Rock's living history, streamed online

Entrepreneur is putting thousands of hours of unheard Hendrix, Dead and other Bill Graham-promoted shows online. Photos: Rock history Video: Graham's collection

SAN FRANCISCO--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."

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Video: Tour Graham's archives
Wolfgang's Vault CEO Bill Sagan takes you through a meticulous collection of music mogul Bill Graham's rarest memorabilia.

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.

Photos: Classic rock online

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 $5 million and $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

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