The Business of Phish
April 22, 2013 1:18 PM   Subscribe

Phish has consistently been one of the most popular and lucrative touring acts in America, generating well over a quarter billion dollars in ticket sales. Yet, by other measures, the band isn’t popular at all... Phish doesn’t make money by selling music. They make money by selling live music, and that, it turns out, is a more durable business model. (via)

It’s worth noting that all of these reasons why people do like Phish also completely explain why other people don’t like Phish.
posted by Horace Rumpole (82 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
 
Any band that can't do it live deserves to phail. I'm not familiar with their oeuvre, but I respect their success.
posted by Renoroc at 1:22 PM on April 22, 2013


And LSD.
posted by cmoj at 1:25 PM on April 22, 2013


It’s worth noting that all of these reasons why people do like Phish also completely explain why other people don’t like Phish.

I understand this statement, but at the same time in college my friends and I were all in agreement that we hated Phish only because of the people who love Phish. I realize this is unfair.
posted by shakespeherian at 1:26 PM on April 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


Next, Phish is an immersive world that fans can get lost in, not unlike Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Command-W
posted by nathancaswell at 1:26 PM on April 22, 2013 [6 favorites]


See also: Dave Matthews Band
posted by PenDevil at 1:28 PM on April 22, 2013


I always thought Phish's success had more to do with the void left by the Grateful Dead when Jerry Garcia died, than their music. I also like to imagine that those buying their live music, see it as akin to collecting stamps. Something to look at and talk about, but never actually use it for it's intended purpose.
posted by remo at 1:34 PM on April 22, 2013 [8 favorites]


I don't want to see also the Dave Matthews Band.

I REALLY don't want to hear also the Dave Matthews Band.
posted by delfin at 1:34 PM on April 22, 2013 [10 favorites]


All the musicians I've ever known have made more money from live performances than from the sales of recordings. Though I've known very few that have made as much money as Phish has.
posted by Cookiebastard at 1:35 PM on April 22, 2013


i was apathetic towards phish until i dated a guy who REALLY liked them. i can't listen to them even in passing anymore. fair is fair, though, as i'm pretty sure my ex would still rage if tori amos or ani difranco came on.

gotta respect a band making music outside of the mainstream, though.
posted by nadawi at 1:36 PM on April 22, 2013


This wasn’t some brilliant pre-calculated strategy by the band or its managers; it’s the business model that sprung forth from the kind of music the band makes. The band developed the kernel of this musical style during their first five years when they played almost exclusively in bars in Burlington, Vermont, and slowly, but organically, grew their audience.

It's the business model of the Grateful Dead, from whence Phish came and which the article doesn't even mention until about 2/3 through, in passing. What Phish did differently was having the audience actively involved instead of passively absorbing the music.
posted by headnsouth at 1:37 PM on April 22, 2013


Okay since I contributed and before this thread just becomes extremely hostile to folks who like Phish, I'll say that back in 2001 when I got my (post-clam case) iBook and packed off to college my then-brand-new-look-at-our-gizmo-software install of iTunes had a bunch of sample mp3s packaged with it, at least four of which were Phish songs. And you know what? Those were good songs. I never sought out any others, but I enjoyed those four. And then years later when it turned out one of my relatives was super into Phish, it was easy for me to say, 'Hey, that's cool.'
posted by shakespeherian at 1:39 PM on April 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


Phish doesn’t make money by selling music. They make money by selling live music, and that, it turns out, is a more durable business model.

Although Phish has been doing this for ages, I think it's starting to become the new norm for the recording industry in general. As Weird Al noted on a recent podcast, it used to be that you did live shows to sell albums. Now you make albums to sell live shows.
posted by dephlogisticated at 1:40 PM on April 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


I thought it had to do with the drug-fueled bacchanalia that was a Phish concert. Am I misinformed, or aren't their concerts basically a miasma of every drug known to man?
posted by GuyZero at 1:44 PM on April 22, 2013


This is a good article in that it gives a brief outline of many "inside baseball" elements of Phish fandom. While it may rankle you to have a band you hate compared to a fantasy world you love, the analogy is apt. The mythology and participatory elements of Phish culture are very much a capital-F fandom in a way many (most?) bands are not. I don't begrudge anyone their right to hate the band, and while the comments on any given Phish thread tend to skew in that direction, I'm still thankful for the occasional post. So thanks, Horace Rumpole, for the attempt!
posted by Lorin at 1:45 PM on April 22, 2013 [4 favorites]


I went to a bunch of phish shows back in the early 90's, but stopped going when it became arena-sized. The shows were a lot of fun, and, yeah, very reminiscent of the Dead shows I went to but a lot younger and not nearly as many folks who seemed kinda burned out around.

I hadn't realized they'd split up or started up again. Good for them for getting their shit together.
posted by rmd1023 at 1:45 PM on April 22, 2013


> It’s worth noting that all of these reasons why people do like Phish also completely explain why other people don’t like Phish.

I understand this statement, but at the same time in college my friends and I were all in agreement that we hated Phish only because of the people who love Phish.


