The FezGuys
The Anatomy of a Webcast
[ Feature - March 1999 ]

On a wet and windy Monday night in San Francisco Sy Klopps Studios (a full digital audio facility wired to the Internet) hosted the first live webcast by members of the Grateful Dead. Playing as The Other Ones, the band used the event to kick off the release of their first album: "The Strange Remain." The physical site of the webcast, housed within a large building belonging to Nocturne Productions (a respected video and lighting house for live events) is a musician/engineer/producer's dream playpen. Besides being decked out with acres of wall-obscuring classic rock paraphernalia and gold and platinum records, the rooms are packed with high quality audio toys for musical creation and production. The studio is 32-track digital (four ADAT decks, an Otari Status 18R desk, a small wall of Focusrite and other processing, etc.). The performing area contains an inspiring array of musical instruments and amplifiers. There's around ten pre-CBS Fender Stratocasters, several varieties of old Gibson Les Pauls, various other acoustic and electric guitars and about 40 vintage instrument amplifiers including Fender, Gibson, Gretsch, and Silvertone. One bass (a Fender, of course) and one bass amp (an SVT, surprise!) cover the needs of the bottom end. There's a white DW trap kit behind a Plexiglas baffle, a baby grand piano and, to top it all off, a genuine Hammond B3 organ. All of these tools and toys are carefully and artfully arranged within an open and spacious environment. And the whole place is wired with a T1 line for data transfer and an ISDN line for those special dialup occasions.

Right now, the environment is buzzing with activity. A handful of people watch or work, some huddled over computer and audio gear, intent and focused and the task at hand. When Bob Weir and Mickey Hart (guitar and drum respectively from the Grateful Dead) stroll in, along with Dave Ellis (saxophone from the Charlie Hunter Trio) and Mark Karan (guitar) the mood cranks up a notch. Mickey keeps it playful by leaping on the drums and playing a simple beat, smiling and chanting unintelligible rhythmic noises. Everyone laughs. The remaining members of The Other Ones, Phil Lesh (bass from The Grateful dead), Bruce Hornsby (keyboards), Steve Kimock (guitar from Zero) and John Molo (drums) are not in attendance but there's enough of the band to play a quick rendition of "Friend of the Devil." The webcast has begun.

After the song the band members sit with interviewer Steve Silberman (author of "Skeleton Key - A Dictionary for Deadheads") and answer questions from fans around the world. The band relaxes on a square brown leather sectional sofa in front of a large painting of the cover of the album being promoted. On either side large color video monitors display an endlessly cycling psychedelic montage. Color-corrected lights bathe the area in a warm glow.

In front of the stage area five Betacams record the chat and typists transcribe the Q&A for those who are connected in the chatrooms. It's a relaxed, friendly atmosphere. The band responds with generous attention, clearly appreciative of their fans. Queries come from previously reviewed and edited emails and in real time from both the Internet and a live chat room hosted and promoted by AOL. A transcript of the chat is fed onto the event web site and into a IRC (Internet Relay Chat) chat room. The interviewer takes the questions, relays them to the band and the responses are typed in real-time. The entire interview is available as scrolling plain text, streamed audio only or streamed audio and video in two formats.

Because this event is a first on so many levels a lot of people are involved. In fact, a pretty complex dance of disparate organizations is required to make it happen. Some of the groups participating are: Grateful Dead Productions, Inc., Evolve Internet Solutions, Nocturne Productions, Sy Klopps Studios, ISP Networks, SRA Networks, Ice Nine Publishing,,, America Online, LiquidAudio, Rolling Stone Online, Cutting Edge and Netopia.

