Phish’s Island tour kicked off 20 years ago today, traveling from Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, NY (April 2 and 3) to the Providence Civic Center in Providence, RI (April 4 and 5). To mark the occasion we present this interview with Phish archivist Kevin Shapiro that originally ran in 2005 after the band released the shows as part of its Live Phish series.
Recently, as part of its ongoing livephish.com project, the Phish organization put out the four shows from 1998 dubbed "The Island Tour" (as the four performances took place first on Long Island, and then in Rhode Island). Kevin Shapiro has been Phish's archivist for quite some time, and has been instrumental in all of the livephish.com releases including the recent The Island Tour release. The shows, as few would argue and Kevin points out, were a high point in Phish's illustrious career. Boundary-bursting improv, inspired playing and an all around playfulness permeated all four shows.
The concerts have been at the top of favorite show lists for years, and so the announcement of their release was met with great enthusiasm from Phish’s fans, and rightfully so. While some argued that their audience sourced copies were more than sufficient, the vast majority welcomed the soundboards with open arms. The crisp, clean sound represents an upgrade over the well circulated audience copies, and now, listening to the shows with headphones on (as music should be listened to), one can hear with an even greater clarity, the power these four individuals were wielding during that period of time. Page’s layering, so important to Phish’s live sound, is of such prominence on the discs, that purchasing the soundboards to better hear his contributions alone would be a worthy decision.
I caught up with Kevin Shapiro to discuss the releases, as well as a variety of other topics. For some of you this should be worth reading if only to learn about the status of a possible Cypress video. Enjoy.
Dan: Just to clarify at the outset, what exactly is your role within the Phish organization?
Kevin: I have two titles, archivist and in-house counsel. The counsel role is mostly transactional and intellectual property law while acting as a liaison to a variety of outside attorneys.
Dan: How does the Live Phish series get wrapped up into that?
Kevin: They’re overlapping roles. It took me a while to understand why they wanted one person to do both those jobs, but they complement each other. There are legal issues that come up when releasing live shows and archival tasks like cataloging, preserving and releasing shows have also been part of the job since I started. Releasing shows is a collaborative effort with help from band, fans and family.
Dan: What goes into picking a particular show for release? And at the same time, I would guess that there are shows that are more "desirable" by the fan base, so how does something like the 7.15.98 show, which was quite a surprise, get brought into the mix?
Kevin: Obviously if a band member wants to release a show, we release it. Beyond that, there are a few tests. One that Fish made up is the show must achieve "significant, transcendent moments" in each set. I’d take that a step further to say that those high moments should be achieved in each disc. Another is a scale I made up that incorporates Fish’s test and considers a show’s energy, musicality, flow and transcendence. The last is the "goosebumps" test, which is a good overall baseline. A show that doesn’t give us goosebumps probably won’t make it. It’s still subjective to a large degree. One person’s favorite show is another’s overrated and that’s part of the challenge.
7.15.98 (U.S. tour opener in Portland, OR) was part of a series of shows Mike picked to release based on notes from journals he’s kept throughout Phish’s career. We talked back and forth about which four shows he thought were best for the series. He asked to hear his favorites based on shows he had noted at the time. On those shows I mostly acted as a sounding board and helped choose the filler. The result was great. The four shows he chose (LP17-LP20 or "Mike’s Picks") are smoking hot.
Dan: How long is the process from the moment you decide to release more shows, to the actual release date?
Kevin: It depends. I advocated putting out the Island Tour for quite a while before it happened. Hampton was bounced around among the band members and the release happened pretty soon after. It depends on the circumstances and how ramped up we were. Some of the releases from later rounds of the Live Phish series are shows the band or I had suggested from earlier rounds of releases. So some are sort of on-deck from previous listening, but others start as requests or just a whim to listen to a specific show or era. As far as production timing, if we decide today we want to release something (audio), we can have it out in a couple of months on CD or faster as a download.
Dan: One of the main criticisms of the Live Phish series is that, in comparison to the Dead organization, Phish’s releases have been far more sporadic and unpredictable. I understand that to some degree its apples to oranges, but is there a reason that releases don’t occur more often?
Kevin: I can think of a few reasons. The biggest is that up until last summer, there was always a total focus on the future and little or no focus on the past. The band thought to hire an archivist to preserve the music and history, so they respected their past enough to make those plans. But as far as the release program, they were purely forward looking for most of their career. It wasn’t until A Live One, thirteen years into their career, that Phish put out a live album. Contrast that with The Dead who released records of famous live shows a few years after the band began. That’s one general difference between those bands throughout their history.
There are also different views of how much material is absorbable between the band and management and the hardest core fans. The Live Phish series was four or six shows at a time and that’s a lot of music. I don’t know exactly how that compares to Grateful Dead, who are putting out tons of music. I’m sure they face the same questions when deciding to put out so much material. I was lucky to have befriended Dick, and David (Lemieux) is also a friend of mine, and they always impress me with how much music they put out for Deadheads. I respect those guys a lot. They have managed to expand the archivist’s role to include being a player in production of live releases. It’s amazing to be able to walk in those shoes at all, let alone to have my work compared to theirs. They do a great job with the GD legacy.
Until very recently, Phish’s focus hasn’t been on the legacy at all. The band always concentrated on what was next and there have always been great things around every corner. Maybe because of that forward focus, we’ve also never settled on an organized program, as you pointed out. For example, Grateful Dead mix all their multi-tracks for release and refuse to release any 2-track sources of shows from which they have multis. Phish started releasing live material with A Live One, which is from multiple shows and is mixed and sweetened from multitrack tapes to a great result. When Phish started releasing full shows with Hampton Comes Alive, the decision was made to use 2-track sources despite having the ability to remix the shows. Since then, we’ve mixed some releases and some we have not. That’s mostly Paul’s decision since they’re ultimately his mixes but other factors can affect it including a desire to present the reference mix as a live document of the show.