I don't actually think you're disagreeing.

Phish succeeded by attracting a rabidly loyal base of fans. For a lot of fans, one reason they were so loyal is that they didn't really fit in so well other places. (This was true of Deadheads as well, and it's not meant as a dig against them — most old Deadheads, and I think most Phish fans too, would very proudly agree that they are Not Like Other People.)

The fact that you find jam band fans to be irritating as fuck is, in a way, part of the business model.
posted by Now there are two. There are two _______. at 1:46 PM on April 22, 2013




we hated Phish only because of the people who love Phish.

This is pretty common to jam-bands. The Grateful Dead, Phish, Widespread Panic, whatever. Damn dirty hippies, right?

I realize this is unfair.

Maybe to you, since you missed out on some good music and good times.
posted by headnsouth at 1:47 PM on April 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


Among many reasons to love Carrie Brownstein is her openness to trying Phish, despite the fact that we all "know" Phish is awful:

as far as I'm concerned, Phish occupies a unique space in music: It is extremely popular with a large group of people, yet simultaneously misunderstood, judged and dismissed by another — particularly self-identified music snobs, indie rockers and a whole slew of other folks. Unlike other frequently maligned bands that have an equally maligned fan base, such as The Grateful Dead (whom I love) or the Dave Matthews Band (whom I don't love), Phish has never had a radio hit for non-fans to use as fodder or evidence. In fact — and this is the most shocking, and what makes the band a rare breed — many Phish-phobes have never even heard Phish's music!
posted by Greg Nog at 1:48 PM on April 22, 2013 [6 favorites]


Also, it was at a Phish show that I had one of my favorite 'random encounter' experiences. The day of the show, I had helped a coworker get some toy for his grandkid working - it was a mold-making thing that let you make rubber bugs. So I happened to have a couple of brightly colored rubber bugs in my pocket. Anyways, I went to the show and was having fun and went to grab something out of my coat, which was piled in a corner with some other coats. And there was a woman sitting there looking like she was tripping. So I looked at her and I said, very seriously, "are you tripping?" and she looked up and wordlessly nodded. And I said, "here, have a rubber bug" and gave her the rubber bug. And from her expression it was clear that this was EXACTLY SURREAL ENOUGH. I kinda hope I was an "awesome stranger while I was tripping" story for her.
posted by rmd1023 at 1:49 PM on April 22, 2013 [32 favorites]


It's the business model of the Grateful Dead

Yes, since the GD were the first musical group to play long, improvised, jams for crowds of people on drugs.

The vast majority of bands make their money from touring. I've never gotten the impression that Phish set out to do what they do because of the profit margin. I actually thing they're just some talented dudes who like to smoke weed and jam. It's easy to hate on them, but damn if their shows aren't fun (for the first two hours anyway).
posted by Lutoslawski at 1:49 PM on April 22, 2013


As somewhat of an old deadhead, I probably should like Phish but their music never really did a whole lot for me. I don't hate it and they've got a few catchy songs but it's not really my thing. But I have to respect their ability to connect with their audience and make a sizable living outside of the mainstream music industry.
posted by octothorpe at 1:51 PM on April 22, 2013


It's only durable for them! How will they continue to be creative after they have died without some form of incentive?

[cried the incorporated ghost of sony bono ]
posted by srboisvert at 1:51 PM on April 22, 2013 [5 favorites]


Also, the "close knit community of devoted fans"/"everyone else points and laughs" dichotomy isn't just a jam band thing. Ravers. Punks. Goths. Hell: Juggalos, right?

There's something valuable about giving marginalized weirdos a place to be themselves. Bands who do a good job of that get rewarded for it. Bands who do a good job of it and are musically interesting on top of it (this is where ICP fails in my book, but YMMV) get rewarded twice. This is all as it should be.
posted by Now there are two. There are two _______. at 1:52 PM on April 22, 2013 [6 favorites]


I thought it had to do with the drug-fueled bacchanalia that was a Phish concert.

For some people. I saw a few shows back in the early-mid 90s under the influence of nothing more than a couple hits of weed and once or twice completely straight. My brought-up-on-classical-music wife saw them with me while completely straight as well. I didn't enjoy them any less without the weed. There's even some group of Phish fans (spelling F words with a Ph is one of the things that make people hate Phish without even hearing their music, I get that) that make a point of attending sober.

Mostly people like them because they're talented as fuck, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, their shows are FUN, and the fan base, though they can be annoying at times, is more of a community than a bunch of individuals.

Even without liking their music, I bet most Phish fans can, at the very least, understand the Juggaloes.

I also like a few of their studio albums (Rift, Nectar and Billy Breathes) as much as any of the live shows I've seen. I don't really enjoy the recorded live shows too much though. I really think you need to be there.
posted by bondcliff at 1:57 PM on April 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


It makes a kind of sense that as the barriers to creating new (recorded) music come down, opportunities to see live skills will be more lucrative, because they'll probably be comparatively rarer.