The audio signal path goes like this: After traveling from a mic to the Otari desk in the studio (now doubling as an audio broadcast production suite), a stereo signal is sent to the ubiquitous Mackie 1202 mixer in the Web production room (downstairs and about 80 feet of cable away). Stereo feeds from the Mackie go to L/R XLR inputs on the Cutting Edge processor (reviewed elsewhere in this issue) which optimizes the signal for streaming over the Internet. The Omnia's processed stereo output is then fed back to the Mackie (again L/R XLR connections) and from there the signal travels to a little Radio Shack distribution amplifier that splits it into three feeds. One feed for each of the three Window-based PCs encoding and streaming the audio to powerful remote servers that can handle tens of thousands of streams simultaneously.

Because three specific streams are provided three individual computers must be used. One computer streams 56kbps RealVideo (which includes audio), another streams 28kbps RealVideo (with audio) and the last streams only 28kbps RealAudio (all audio streams are mono - this is a chat, after all). Windows machines are used because they tend to be a more stable environment when encoding with RealNetworks products. The three streams travel over the facility's direct dial 128kbps ISDN connection to a server infrastructure in Seattle, WA, hosted by LiveConcerts and Real Broadcast Network (RBN). RBN is a joint venture between RealNetworks and MCI to serve large numbers of simultaneous streams.

To get online fans to participate press releases were distributed and announcements were made on <>,, Rolling Stone Online, and Wired news. Of course the most effective promotion is the fabled word of mouth network of the Dead community. At the appropriate time fans landed on The Other Ones event web site and followed a link which offered a choice of streaming formats. Afterwards the event was archived for anyone who missed it live.

Besides being the first time that members of The Grateful Dead performed live on the Internet, it was the first time a bonus track was made available as a free download to promote their album release. A file of The Other One's version of "Mississippi Half-step" (a classic Garcia/Hunter tune) was made available in both MP3 and LiquidAudio formats from a variety of web sites. The actual album was also available as a mail-order purchase for online fans a week before it hit the stores.

Is all this time and effort worth it? Naturally the value of anything depends on what the expectations are. Were The Other Ones interested in bolstering their emailing list? At last count over 2,000 addresses were added as a result of the event. Was the band interested in promoting album sales? Over 3,000 copies of "The Strange Remain" were sold by mail order prior to the album's release in stores (another first: during that week The Other Ones took more album orders via the Web than the 800 number). Did they want to make their fans happy? Over 20,000 downloads of the bonus track occurred in the one week period surrounding the webcast. Clearly it was a success by any number of standards. During the event the site received over 318,000 "hits." Over 28,000 streams of the 30-second excerpts from the album were recorded. There were even another 22,000 streams played of Bob Weir and Mickey Hart's pre-recorded audio invitation. And, less easy to measure but still relevant, the outpouring of positive feedback via email from fans to the band (and all involved) is certainly gratifying.

This new-media promotional event, though still in its infancy, shows great promise as a mainstay of any musician's attention-getting arsenal. It's well known that the community surrounding the Grateful Dead have long been active on the Internet (The Dead was the first band-specific Usenet group) and that fans of the band are ahead of the curve when it comes to grassroots support, both traditional and online. The success of this live webcast and the excitement of both the old-school rock establishment and new-model Web-enabled people points toward expansion in the field. The geeks and the freaks found another common ground in the place where Cyberspace meets Steal Your Face. We all benefit.

An archive of the event remains online at <>.



About the authors:

Jon Luini is a working technophile, a musician (bass player/singer) with full-blown facility and extensive experience on the Web and no free time. He is a co-founder of IUMA and MediaCast, co-creator of Addicted To Noise, and runs an Internet and music consulting and technology company, Chime Interactive (formerly Evolve Internet Solutions). <>

Allen Whitman is a working musician (bass player/singer/producer) with a keen, real-world interest in the practical use of the Web. Music credits include: The Mermen, "Brine-The Antisurf Soundtrack, biL, Deep Field South, Doormouse, Delectric and Drizzoletto. He has written for the San Francisco Examiner, Wired, EQ, Revolution, Yahoo Internet Life, Prosound News, Surround Professional, Replication News and others. <>

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