Rock's living history, streamed online

In 1970, 20-year-old student Bill Sagan had his first real brush with rock and roll history at an early Led Zeppelin concert at Chicago's fabled Aragon Ballroom.

Now the entrepreneur owns one of rock's biggest treasure troves of recorded shows by Zeppelin and other history-making bands, and he's beginning to share it freely online.

Since 2002, Sagan has owned the full archives of legendary promoter Bill Graham, whose concerts featuring performers such as the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix and others helped define the late 1960s and early '70s. Late last week, Sagan began putting excerpts from these concerts, many of which have never been released, online by way of a free Internet radio station on his company's Wolfgang's Vault site.

"My view is that a live performance is better than the studio," he says. "Live is what a band played that night. If they talked between songs, it's there. If they broke a string, it's there."

Photos: Classic rock online

For all the Amazon.coms, Rhapsodies and iTuneses in the world, it's these nuggets of music history past and present that illustrate the real power of digital music. Graham's archives contain thousands of hours of recorded audio and video that's rarely been heard or seen, but is finally being digitized and distributed.

It's a business for Sagan, but the response -- in just a few days of existence, the streaming radio service has prompted thousands of listeners to send e-mails full of concert stories and song requests -- shows he's struck a nerve online.

"It's wonderful and unique stuff, and it's a clever way to do it," said GartnerG2 analyst Mike McGuire. "Being online and digital gives them the ability not to have to invest a whole lot of capital to distribute it."

Sagan is a businessman, on the surface very different from the bushy-bearded, long-haired artists depicted in the black-and-white photographs lining the walls of his warehouse office. But Graham was a businessman too, with a reputation for being hard-nosed about making money as he promoted the peace-and-love generation's soundtrack.

Graham himself was killed in a helicopter crash in 1991, and his company was sold to SFX Promotions, which was purchased by Clear Channel in 2000.

Sagan, a tall, thin man with graying hair and angular features, takes visitors on a tour of the warehouse with evident relish. His earlier career was all business, starting and selling health care companies, he says. But in 2001, he decided he wanted to invest in music assets, seeing a business that was on the cusp of radical change.

He stumbled onto the Graham assets purely by luck, he says. He heard from a friend that they might be for sale, discovered that Microsoft founder Paul Allen and a few others were in the market, and finally persuaded then-owner Clear Channel to sell him the entire archive for "somewhere between US$5 million and US$6 million."

As he gives a tour of the warehouse, it's clear this lucky find has become more than just business. His face lights up at a black-and-white picture of a smiling, pregnant Janis Joplin hung in a conference room.

"You'll see a lot of pictures of Joplin smiling here," he says. "She had such a tragic life. I like to see her smiling."

The warehouse itself is a rock history buff's dream. Three floors are lined with shelves, which are stacked full of boxes of posters, pristine tickets for the Fillmore West and Fillmore East shows, postcards, T-shirts and original photographic negatives. Sagan estimates there are more than 20 million individual pieces here.

The original door to the Winterland Arena club in San Francisco stands against one wall. The costumes Graham wore to New Year's Eve shows are stuck in boxes in the basement. The charred and twisted remains of Graham's ever-present megaphone and walkie-talkie, burned when his office was firebombed in the 1980s, sit atop a filing cabinet.

Sagan says he's still personally going through a collection of Graham's correspondence, to and from artists. The letters and yellow Western Union telegrams are "eye-opening, to say the least," he says.

A large portion of what is in these cabinets and on these shelves has been for sale for the last two years through the Wolfgang's Vault Web site (Graham's original name was Wolfgang Grajonca). Items range from tickets and postcards selling for a few dollars, to original Fillmore concert posters for Hendrix, the Dead or other bands, which command thousands of dollars apiece.

Moving memories online
In the basement of the warehouse is the room that holds close to 5,000 hours of videotaped concerts, and a comparable quantity of audio. Nobody's quite sure what Graham had intended to do with all the footage, Sagan says. The vast majority of it is unseen and unheard, with the exception of occasional bootlegs of the same shows.

The Wolfgang's Vault radio service, which launched in mid-February, represents the first batch of this audio material to go online. For now, the 14-person company has decided to create a new 70 song to 80 song playlist every week, representing about 7 or 8 hours of music, and will stream it from the Web site.

Podcasts and music downloads are on the agenda for later this year, and probably video downloads by the end of 2006. These are where Sagan will begin to make money from the material, although he hasn't yet discussed pricing.

Some of this depends on technology. Right now Sagan's employees are busily going through the digitised audio tapes, preparing and organising the concerts. Servers with 24 terabytes of storage sit in the air-conditioned basement, holding the audio data alone.

But the company is also working with the artists, labels, songwriters and others who still own rights related to the performances. As many other start-ups have found over the years, music distribution rights can be intensely complicated and time-consuming to secure, particularly for content recorded before digital media was a routine part of contracts.

Sagan says he'll probably wind up selling DVDs and CDs. But he'd rather not. Packaging and mailing takes time and money, and he wants to spend his money on building a better way to download.

That's what the company is focusing on right now. Sagan doesn't want to distribute the work through Apple Computer's iTunes or other services, he said. Instead, his company is trying to build a simple download interface that anyone can use, where "my 82-year-old dad could download a song, and find it afterward to play it," Sagan says.

The rest is depending on the work of the artists to carry itself. Hearing and seeing them live, at the peak of their powers, is a reward in itself, Sagan says. Reliving those experiences will be the thing that draws people, he hopes.

"I remember pretty much every concert I ever went to," he says. "I remember who I went with. I remember where I parked. I remember what the bathrooms smelled like. You really remember the damnedest things."

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