On the other hand - even in my 20s I thought live music was usually too loud to enjoy. So get off my sensitive, delicate aural lawnscape, you volume-hungry persons!
posted by Sparx at 2:00 PM on April 22, 2013


There's something valuable about giving marginalized weirdos a place to be themselves.

this. i hope my comment wasn't seen as bashing phish - it's why i included tori amos and ani difranco in it, because in their time they very much had a rabid fanbase that was fiercely loyal and turned outsiders off - all of which i was a part of (and hell, i'm an amanda palmer fan - so i get having something you like attacked and being attacked just because you're a fan...).
posted by nadawi at 2:00 PM on April 22, 2013


Oh, Phish.... I've never seen a band with as rabid fans as they have, so they are doing something right for sure. They don't really seem to have any casual fans, from what I can tell... If you like Phish, you REALLY like Phish.

I've heard a few tracks that I don't mind. On the other end of the spectrum, I remember one track that seemed damned near eternal... representing everything that I didn't like about "jam bands," with at least a full hour of what I can only refer to as "perpetual noodling in the key of D."

I only listened to one album, recommended to me because I was "A Musician Who Will Love It," although I can't remember what album it was. This was recommended by a friend of a friend who generally remained quietly passed out on the couch, but if an opportunity to mention Phish came up, he would suddenly be the most energetic, outgoing, and excited person in the room, and there'd be absolutely no stopping it. I have YET to see this sort of excitement behind any other artist or group.

What I remember about the album was that on critical listening, it seemed like a bunch of practice sessions to me, which seemed in utter contrast to what I was told. It was repetitive enough to annoy the piss out of me if I was paying attention, or fade away completely if I wasn't - which is what I told my friend. The response: "Oh, it's better live."

Granted, I'm a bass player and former cellist, and I think it just took enough performances of Pachelbel's FUCKING canon (fyi that's the full name, which has fallen out of mainstream usage) to bring my tolerance for repetition to near zero, so Phish was probably never made for me. While I can't stand their music, I can truly have respect for anyone who can do what they have done in terms of building a fan base. Anyone who can build a following without TRYING to appeal to the commercial musical norm is worthy of respect, and they have a following who TRULY loves their shows, and seem to have a fantastic time.

I am also someone who firmly believe that live performance is what music is all about, and that the performance SHOULD be what drives income - You shouldn't have to count on that platinum album deal, or some other event that's practically a lottery in terms of odds. They get this very right.

And most importantly, they seem to have a ton of fun doing all of this.

So who am I to fault a band that is extremely successful via alternative channels, and who has one of the most devoted fan bases that anyone could hope for? I may not like their music, but I can greatly respect them.
posted by MysticMCJ at 2:03 PM on April 22, 2013 [5 favorites]


Shakespeherian: iTunes had a bunch of sample mp3s packaged with it

It's a miracle you had any room left on the hard drive.
posted by dr_dank at 2:05 PM on April 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


The article identifies a variety of jam band-specific elements that make Phish and similar groups notable:
  1. ... the band rapidly accelerated the number of shows, performing well over a hundred times a year all over the country
  2. They were cemented as a big time band that could sell out arenas, bring tens of thousands of fans to remote weekend festivals, and generate tens of millions of dollars in ticket sales per year.
  3. ... it took a decade of practice before Phish really started improvising on stage at a grand scale. If going to a U2 concert is like purchasing a mass produced print, a Phish show is like buying a unique painting. The band has never played the same set list twice and you never know when a ten minute song could morph into a thirty minute improvised jam.
  4. Fans don’t merely go see Phish, they collect Phish experiences. They track the number of concerts they’ve gone to, which songs from the band’s catalogue they’ve heard, and which venues they still need to see Phish perform at. Due to the bands improvised and varied sets, Phish fans constantly collect new experiences.
  5. So while Phish undoubtedly has fewer fans than Madonna, the ticket revenue per fan is way higher because fans loyally attend multiple shows.
On top of the individual live "Phish experiences," you can purchase the live shows shortly after the shows have passed. So if you missed a show, you don't have to miss out on the experience. In fact, you can own thousands of Phish shows. No longer do you need to rely on networks of fellow bootleggers, you can pay the band directly.

With all that, it's not surprising Phish are doing well, financially.
posted by filthy light thief at 2:06 PM on April 22, 2013 [4 favorites]


The problem with making your money from touring is that it's labor-intensive and is not scalable (the opposite of selling records and CD's back in the day). While I suppose touring is lucrative, and for a lot of bands it starts and ends with the pleasure of making music, touring has also got to be a grind. I wonder how Bob Dylan does it (the "why" he does it can be boiled down into one word: alimony).
posted by KokuRyu at 2:07 PM on April 22, 2013


They don't really seem to have any casual fans

I have one Phish album on my iPod and I like a few songs (though much of it does bore me). Also, I saw them live when I was a teenager in the late 90s and enjoyed myself.

