Objects of Affection

Up-and-coming recording technology allows concertgoers to revisit favorite shows in a flash.

illustration by Kim Foxillustration by Kim Fox

USB flash drives, those finger-sized storage warehouses that can dangle a life’s work from a keychain, are some of the fastest-moving worker bees in the digital world. They write data at speeds measured in seconds and can read information, as the name implies, in a mere flash. Yet the limitless possibility of the little things, not to mention their downright insane ease of use and guilt-inducing, too-good-to-be-true affordability, has seeped into public consciousness at a glacial pace. Flash drives have been readily available for nearly a decade now, but you can still overhear conversations from seemingly plugged-in friends expressing renewed wonderment over the diminutive miracles.

By comparison, then, the not-so-recent phenomenon of well-known bands offering exclusive content on flash drives—most often in the form of “USB wristbands”—is not the slow-burning trend it seems to be at first glance. Its biggest test run came mid-decade, introduced, appropriately, by one of the biggest bands: the Rolling Stones. In an ultimately ill-conceived marketing failure, the group offered its latest studio album, A Bigger Bang, in the form of MicroSD sim cards that most of their fans found hard to use and overpriced (not to mention the lackluster content that was the actual album). But it planted a seed for musicians and labels alike, and within a year or two, pioneering artists like Willie Nelson offered souvenir USB downloads of their live shows, on the same night as the concert, on the spot. Instead of a tiny, featureless chip, these plug-in memories came in the form of wristbands branded with the band’s logo. Despite their priciness in relation to, say, a T-shirt (most wristbands average around $35), something about the presentation, the novel shape, and the immediacy of the high-end items hit just the right note with consumers.

By late 2007, the USB wristband earned headlines in USA Today as virtually every major act, from Metallica to Avril Lavigne, offered take-home wristbands at their shows. Behind the scenes at both of those tours were the engineers/roadies of Aderra Technologies. Only a few years ago, Aderra was a three-person operation with patent-pending technology for recording the live shows in a way that would let audience members bring the night home on their arms. Today, the biggest names in music seek them out before they even think about hitting the road.

For the first couple of years, it was literally us knocking on doors, cold-calling, tracking down managers,” says Julie Garfield, vice president of Aderra, who came to the company from a career producing food shows for the Fine Living network. “[Aderra] was just getting rolling at the time, and I just ended up staying. It was an up-and-coming business with a lot of potential, and it’s taken some time for people to catch on to the technology.”

People want—even love—nifty little objects. Chips don’t seem to inspire the same acquisitive emotion.

Aderra’s founder, Ed Donnelly, had visions of audience members walking out of a live show and listening to it immediately on iPods or cell phones—something along the lines of the Rolling Stones’ MicroSD experiment. But, in the pre-smartphone era, he understood that a) people don’t go to shows with their iPods very often, and b) cell phone carriers’ data plans at the time were too expensive and bandwidth-limited for the idea to truly go viral. Aderra’s solution: flash drives.

That’s how we ended up with our initial [recording device], which had us burning to about 16 USB drives at once and weighed over 100 pounds. Typical prototype—way too heavy and way too slow,” laughs Donnelly.

It’s a trial-and-error process that Germany-based Music Networx knew too well. Though they’ve recently expanded their business to include the United States—including the recent announcement of a partnership with KISS to record their latest tour onto USB wristbands, already the company’s hottest seller to date—Music Networx was at the forefront of the technology overseas.

We actually saw a local band do this and thought it was a great idea,” says Music Networx CEO Gerrit Schumann. “We have perfected the product, added many elements, and automated the process to make it scalable to cater to many tours.”

Scalability is job one in a niche industry that relies on capturing onstage magic instantly. It requires sound engineers who can reliably record in the toughest conditions—not to mention a true rock spirit. When Aderra took on the Warped Tour in 2008, they quickly realized they needed more hands on deck: young, hungry, and professional hands.

These guys were driving all night, setting up the next day, recording the show, getting back in the RV and traveling again,” says Garfield of the Warped experience. “We realized if we have young kids doing this who are talented, they can kind of go with that. They can take all that stamina and make it happen. It was quite a boot camp for those guys.”

With growing interest in their product came greater power. Eventually, Aderra was able to negotiate their engineers directly onto the bands’ tour buses, which not only eliminated the grueling driving but opened the door to new value-added features they could offer to the bands. “Our guy on the road with them has a camcorder, and he’ll take daily tour video with members of the band,” says Garfield. “They’ll do a special fan message that will get loaded on each night, like, ‘Hey Indianapolis, we’re here,’ or … an anecdote that speaks directly to those fans.”

That increased accessibility demanded entirely new skill sets from the engineers, who suddenly had to not only work with Pro Tools and mix tracks, but also be able to blend in as one of the guys. At the same time, their sound guys work closely with the tour venues and band managers, not to mention reporting numbers back to their company every night. “There are a lot of things they have to be adept at,” says Garfield.

Schumann agrees that the mark of a good engineer—Music Networx employs about 12 of them at any given time, and Aderra ranges from 6 to 10—comes down to intuition. “[An engineer] has to have a good feeling for the right mix for different genres, and be able to determine the perfect mix within the shortest period of time.”

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got one of these USB's at a Zac Brown show.

Killer tunes, Bro. Still listen to it. especially cover of CDB’s Devil Went Down to Georgia.