Audio trading has always taken place amongst Grateful Dead fans and fans of underground metal, but I didn’t realize a culture of reggae tape traders existed until reading about Roger Steffens.
Steffens is a reggae archivist who used to audio trade heavily. He had a circle of people he trusted, and if he found out anyone was making money off the music, they’d be kicked out of his trading circle. When I read about Steffens in Los Angeles magazine, it raised some questions. Principally - should music traders follow rules or codes of conduct? As an archivist and music trader who has always had his heart in the right place, Steffens gave us a great perspective on this issue.
There wasn’t a specific point where Steffens came up with codes of conduct about trading music. "It was just a natural outcome of how the whole trading scene was developing," he says. "My main interest in tape trading came through my interest in reggae music because it was so hard to find. If you knew someone who had some reggae in their record collection, you’d ask them to make tapes because it was virtually impossible to find in stores. A lot of us in the mid ‘70s were swapping tapes. Then there were more and more reggae artists coming to America in ’75-’76. People would sneak their tape recorders into shows, and we’d swap those tapes."
While many traders are sticklers for quality, others are willing to check out whatever is available - even if the audio isn’t great. "If someone has a concert you’ve never heard, you’re gonna take a copy of it - no matter how shitty the audience recording might be - and hope a soundboard tape may surface one day. You’re interested in hearing what that experience was like at that particular unique moment. Those of us who traded were interested in the content first, the quality of it second. I was into it for the history of it."
As extensive as Steffens’ collection is, he says that “things still turn up. Just last year I found two or three more shows that nobody knew existed. There’s new John Coltrane and Miles Davis stuff coming out even today. Then there’s always the occasional leak from the Marley Estate’s own vault. They’re still sitting on about a thousand alternate tracks. The thing I always talk about are the Beatles Anthologies, where you get the outtakes and alternate versions. The Beatles knew when they had nailed a song - Bob did, too - and the versions chosen for release were always the best versions. But the alternate versions often had different lyrics, certainly different musical arrangements, and they illustrate the creative process in strong and moving ways. I would love to see a whole series of alternative albums released; call them the Bob Marley Anthologies.
Steffens says that trading didn’t start to get tricky "until people started asking for money for things. With the advent of Bob Marley’s popularity, people like me who had extensive collections began to be very leery of people who began to approach us for rare material."
Steffens has over ten thousand hours of material in his collection. He has one recording that took him nineteen years to get, and another that took ten years. "In both those cases, someone stole them from me, and next thing I knew they were up on the internet. Those were the triggers for me no longer trading. I let people into my house and gave them free reign, and I got burned a couple of times by people I thought I could trust. So I closed off all my trading, and it’s really a shame because it was a lot of fun, and it was done for the love of music and not for any kind of monetary considerations."
Needless to say, the free-for-all spirit of the internet has turned off a lot of old school traders. "That phrase that just drives me and older people nuts is, 'Music wants to be free,'" Steffens says. "Horseshit. It’s so unfair to artists, and shows utter disrespect to them with that attitude. It costs people a lifetime of education, struggle, buying instruments and recording equipment, doing all the things you have to do in order to become a good, well-respected musician. Then somebody says, 'Yeah, but I’m not gonna pay you for that.' How the hell is anybody gonna make a living as a musician?”
Among traders are no hard and fast rules or regulations set in stone. As Steffens puts it, "I don’t know who really has the right to make rules. It’s more a question of ethics and morality. Ask yourself if what you’re doing is right and proper."