Neither of these things really rises to the level of casual fan, but I'd guess I am that rare bird that doesn't love Phish but doesn't really hate them.
posted by breakin' the law at 2:13 PM on April 22, 2013


I also like a few of their studio albums (Rift, Nectar and Billy Breathes)

I also think Story of a Ghost is a great album. Seriously, Guyute!

On the other hand - even in my 20s I thought live music was usually too loud to enjoy

And they keep getting louder it seems! I'm 28 and I have to wear ear plugs to shows now. Not just to protect my hearing but just to be able to enjoy it.

There's something valuable about giving marginalized weirdos a place to be themselves.


Yeah, I mean, my phish-listening days were in the mid 90s, when there was just an abundance of what seemed like really awful music and Phish was a bit of musical sanctuary for all of us kids that didn't fit with the pop kids or the grunge kids or the ska kids. I don't know, I remember thinking it was just SO COOL that here was a band that had these long-form tunes, often instrumental, with intricately composed parts for all of the instruments, not unlike something from the concert music world. Granted, this was before I discovered all sorts of other art rock, etc., but I still found it inspiring at the time.

I think part of the Phish problem, like the DMB problem, is that the music just has not aged well. Both groups are full of extremely talented musicians, put on great shows, and are prolific, but their music feels very dated to me now, the opposite of how many other bands I have loved seem only to get better with time.
posted by Lutoslawski at 2:13 PM on April 22, 2013


This is pretty common to jam-bands. The Grateful Dead, Phish, Widespread Panic, whatever. Damn dirty hippies, right?

No, music evangelicals.
posted by shakespeherian at 2:14 PM on April 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


The problem with making your money from touring is that it's labor-intensive and is not scalable (the opposite of selling records and CD's back in the day).

On the contrary. The more popular you get, the larger venues you can fill, just like the more albums you'll sell. It's still a lot of work, but there are plenty of bands who tour a ton and don't sell many tickets or CDs.
posted by filthy light thief at 2:18 PM on April 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


No, music evangelicals.

Frank Zappa Fan Thinks You Just Haven't Heard The Right Album
posted by Greg Nog at 2:21 PM on April 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


MUSIC is labor intensive- You have to put in a ton of practice unless you are just really counting on post-production to pitch-shift and quantize absolutely everything.

Having participated in the recording process as well as the performance process, I've always seen it this way:

Shows are fun. You get to interact with an audience, and a mistake is something that you can generally have fun with as well if you've been playing long enough. They happen, and it's part of what makes live music great. Not every night is awesome, of course - There are the nights where you are all off, or the crowd doesn't seem to care at all, or you have to beg for money to pay for parking due to some unprecedented fuck-up on the venues end. But then, you move on to the next unknown and leave that behind. It may go good, it may not, but I don't think I've ever heard a story of an entire tour just being awful.

On the other hand, recording absolutely sucks. You never lay down something perfect the first time... You end up having to completely start from scratch if someone fucks up bad enough, and if you are going for near perfection - which is generally the goal - you end up waiting for the damned {guitarist|bassist|vocalist|drummer} to keep re-recording that one bit they keep fucking up in a small way, but large enough to warrant a re-record, until they FINALLY get it right. By the end of it, that song you love? The one that seemed to write itself, where there was no end of inspiration, the one with a million fun variations you can do? You fucking HATE that song.

Meanwhile, that's one song out of many, the night is dragging on, and you are paying by the hour and just want to get this shit done. At the end of it all, you've (statistically speaking) put yourself in debt paying for recording, distribution, and promotion costs, and you'll end up having to recoup the loss with the shows you play.

You generally don't get to see how someone reacts to that album you made... You may know, based on sales, that the album is popular, or that a certain track has taken off, but you don't actually see that - unless you play live. And seeing a crowd get excited for what you and your band is doing on stage - Seeing them jump, cheer, and sing along - It's a fucking rush, and there's absolutely nothing else like it. You ask how Dylan does it? I can't speak as to all of it, but I think there's something addictive about that experience, and I also think it's completely unlike anything else. The entire world seems like it's had the volume turned down afterwards - and that's not just because of the hearing loss.

YMMV. This was the sort of experience that I had, and this was the story that many of my musician friends have lived, so it's the one I know.
posted by MysticMCJ at 2:22 PM on April 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


(and hell, i'm an amanda palmer fan - so i get having something you like attacked and being attacked just because you're a fan...).

Heh. So I actually spent a minute, while I was writing that comment, trying to see if I could think of a catchy nickname for Amanda Palmer fans that would fit in a list with "juggalo" etc.

Also, now that I'm thinking about it: Lady Gaga.

posted by Now there are two. There are two _______. at 2:24 PM on April 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's a miracle you had any room left on the hard drive.

10GB, man. That thing was huge.
posted by shakespeherian at 2:26 PM on April 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


College cafeteria.
1989.
Beer.
Phish.

It was all good.

Can't have any of it back today, except for Phish and beer, and it just ain't the same.
posted by chavenet at 2:26 PM on April 22, 2013


Phish are amazing musicians and terrible songwriters. This is why The Dead have earned the grudging respect of hipster rock critics and Phish never will. The Dead wrote songs.

