Rolling Stone, December 14, 2006
Classic Shows Free Online
Controversial Site Streams 300 Concerts from Bowie to the Who
An incredible trove of over 300 rare concert recordings - by the Who, Led Zeppelin, Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Bob Marley and many others - went online November 10th as free audio streams on the rock-memorabilia Web site Wolfgang's Vault. They're part of a vast archive left by the late promoter Bill Graham, who made soundboard recordings of almost every show he produced at San Francisco's Fillmore West, New York's Fillmore East and other legendary U.S. venues.
One problem: the Web site's owner, San Francisco entrepreneur Bill Sagan, may not have the right to stream them. Some of the featured artists are considering legal action against Sagan, who uncovered the recordings when he purchased the archive from Clear Channel Communications in 2003 for a reported $5-6 million. "These are important concerts - if it hadn't been for Wolfgang's Vault, I doubt we would have even known about them," says Jorma Kaukonen, former guitarist for Jefferson Airplane, who have four shows on the site. "But if in some way they're making money off this and they're not cutting all the artists in, then that's not right."
The free concerts are intended to draw Web traffic to Wolfgang's Vault (the company is named after Graham, born Wolfgang Grajonca in Berlin), which made an estimated $1.5 million last year selling vintage Eagles handbills, Led Zeppelin T-shirts, Jimi Hendrix posters and other memorabilia from the 20-million-piece collection. The archive contains about 5,000 concert recordings, and Sagan's team of archivists and engineers have cataloged and digitized about 700 since early 2004. Sagan won't say exactly what's left in the vault, but classic shows by James Taylor, the Beach Boys, Santana and the Cars are scheduled to be posted before 2007. The Graham tapes needed surprisingly little work, considering their age. "The condition was fantastic," says archivist Matt Lundberg, the site's vice president of media. "That was pure luck."
Sagan considers Wolfgang's Vault an Internet radio station, and he pays performance royalties through a service called Sound Exchange and songwriting royalties to publishers on all the music he streams. "We have rights as owners to do what we can within the confines of the law," he says, arguing that the site's security, which includes requiring users to register, is enough to stave off most bootleggers. "That's why we protect the hell out of the security of the stream. And that's why we do it for free."
But that may not be good enough. Gary Greenstein, Sound Exchange's general counsel, believes that although Sagan owns the recordings, only the artists' label has the right to distribute them - even as free streaming audio. "Just because you purchase a physical copy doesn't give you certain rights," Greenstein says. "And if you don't have the rights, you're opening yourself up for a potential lawsuit for infringement."
"At best it's inappropriate, at worst it's illegal," adds John Scher, whose client, guitarist Bob Weir, is discussing a possible lawsuit against the site for streaming four classic Grateful Dead shows, including a twenty-three song, nearly-three-hour 1970 Fillmore East Performance. "No one should have the right to put the music out that artists don't approve." (By coincidence, Wolfgang's Vault began streaming Neil Young's classic March 6th, 1970, concert four days before Reprise Records' long-planned CD version came out in mid-November. Young's representatives wouldn't comment.)
But at least a few artists support the site: Sam Andrew, guitarist for the late Janis Joplin's band Big Brother and the Holding Company, says he wants as many people as possible to hear his music. And Paul Crockford, manager of guitarist Mark Knopfler, has no problem with the vault streaming two Dire Straits shows. "Where's the damage?" he asks. "If he's selling the downloads, that would be different. But he's simply broadcasting them as a stream."
Sagan has no plans to remove the concerts - in fact, Wolfgang's Vault will post five new shows a week, beginning in late November. "We believe we have the greatest collection of live concert performances in one place," says Sagan, adding that Web-site traffic spiked from about 16,000 visitors a day to about 27,000 after he posted the concert archive. "We want people to be able to listen to them."
Six From the Vault: Prime Shows|
a quick guide to the coolest gigs on wolfgangsvault.com
Bruce Springsteen, 1978
Winterland, San Francisco
A three-hour marathon, highlighted by an epic "Jungleland" and the six-minute piano-guitar intro to "Prove it All Night." A high-water mark for one of the greatest live acts ever.
Neil Young and Bob Dylan, 1975
Kezar Stadium, San Francisco
Dylan, Young, and the Band formed a one-off supergroup for this benefit concert. To this day no one knows why Dylan reworked "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" as "Knockin' on Dragon's Door."
The Who, 1968
Fillmore East, New York
This rare pre-Tommy soundboard finds the group in maximum R&B mode on "Fortune Teller." Plus: Sell Out material like "Relax," which they haven't touched since.
David Bowie, 1976
Nassau Coliseum, Uniondale, NY
A hypnotic eleven-minute version of "Station to Station" opens a set that features glittered-up takes on hits like "Rebel Rebel" and the "Jean Genie."
The Clash, 1979
Agora Ballroom, Cleveland
Days into their debut U.S. tour, the Clash tear through raw, intense versions of "White Riot" and "London's Burning."
Led Zeppelin, 1969
Fillmore West, San Francisco
Two weeks after they first arrived in America, Zeppelin took the famous Fillmore stage and blew the hippies' minds with a monster set that included a thirteen-minute "Dazed and Confused."
By Steve Knopper
Back to Vault News