, while you could stroll into Target and pick up a fancy dual-well dubbing deck for under a hundred bucks (we have a special room in the club for you guys with dual-well decks, by the way). And yes, even in the Nak lounge, the Dragon guys would sit at their own table (the bastards!). It’s not that Nak folks wouldn’t trade with non-Nak folks, but it certainly helped. Those Nak decks really did make the very best possible copies of tapes. If you had the tapes I wanted, and Nak decks, I was going to do everything I could to find a way to score a trade with you.

Okay, so decks were important. I brandished a couple of Nak decks myself. But even more important was knowing how to use them. There were a few cardinal rules in trading that I’ve probably mentioned before: NO DOLBY; use good quality tapes (Maxell XLII’s and XLII-S’s); and set your levels right. That last rule was subject to serious debate. Because of this, you were best off to just ask your trading partner where they wanted their levels set (I was a +3 to +5 peak guy. Many others would say set them flat to +0). And then you had to actually set the levels. This required looking at the set list, picking a part of some tune (or tunes) that you knew generally produced a “loud” moment, fast forwarding to find that spot, and playing the tape to then set the recording peaks on deck two. I would generally seek out the end portion of a Sugar Magnolia, or the explosive start of an Other One. You had to take care, because blowing level setting would cast a negative picture in your trading partner’s eyes when it came to trading with you ever again.

It didn’t end there. Where do you want the set list and tape genealogy written out? Can I write on the j-cards? Back of the peel-and-stick tape label sheet? And special packaging instructions - did you know that we typically never ever mailed the plastic cases that cassette are stored in? They just break in transit. Rubber banding the tape with a special loop to prevent the hubs from spinning the tape loose while in the mail – I kid you not, we cared about all of this.

Rules. Rites of passage. Customs. When we weren’t blissed out the newest Dark Star to cross our paths, deadheads certainly were sticklers for details.


  1. Thank you for the stroll down memory lane. Yes, detail oriented indeed. It's fun reading back about the way things were. Eagerly awaiting the next Relix to scour the classifieds for new trading partners was always a treat.

    Fun read. Thank you.

  2. Compared to today's 'click and download' the tape trading seems so complicated and intense, yet so utterly charming and with a massive sense of community and belonging as well.
    I missed the tape trading scene, being a relative newcomer and finding nugs, gdlive and The Archive to fill my needs....but part of me wishes I could have participated in the tape scene.

  3. yikes, hadn't thought about this stuff in a long, long while. I was never well-heeled enough to sit at the Nak table, so did it really make a difference if I used XLII's instead of the XLII-S's? What was wrong with TDK's anyway? Could I get away with putting the flip during Drumz on a 90 min since I have loads of blank 90 mins, or should I just get off my ass, go to the store, and spring for a handful of extra 100's? Thank goodness we live in such infinitely simpler times today ;)

  4. I'd love to see more posts about this. I'm just getting into the Dead (With no small amount of help from the Listening Trails) and the more AUDs I listen to the more intrigued I become by the culture that grew up around producing and trading them. These little details are fascinating.

  5. that was really a blast from the past!

  6. I remember painstakingly grading quality on all my tapes and typing up my tape list (yes, on a typewriter) to send out to prospective traders picked out of Relix classifieds. I was only 15 when I started so I never thought to photocopy and amend the list as my collection grew, so I would sit down and retype the list each time! I also became enamored with the different tape covers found on tour like the one you have pictured. I once sent $2 cash in the mail to a couple in Indiana(?) and they sent me something like 20 tape covers, each one different.

  7. great post! However fastforwarding was prohibited....don't want to expose the tapes to any possible snags. Decks had to be cleaned and demagnatized every week. And I never cashed in my 10000 Max points!!!!!!

  8. Back in the day, it's hard to imagine how much money I spent at Terrapin Tapes and Nak Dragon's. All for fading analog memories. I knew my postman by first name! He knew what was coming every day in those sealed envelops. For some lucky reason, I somehow befriended a few aud tapers from the 70's and early 80's who hooked me up with their masters, much to my delight. There was nothing like getting home from work or school, rushing to the mail box and pulling out a 1st gen of 12-3-81 and spending the rest of the evening reeling.

  9. Thank you so much for your wonderful blog! I even bought my very first MP3 player two days ago just to be able to listen to your podcasts on my way to and from work :-)
    Posts like this one on tape trading memories are expecially great since I've been tape trading in the 80s myself. Not Grateful Dead though but lots of what was called New Wave then. Means Talking Heads, B 52's, Gang Of Four, Elvis Costello etc. To have as many items for trade as possible I virtually taped every concert that was up on German radio and then typewrited my list over and over again. Glory days!
    My first GD concert was the Rockpalast show in 1980 (?). I wasn't at the venue but saw it on tv together with my father who I think was a bit bewildered by a band that played endless improvisations (as he saw it...). Anyway, it was a memorable night especially as I got seriously drunk and really felt bad the next day...
    Again: Thanks a lot for this blog!!

  10. As much as I love to reminisce about the "good ol' days" I am so grateful we've gotten to the point where shows are but a click away. I think about all the time I used to put into taping, mailing, networking - and realize that I couldn't possibly get the same rewards nowadays, with job, kid, and all of adulthood's accouterments. Not to mention the other bonuses of modern technology, like this here blog and podcast series!

    Anyway, here are a few other things I remember from my cassette heyday:

    Recycling! I loved getting a mailer with an inch-thick worth of labels, addresses over addresses of heads who'd shared music in the very same envelope.

    Three-head decks. Though I could never enter the dragon, I was proud of having a Sony ES model with a dedicated recording head.

    Someone mentioned Maxell points. I haven't yet forgiven myself for never sending them in to get the wireless headphones.

    Lack of any consistent grading system. Would my A- tape sound as good as yours?

    Fillers! I had some amazing epiphanies come from the hidden gems kind souls would stick on tapes.


  11. As I gaze lovingly at my dusty Nak CR7A (save for the Dragon, arguably the best deck ever) I remember when trading was a social endeavor wrapped in solitude. The nights I frittered away with my decks making tapes for fellow heads around the country will never be replaced by the nights I leave my Mac on to download 40 shows from 1973.

    I'm slowly replacing my tape collection with their digital equivalent (1 Terabyte at a time!) But until then I still have the decks, the tapes and of course the J-Cards!

    That said, I probably listen to more now that I can download and play simultaneously.


  12. Just need to say thank you to all of you for your work-!!! We love it


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