I do like to conceptualize an alternate universe where Phish was never cast as heir apparent to the Grateful Dead throne. Instead of being this big cultural thing that everyone has to have an opinion about, they'd just be this weird jazzy indie rock band that came through town every once in a while. And yeah, their shows would still reek of pot and probably attract a number of white boys with dreads, but you'd also see jazz and indie rock fans in their 30s and 40s. Sorta like a late-90s MMW show.

Phish is a really great band, and I used to be super super into them, but these days I can only get halfway through a show before the utter inanity of their lyrics makes my eyes water.

What can I say? We'll always have Kiel Center '96.
posted by Afroblanco at 2:35 PM on April 22, 2013 [8 favorites]


not entirely related, but talking about recording reminded me how badly that I wish I had video of my guitarist in days past re-playing the same 10 seconds or so of a single solo for the greater part of an hour, trying to finish a recording.... he kept playing and fucking up the same riff over and over again, always getting tripped up on the same note... getting progressively angrier and angrier, and redder and redder.

This reached critical levels of humor around 3AM or so, as it was the absolute last thing we needed to lay down in order to complete the album... it got to the point that we'd pre-emptively laugh when the note was coming up, and just end up there, bent over, silently crying and shaking

wahhh-wah-wah-WAAHHGHS "GOD DAMMIT! STOP LAUGHING!"

we all went outside for some fresh air, and to let the laugh out as best as we could outside of the range of any recording equipment. he came out about 15 seconds later, after playing it perfectly, cooly lit up a cigarette, and nearly choked mid-puff in spontaneous laughter.
posted by MysticMCJ at 2:37 PM on April 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


Also, I gotta ask : what the hell ever happened to Gamehenge? During my peak Phish-listening years (96-98) it was a big part of the band mythology, tied together a bunch of their songs, etc. Yet all we had as a definitive statement was the low-quality Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday bootleg, which I'm not even sure saw an official release.

At one point, I think they planned on making some kind of interactive CD ROM game out of it which, LOL, I'm kinda glad never came to fruition. There were always rumors they would resurrect Gamehenge in concert, to the point where if they played Divided Sky (i think) you'd always listen to see if the next song would be the next one in the Gamehenge cycle. But, to my knowledge, they haven't played it in its entirety since the early 90s. Why abandon something that was such a big part of their early success? Has it just not held up well? Seems like you could at least make a halfway decent animated feature out of it. A shame not to do SOMETHING with it.

Wouldn't it be hilarious if they played a Halloween show as their earlier selves and did the full Gamehenge cycle?
posted by Afroblanco at 2:50 PM on April 22, 2013 [4 favorites]


Shows are fun.

Playing shows was great fun but the endless boredom of waiting around dismal rock bars, the travel (getting on the highway at 2 AM to head home to go to work the next day? routine), the bad food, the drunks, the poverty......I'm glad to let someone else have a turn.
posted by thelonius at 2:51 PM on April 22, 2013


To be fair, the Dead also wrote some completely moronic lyrics — and I say this as a fan.

But yeah, there are no timeless classic campfire singalongs in the Phish canon.
posted by Now there are two. There are two _______. at 2:55 PM on April 22, 2013


(Well, my wife and I sing "Cymbop and beebophone! Sky balls and saxscraper!" at each other when we're bored, but that doesn't really count.)
posted by Now there are two. There are two _______. at 2:55 PM on April 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


(Oh, and I always liked the chorus of Chalkdust Torture. If the verses were tolerable, that would totally be a song. But then the verses are like the absolute worst of their stoned-dude-with-a-thesaurus routine. "You know what else is fun to say? Mirth. Ooh, and wrath. And flagon. Mirth wrath flagon." Oh well.)
posted by Now there are two. There are two _______. at 2:58 PM on April 22, 2013


That's one of the reasons I wonder why they haven't resurrected Gamehenge in one form or another. Yeah, the songs all have the sort of typical Phish lyrics, but the fact that a story ties them together makes them meaningful. It's pretty much their only example of actual songwriting.
posted by Afroblanco at 3:02 PM on April 22, 2013


Yeah, I dunno. Listening to early Phish, you hear a lot of "bands that could have been". Like, the intense, progressive mind games of Fluffhead. Or the mythologizing Gamehenge. Or Rift, their actually-rather-effective concept album. But at some point, I think they just decided to chuck it all in favor of 30-minute-long renditions of Tweezer.

Even though 98 was a great year for the band, I think the turn to funk was a wrong move. It reminds me of the sad, protracted death of the jam band scene, and how at some point in the early 2000s, it was choked with bands playing the same generic, replaceable funk, and how EVERY STINKIN ONE OF THEM JUST HAD TO DO A RENDITION OF 'CISSY STRUT.' I never, ever, ever want to hear that song again. Fuck that song.

