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Downloading profits

Shortly after Phish finished its New Year's Eve concert at American Airlines Arena in Miami, Brad G. Serling departed for the bowels of the arena.

"Everyone's making plans to go party, and here I am making plans to go to the production office," said Serling, 31. His tone was a bit rueful, but he was certainly not complaining.

That is because there was no place Serling, a Johnny Appleseed of online concert recordings, would rather go. By 2:30 a.m., Serling later recounted, he had the entire concert on his iPod, courtesy of the band's sound engineer. At 4:30 a.m., he was back at his hotel in South Beach, transferring the more than 2 gigabytes of audio files to one of the three laptops he had brought along.

Later, from a hotel with a faster Internet link, he uploaded the files to the Internet. And so, by the morning of Jan. 2, Phish fans worldwide could pay $11.95 to download the New Year's Eve concert from Live Phish Downloads (www.livephish.com), a site run jointly by the band and Serling's company, Nugs.net. Serling had also joined forces with three less-prominent bands, the Radiators, the String Cheese Incident and Yonder Mountain String Band, to post recordings of their New Year's concerts at another site, LiveDownloads (www.livedownloads.com). As other technology companies scramble to match the success of Apple's online music store, iTunes, which sells songs for 99 cents each, a different online-music economy is emerging around the sale of recordings of live performances, often with no restrictions on how they can be played or shared.

Since it was established in late 2002, Live Phish Downloads, which offers audio files for about 50 Phish concerts, has generated more than $2.25-million in sales. Its success has helped prompt a new look at the potential for bands to become their own distributors online.

Coran Capshaw, manager of the Dave Matthews Band, said the group had agreed to set up a downloading site with Nugs.net. While other bands following a similar model have focused on selling concert recordings, the Dave Matthews Band intends to begin in March by selling downloads of its album catalog, to be followed shortly by sales of concert recordings. (RCA, the band's record company, is to receive part of the proceeds from the sale of albums online.)

Even Phish's record company, Elektra, which receives a small cut of the Live Phish Downloads proceeds, has embraced the band's online marketing of its music.

"We always thought it would be nice for there to be a happy medium where the band gets more involved with the fans, and this seems to us to be a perfect way to do it," said Brian C. Cohen, Elektra's senior vice president for marketing.

One way that selling downloads appeals to fans is by offering music files that are not crippled by limitations on where and how many times the file can be copied. Such so-called Digital Rights Management systems are used by many traditional online music stores. But most of the budding concert download sites, including Live Phish Downloads, sell unrestricted files.

"Why make it harder for people to buy your product?" Serling said. "The answer is fear, and you have to get over the fear. What would you do if you walked into Tower Records to buy the new Dave Matthews Band CD and the guy behind the counter said: "Here's your CD. It's $18, but you can only listen to it in your den on one stereo. You can't take it to the car. You can't put it on your iPod.' You would laugh at him and walk out, right? It's the same thing here."

However compelling that argument, Capshaw said the Dave Matthews Band had not decided whether its online offerings, particularly its albums, would be copy-protected or unrestricted. (Phish recently gave would-be pirates a new incentive to do the right thing, announcing that it was donating its profits from Live Phish Downloads to a nonprofit group supporting music education for children.)

Other bands, too, are being drawn to the model. In November, Primus began PrimusLive (www.primuslive.com) with a company called BackOfficeMusic. Guitarist Steve Kimock started a live-concert download store in partnership with a new New Jersey company called DigitalSoundboard (www.digitalsoundboard.net). A year ago, Pearl Jam began offering downloads of live shows to fans who also bought a CD of that concert. Now, the band also offers concert recordings through iTunes, though only song by song.

Until now, most bands that have embraced selling concert recordings are best known for their improvisational live performances, not studio albums. Serling, of Nugs.net, acknowledges that his distribution model might not appeal to every musical act, at least until there is more evidence of potential profits.

For now, though, after years of running the service as a labor of love, Serling feels as if he is living a fantasy. In addition to the pay sites, Nugs.net still offers dozens of concerts free, in streaming and downloadable formats.

"This is what I would be doing even if there were no LivePhish.com," Serling said. "I would be out there as a taper with my recording deck and making files and putting them up on Nugs.net. It's nice to be able to do the same thing and also pay the rent."

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