Ben Ratliff writes an interesting piece about Grateful Dead fandom (not the tie-dye, need-a-miracle twirling, but the tape trading/DAT-head/live show collecting aspect). The article offers a couple of provocative perspectives:
1. The hierarchy of fan expertise
At the basic level, people know about published material, beyond that fans differentiate between the different eras, then choosing between specific performances (known by date and venue), then songs within a specific performance, and ultimately thoughts about the provenance of a specific recording (which source, which remaster, etc.).
This level of engagement (it’s easy to call it obsession if it’s not your bag, of course) is not limited to Deadheads, of course. Being a long-time Rolling Stones enthusiast, I’ve experienced some of that progression myself (and certainly observed debates among many of my fellow travelers along pleasurably obscure details). Indeed, going from the first level (I know what’s on record) to the second (discovering the treasure trove of unreleased material that other fans are sharing) is an On Beyond Zebra experience, like that dream where you find that you’ve had another room in your house all this time.
2. Long-tail meets plenitude meets paradox-of-choice
I remember my earliest days on the Internet where the most active non-technical communities were for fans of either Star Trek or the Grateful Dead. The Internet offered a dramatically increased ability to connect with other collectors and trade cassette tapes by snail mail. But Ratliff describes the massive increase in availability over the past few years as broadband, iTunes, and other online digital sources provide ridiculously easy access to the nearly 2,200 available shows. As more shows become available to more people, the landmark shows that everyone used as a common reference point for “best” have less of a footprint.
My analogous experience differs from Ratliff’s (although liking the Stones is not exactly like liking the Dead): I don’t need to choose Taylor vs. Wood (two lead guitarists with markedly different sounds and associated with markedly different eras). Since I can now listen to a version of Satisfaction where the Rolling Stones essentially covered Otis Redding’s then-popular cover version, or a 9-minute version of Brown Sugar with horns, or a live version of a relatively-obscure album track that really bring the song home, I now have a broader and richer fan-listening experience. Listening and listening again and hearing new things over the years is sufficient; deciding the best isn’t ultimately that useful once you’re in a position to even make a reasonable distinction.
Deadheads and Stones fans are connected communities with passion and purchasing power and Ratliff’s article is worth reading for some insight on – at the extreme end – how those communities evolve and transact.