But it was a thing, though. I think the reason the jam band scene died is that it was always like, "Great music or good lyrics : pick one." WSP was the only post-Dead jam band that had decent lyrics, but their musicianship was way way under par. Like, they basically had a "fast song" and a "slow song". I remember when their lead guitar player died and people were like, "Maybe now they'll get a real guitarist!" They didn't.

Also, it seemed like jam bands were all about throwing together elements that should have never been in the same room, let alone the same band. Reggae Bluegrass Folk Funk? Sign me up!

Anyway, rant over. For now. It's too bad nothing really came of all the energy that went into the jam band scene. There were some great musicians there, but they were ultimately chasing a culture that died long before Jerry did. For better for for worse, Phish was probably the most talented exponent of that scene.
posted by Afroblanco at 3:15 PM on April 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


Give a man a Phish album, he throws it in the trash. Teach a man to like Phish, he throws his life in the trash.

- @lawblob
posted by Alterity at 3:41 PM on April 22, 2013 [6 favorites]


Another element to Phish's success over the years, an element that breeds fan devotion, is their habit of occasionally going out of character by paying homage to other bands.
Most notably on halloween, they have played the Velvet Underground's "Loaded"; Pink Floyd's DSOM; the White Album; Exile on Main Street; Quadrophenia and Remain in Light (Talking Heads). Not just a song or two either, but the entire album.
they never captured the vibe that the Dead had, but I did enjoy going to shows in the day and can still listen to most of their stuff. glad that Trey cleaned up his act too.
posted by OHenryPacey at 3:48 PM on April 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


I like "The Mango Song", but that's about it. And I've only ever heard the studio version.
posted by candyland at 3:49 PM on April 22, 2013


I first heard Phish when "Wilson" made it into Rockband.


That's when I last heard Phish as well. Song is ok I guess.
posted by stenseng at 4:44 PM on April 22, 2013


Any band that can't do it live deserves to phail.

Recording and live are two different things. There’s films and there’s plays, one doesn’t diminish the other.
posted by bongo_x at 5:51 PM on April 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


While I certainly don't love them (too noodly and nice for me) I respect them and would be happy to hear them at a party or some such.

My issue with many jam bands is that they're too comfortable - they lack the sense of danger. Here's something from a jam band I once had (I'm doing vocals, synths and effects...) which I think is somewhat dangerous.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 5:52 PM on April 22, 2013


My sister's loser boyfriend headed up a Phish tribute band and had regular frequent gigs at decent venues. They had to quit after a couple of years. While they were making pretty decent money, most of them became depressed and suicidal because of the constant repetition.

Not making this up.
posted by snsranch at 6:13 PM on April 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Phish doesn’t make money by selling music.

Maybe, but on RSD my local record shop was selling the fuck out of Phish, in excess of anything else.

Was never much moved by Phish myself, but I'm a sucker for drone and glitch so I guess I musn't throw rocks.
posted by octobersurprise at 6:22 PM on April 22, 2013


The problem with making your money from touring is that it's labor-intensive and is not scalable

To say nothing of the fact that heavy touring is really destructive to your personal life. It's tough to maintain an apartment, much less a relationship. It's kind of great in your early 20's, but a pretty rough choice if you ever want to have a dog or something.
posted by lumpenprole at 6:24 PM on April 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


I admire the business model, the passion of the fanbase, the idea of creating a memorable live experience, the idea of a band with no airplay succeeding massively...but man, jamband music leaves me cold. I have tried to listen to Phish and I hear that same lazy tempo that never ever gets beyond a tepid lope and never goes anywhere. Drives my inner Keith Moon nuts.
posted by Ber at 7:46 PM on April 22, 2013


questlove has spoken specifically about how taking the jimmy fallon job was because they couldn't play 200 shows a year anymore and some of them were settling down and starting families. it's a difficult life to maintain.
posted by nadawi at 9:31 PM on April 22, 2013


As much as everyone rags on Vegas acts, one can see the appeal of having people come to you as opposed to you going to them.
posted by GuyZero at 9:39 PM on April 22, 2013


2000 wants its article back (live music pays), and no mention of the light choreography/Kuroda?

I wonder if sales are good enough for a standalone festival anymore. I am hoping for an announcement of one for this year because I love the welcoming community of fans (never enjoy traffic more), the artful design on the grounds, the thoughtful preparation of the amenities (free hot showers), and the music. Oh, and the fucking Bunny! (festival radio station) Last year, they played Bonnaroo which is a fine substitute, but not quite the same. Here's hoping for Halloween.

Look, Phish enjoys silliness, inanity, sophomoric vocabulary, absurdist barbershop, treacle (lately) and doesn't show as much of the constant, quasi-ironic enthusiasm that threaded it all together before, but when it all syncs up, an intense clarity of awareness seems to take hold of everyone there. On good terms too: environmentalism, art, humor, charity, curiosity, respect. Works for me, so I'll travel for it.
posted by zangpo at 10:04 PM on April 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


What can I say? We'll always have Kiel Center '96.

John Popper showed up, right? I was there too.
posted by Bookhouse at 10:07 PM on April 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


John Popper showed up, right? I was there too.