At this point I should also point out we’ve released six excellent shows in 2005 (two from 11/94 plus Island Tour) and that’s respectable when you consider Trey and Mike’s studio releases are due out this year. I hope we’ll release more Phish audio and video from the archives this year, but there are lots of considerations that affect the flow.
Dan: As long as you implied a market saturation of sorts, and I know you mentioned you’ve been pushing the Island Tour for a while, have you found the number of downloads for these four shows has met your perceived demand?
Kevin: We didn’t really know how to judge it. We’ve never put out an archival release on both download and CDs like this. Until The Island Tour this summer, we hadn’t released any live shows on CD since 2003, when we re-mastered and released three very hot livephish.com downloads (2.28.03 Uniondale, NY, 7.15.03 West Valley, UT and 7.29.03 Burgettstown, PA) on CD. That, and the fact that the Island Tour is four complete consecutive shows made this round of releases sort of a wild card. We’re thrilled with how these turned out production-wise and I don’t even need to talk about the quality of the shows. They’re all so good you can play any CD from any show over and over again and still find more groundbreaking material with every listen. In that sense, these shows speak for themselves and response has been excellent from everyone who’s heard them.
Dan: Don’t get me started because I’ll talk forever about these shows.
Kevin: (laughs) I just want to add, though I may not speak for the band or anyone else here, that I don’t think saturation is a major concern. It’s only been months since the band stopped playing and we closed our offices and re-opened a very skeleton operation. It’s really just barely enough to keep things flowing. Given that and how rough the past year has been, I’m happy with what we’ve done in the meantime and most of what we did when our team was in full swing. Our archival releases as a whole represent many of the best moments in Phish history, and the Island Tour probably isn’t the end of this year’s live releases. The skeleton home office that’s left probably diminishes quantity and speed of releases but not quality and that’s most important. Size of operation is as valid a reason for the number of releases as saturation though. We do our best under the circumstances. Our dedication is very high so if the result is releases this good that help people remember or even discover the magic of Phish, we’re a huge success.
Dan: To shift gears to something else of relevance, I wanted to talk for a little about DVDs. For starters, can you clarify exactly what Phish’s policy is with regards to the trading of unauthorized DVDs?
Kevin: Video was never allowed. Since I’ve been seeing shows, the band actively discouraged videotaping at shows. However, they never took a stance against trading of video even though by definition, most of it was never allowed to exist in the first place. More recently, people started to sync amateur DVDs with sound from official Phish releases and that’s when we had to look into it. Any time anyone is selling or producing Phish products without permission, they are infringing on the band’s rights. When that happens, legally we don’t have a choice except to follow that up. That’s a high priority. Dealing with what fans can and can’t trade is much less a concern. It only comes up when there is a trend that could diminish the band’s rights, like commercial sales or open, unauthorized copying of official releases.
For example, there was a point where show security asked me to request that fans not to trade CD’s or DVD’s in the lot because it looked like they were selling them. It was something fans had been doing with no problem for years, but because of changing circumstances, we had to discourage it so staff trying to stop commercial bootlegging on the lots could do their jobs. Unauthorized trading of DVD’s was a similar thing relating to where and how they are offered. It really only became an issue when people began trading DVD’s online en masse with audio illegally copied from official releases. All we really did in response to that was ask some of the people who run fan sites to spread the word that it is not kosher to trade DVD’s that contain Live Phish, livephish.com or other officially released audio (or to copy any official releases in any way). Hopefully people copying the releases got the message.
Dan: But with the advent of Bit Torrent, can you realistically stop people from trading those discs?
Kevin: Well, there are two questions. The first is what should our policy be about this? What should we tell fans is an acceptable way to trade Phish music? We have to make that clear for the same reason we are required to enforce our rights against commercial bootleggers. If we don’t, theoretically those rights can be weakened or lost. And certainly the band wants to protect the rights to their creative output.
The second question is how to enforce the taping policy, which we updated to reflect the change in technology and to clarify what was okay so people would not get the idea that because it’s easy to copy DVDs sync’d with official audio, that its okay to do. The only limit the band ever placed upon fans trading with each other is to ask that people not copy officially released material. That’s the heart of the taping policy and has been the rule since long before there was any written policy. It’s not a demand that people purchase anything (audience tapes are always free) but it is the one thing that’s not allowed. In a nutshell, the band said from the beginning "You can’t use our music for anything commercial and please don’t copy our records." For years, fans copying official releases never even came up in discussion, because I think fans understood that 99% of the band’s output was out there to trade freely. The only things they asked not be traded are those the band chose to represent them officially and that includes the packaging and the whole thing. It’s perfectly fair that they should get paid for the releases they choose to market. We also wanted to make it clear that moving officially released audio onto a DVD or anywhere else does not change the rule that you’re not supposed to trade that stuff.
You know, we just released the Island Tour and some people immediately said "Sweet! Now we can sync this up with our DVD’s". To me, it seems that fans of a band that’s been so generous through the years and has set so few limits with their live material (i.e.: "don’t copy official releases") should not just disregard that because it’s easy. When some new trend becomes an avenue to skirt the taping policy, we have to address it, hopefully in a tasteful way that leaves the community aware of the limits. That’s the goal.
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