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Bill Graham's rock archives stream online

Playlist culled from concert recordings made between 1966 and '99 accessible for free. CD and DVD releases possible.

Some of rock's most intriguing content is now in cyberspace via the Wolfgang's Vault Web site. The memorabilia seller offers treasures from the stash of promoter Bill Graham, programmer of San Francisco's legendary Fillmore, who died in 1991.

A 75-song playlist culled from 7,000 to 8,000 vintage audio and video concert recordings made between 1966 and 1999 began streaming on the Wolfgang's Vault Web site Feb. 8, at no cost to consumers. The owner of the Graham archive is optimistic that some of the seminal performances will make it to retailers' shelves as CDs and DVDs by year's end.

San Francisco-based Wolfgang's Vault sells authentic Graham concert memorabilia from such acts as Johnny Cash, Miles Davis, Santana, Jefferson Airplane, the Rolling Stones, U2, Tom Petty, Jimi Hendrix and the Who.

Entrepreneur Bill Sagan paid more than $5 million for the cache in 2003. He named it in honor of Graham, who was born Wolfgang Grajonca in Germany.

Six years after Graham died in a helicopter crash, SFX purchased Bill Graham Presents for $65 million. Clear Channel acquired SFX in 2000, creating Clear Channel Entertainment, which sold the Graham material to Sagan. He considered the archive an entry into the world of music intellectual property.

Surprises in store
"I knew generally what was in (the archive), though there were close to a thousand boxes that we didn't open during due diligence," Sagan says. "I spent very little time listening to the audio archive or looking at the video archive, so a lot of surprises happened after we completed the transaction."

The video footage, much of it expertly shot with multiple cameras, includes the legendary 1973 San Francisco show by the Who at the Cow Palace when Keith Moon fell into his drum kit; the Sex Pistols' final concert; and a four-camera shoot from the Tanglewood (Mass.) concerts of 1970.

"The quality is unbelievable," Sagan says. "I give the BGP people a lot of credit. They kept (the tapes) cold and they kept (them) at low humidity."

Gregg Perloff, a former exec at BGP hired by Graham in 1977, says that, contrary to some recent press reports, most BGP employees were knowledgeable about the archive. "All of this stuff had been archived and inventoried," says Perloff, now president of Another Planet Entertainment. "We were well aware of what we had."

The four asset groups, as described by Sagan, included posters, handbills, tickets and the copyrights associated with them; photos from virtually every performance from Graham's 30,000 shows; the audio/video masters; and miscellaneous items from Graham's life and career.

Wolfgang's Vault has been selling the memorabilia since 2004. Sagan says he is "damn close" to making back his initial investment -- and that is before making a dime from what may prove to be the archive's most valuable asset, the music.

Free offerings
Sagan and his team spent more than a year transferring the recordings to high-end digital format, then mastering virtually every song. Sagan says they have mastered about 80 percent of what they intend to use.

There is no cost to stream the music at 128k at the Wolfgang's Vault site. Sagan says he hopes the feature will draw more fans to the site and sell more merchandise.

Meanwhile, Sagan is navigating the murky publishing and licensing waters, hopeful that CDs and DVDs of Graham's shows could be on the market by the end of the year. Sagan says he is in talks with record labels.

"The chances of having physical audio product by mid-summer are very high," Sagan says, adding that DVDs could be available by the fall.

"I had imagined it would be a quagmire, and now I don't think it will be," Sagan says of obtaining the rights to release this content, which was recorded legally. "Graham, especially with some of those early performance contracts, got some rights that other (promoters) might not have. He was a visionary in how he structured some of these agreements."

For his part, Perloff is happy that some of these concerts will see the light of day. "It's fantastic what they're doing, in the sense that (the music) will get out into the marketplace and people will get a piece of that period," Perloff says. "People are going to go nuts over this stuff."