Yup. Got on-stage for Mean Mr. Mustard and one other song. I believe that was the set where all the songs that started with the letter M. (although Split Open and Melt was a bit of a stretch).

Still, my first Phish show, and a damn good one at that.
posted by Afroblanco at 10:17 PM on April 22, 2013


Popper is the guy who plays that one harmonica solo, right?
posted by thelonius at 10:27 PM on April 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


Yup. He's the dude from Blues Traveler.
posted by Afroblanco at 12:14 AM on April 23, 2013


I don't think you can mock Phish's lyrics and then complain that they're not playing Gamehendge anymore--that's clearly some of their most "immature" material. (No surprise, since it was Trey's senior thesis.) I doubt we'll ever get a full Gamehendge again, and I'm fine with that.

Anyway, we have this exact same conversation every time Phish comes up on Mefi. I've given up trying to change any minds, but I think the "bad lyrics" complaint is pretty wrongheaded. I suspect that at first, Phish wrote "silly" lyrics very much on purpose, probably as a way of distancing themselves from the serious/mythic hippie poetry of the Dead's Robert Hunter (which I also love). But that has changed long ago, and now they often err on the side of confessional/honest/unironic (or "treacly", as someone upthread called it. Fair enough.) In between though, they hit some great lines that approach "campfire singalong status" for me--Dirt, Farmhouse, Bug, among many others. Plus you have plentiful covers, so at any given show, chances are you'll get Stones, Beatles, Zep, or Talking Heads songs, and people generally like those lyrics, yes? If "Light" doesn't do it for you, maybe Los Lobos' "When the Circus" will?

Plus, the words are kind of beside the point: Phish is about the music, and it doesn't make a different to me what the few words are they shout in a 20-minute "David Bowie" (the lyrics in their entirety are "David Bowie/UB40"). For a lot of "silly" tunes, the music imbues them with so much emotional content that the words don't really matter. Sure, when you look at the lyrics to "Reba," they're ridiculous, but it's still one of their most beautiful songs. Same goes for "Harry Hood." It's all there if you care to listen.

TL;DR: "Your favorite band sucks!" -- "No, you just don't get it."
posted by muckster at 1:23 AM on April 23, 2013


This Jerry Garcia quote is as true about Phish as it was about the Dead.
“We're like licorice. Not everybody likes licorice, but the people who like licorice really like licorice.”
Also, thank you for the general lack of threadshitting so far that typically accompanies threads about Phish, et al.
posted by ssmug at 6:01 AM on April 23, 2013 [2 favorites]


Actually, treacle is probably not fair. I'm not one that groans at "Light", "Joy", or "Show of Life."

"Find ourselves right here" is just a perfect Phish chorus.
posted by zangpo at 6:39 AM on April 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


> questlove has spoken specifically about how taking the jimmy fallon job was because they couldn't play 200 shows a year anymore and some of them were settling down and starting families. it's a difficult life to maintain.

Don't get me wrong. I never said that the performance aspect, especially regarding touring, was easy. There are many reasons I don't do it anymore... One of the biggest is that I needed to take care of an aging relative at the time, and I didn't have the heart to just disregard them. It takes either a lack of any real attachments (which is how my life was before) or complete disregard for the ones you have.

At the same time, there's something completely irreplaceable about performance. What questlove has - that's still performance, which is the core of what I was getting at. That particular gig is quite a great one to have, and definitely preferable to touring, for a ton of reasons. If more house bands were the norm, then all of a sudden, being a musician becomes a much more viable career, and less destructive personally.

Finding steady local work isn't an easy thing to do, for a musician, but that's about the best way to make a reasonable living. It's still a better bet than trying to reach the masses through recording, unless you are willing to invest the time and education in learning to handle the recording on your own, and self-distribute and promote. I truly wish there was more call for a "house band" or the like in more places.

I always wanted to start a service that you could hire to follow you around and play theme music of some sort, adapting to whatever is going on. A unique challenge for the musicians, and for those who would hire them, a guaranteed way to ensure that you have a memorable - if not particularly good - date.
posted by MysticMCJ at 6:55 AM on April 23, 2013


I don't think you can mock Phish's lyrics and then complain that they're not playing Gamehendge anymore--that's clearly some of their most "immature" material. (No surprise, since it was Trey's senior thesis.) I doubt we'll ever get a full Gamehendge again, and I'm fine with that.

Well, I don't see Phish's lyrics on a spectrum from "mature" to "immature". I place them on a spectrum from "meaningful" to "meaningless". Individually, the Gamehenge songs are just as silly as the rest of their stuff. But together, they form a story, which gives them meaning. I feel the same way about Rift.
posted by Afroblanco at 10:29 AM on April 23, 2013


Interesting, afroblanco. I guess I never really understood the complaint in the first place, but I assumed the problem was the perceived immaturity--I mean, Gamehendge is straight out of Dungeons & Dragons.

But now I'm curious about "meaningless." Phish has some absurd lyrics, but which ones strike you as the most meaningless? I'd call them impressionist, perhaps. Open to a wide variety of readings. Anyway, the story for me usually isn't in the words but in the music--the grooves, jams, segues and setlists make their own kind of narrative. Entire runs and tours make a meta-story. And if the words themselves appear to be nonsense initially, they gain meaning from the context of the music and the show. It's one of the things that attracted me to Phish initially.

[Weird--I had all but forgotten about this long-ago paper I wrote in grad school about the way Grateful Dead songs are constructed to continuously generate new meanings. It's an academic exercise I'm not particularly fond of now, except for the fact that it resulted in a response from Robert Hunter, in which he explained the meaning of "Franklin's Tower." So you can see, this is a question close to my heart.]
posted by muckster at 1:35 PM on April 23, 2013


I've listened to a half dozen Youtubes and I will say this: Trey Ansastasio can play. He's right up there with Jerry Garcia and Carlos Santana. Good to see the youngsters with the jazz/funk/rock/folk fusion thing. I wonder if this business model would work so well if they weren't great musicians?
posted by RussHy at 4:31 PM on April 23, 2013


Yeah, I dunno. I guess "meaningless" might be too strong of a word. To me, most of their songs just come across as sort of a word salad. I feel kinda dumb singing along to them. There are exceptions, though -- I recall a handful of mostly-straightforward ballads.

A number of Dead songs are pretty abstract, but the vast majority have fairly straightforward interpretations. Most Phish songs could be whatever you want. It's not a terribly satisfying experience, if you're into lyrics and songcraft.

But yeah, obviously Phish is all about the instrumentals and jams. It just seems like such a waste to me, to put that much effort into your music and so little into your lyrics. Makes me think they should have just skipped the lyrics altogether. I'd probably like them more; a lot of their lyrics are just dumb.

/smegma dogmatogram fishmarket stew
posted by Afroblanco at 4:32 PM on April 23, 2013


I've had the problem of bad lyrics getting in the way, too. Remember I am a Rock? Great chords, easy to play, embarrassing to sing. I have to wait till I'm alone to even play it instrumentally. But I think most of their energy goes into the solos.
posted by RussHy at 4:34 PM on April 23, 2013


I wonder if this business model would work so well if they weren't great musicians?

Fuck, I sure hope not.
posted by Now there are two. There are two _______. at 5:07 PM on April 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


(Less snarky answer: there is a second option, which is to go the ICP/Gwar/Butthole Surfers route and make your live shows so entertaining in non-musical ways that your musical chops don't even matter. But replace "great musicians" with "great entertainers" and I think you're basically right — this wouldn't work for a band who couldn't put on a show that was worth seeing, and why should it?)
posted by Now there are two. There are two _______. at 5:14 PM on April 23, 2013


I was really high when I first thought of this many years ago, but I still think someone needs to make a text adventure game based on the song Cavern.

It's perfect:

You just tread in primal soup

> WIPE SHOES

There is scut bubbling up

> GIVE ADVICE

>DEDUCT CARROTS FROM PAY

The foggy cavern's musty grime appears within you palm

>SCRAPE GRIME

With what?

>RICK'S FORK

>INVENT

You have: The flesh from Satan's dog

>MAKE GRUEL

Every damn line in that song would work. Someone who isn't me should totally get on that.

I'm not high right now. I swear
posted by bondcliff at 5:52 PM on April 23, 2013 [4 favorites]


What can I say? We'll always have Kiel Center '96.

Holy shit, I saw Phish ONE time, and that was the one!
posted by hypersloth at 8:48 PM on April 23, 2013 [2 favorites]


In case you'd like to relive your Kiel Center experience, check out the spreadsheet, or go straight to the download. Looks good to me.

Friday, 11/15/1996
Kiel Center, St. Louis, MO


Set 1: Wilson > Divided Sky, Bouncing Around the Room, Character Zero, Punch You In the Eye > Prince Caspian, Ginseng Sullivan, Train Song, Chalk Dust Torture, Taste > Cavern

Set 2: Makisupa Policeman -> Maze, McGrupp and the Watchful Hosemasters > Split Open and Melt, The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday > Avenu Malkenu, My Mind's Got a Mind of its Own > Mike's Song, Sleeping Monkey > Mean Mr. Mustard[1] > Weekapaug Groove[2]

Encore: Funky Bitch[2]

[1] Phish debut.
[2] John Popper on harmonica.
posted by muckster at 2:55 AM on April 24, 2013 [2 favorites]


Oh, I see, it's the second set "brought to you by the letter M." Compare to the S show.
posted by muckster at 2:58 AM on April 24, 2013


Wow, this is like finding out I'd lived within a 4-block radius of 10 other MeFites in early-2000s Brooklyn. Trippy.

Now who else was at the 1997 Urbana-Champaign show where I lost the vast majority of my marbles between Wolfman's Brother and Mackisupa Policeman?
posted by Afroblanco at 9:34 AM on April 24, 2013 [2 favorites]


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