Phish At The Forum: A Teachable Moment For Every Band In The World

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You may not get Phish. But that’s because you’ve never been to a show. Phish isn’t their hits (they’ve had one – 20 years ago). Phish isn’t their albums (however some are pretty damn good). Phish isn’t just the music (however they’re all masters on their instruments).

Phish is about the connection. The community. The culture. The scene. The experience. Phish is about letting all your inhibitions go for a few hours. It’s about connecting with 15,000 other souls and raising the collective consciousness. It’s a spiritual experience.

All you had to do was be in the room this past Friday at The Forum to feel this joyful energy. Never mind the 10 minute mid-song pause where the band let the crowd roar. Deafeningly. You couldn’t help but dive right into the love fest.

The server for our section (yes The Forum has servers!) gushed to our group how much fun she was having. She said the crowd that night was one of the most gracious, sweetest and best tipping crowds she’s had. She got in on the beach ball action and high fived our entire row.

They played old favorites like Bouncing Around The Room, Bathtub Gin, Character Zero, Divided Sky, Down With Disease and (my personal favorite) Sample In A Jar. They ended their encore with their barbershop quartet “Grind.”

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The sound was impeccable. And, per usual, the light show was astounding. Chris Kuroda, Phish’s brilliant lighting engineer, is considered one of the best in the business. Phish’s light show is unparalleled. Kuroda flawlessly utilized the Forum’s starlight ceiling lights mid-jam during the encore of Harry Hood. He shut off all stage lights and let the built in starlights work their magic. He took the energy Phish had created with the audience and elevated it to a new level. No Phish light show is preprogrammed. It would be impossible with as much spontaneity as a Phish concert entails.As a musician, I respect the musicality of Phish. Trey Anastasio is one of the all time guitar greats. The four musicians are able to ebb and flow and literally evolve a song on the spot. This freedom and improvisation is what keeps their shows fresh. They never repeat a song two nights in a row (something impossible for any hit-driven act).

They built this movement from the ground up. They forged a path of their own – outside the mainstream music industry. While other bands play politics with festivals, Phish created their own. Tens of thousands (sometimes upwards of 100,000) descend on grounds setup solely for a weekend of Phish. No openers. No filler acts. No acts forced down the festival promoters throats by labels. Just set after set of Phish.

How many other bands have been selling out arenas for over two decades. And without multiple hit songs?

I keep hearing “it’s all about the hit!” Phish have proven that it’s not. It’s all about the experience.

Fans of Phish continue to come back because it’s their church. Their temple. It’s a community of fellow music lovers who feel at home (and at peace) within this Phish bliss. Hoards of Phish heads follow the band around the country and make their livings selling grilled cheese sandwiches, water, original jewelry, clothing and anything else imaginable in the lot before the shows – an experience in it of itself.

Are you offering an enjoyable concert experience for your fans? It’s your responsibility. You book your shows (or you make sure your agent is on the same page with you about this). You can create your vibe. Your atmosphere. You can create an unforgettable experience on top of the notes you play and sing.

Why should people come to your shows? Are you providing a community? An experience? With the majority of the clubs in this country run by sound engineers who’ve lost their hearing, you can bet that if you don’t hire your own sound engineer, chances are your music is not going to be very enjoyable to listen to. Are you offering something special for the cover price other than “live music?” Because if not, then how do you expect to build a following of dedicated, loyal, hardcore fans.

+How To Fix The Sound Guy Problem

What about your light show? Never too early to think about that. Kuroda was hired in 1989 by answering this ad:

“WANTED: Creative light person to run new light show for Phish on a salaried, permanent basis. This very valuable partner will travel with the band as a 5th member. We are looking for someone from the New England area — no need to live in Burlington. Call (802) XXX-XXXX.”

This was in 1989 – long before their arena tours began. It’s never to early to think about the experience you want to provide for your audience.

+Why Live Music Sucks

Whether you like Phish’s music or not doesn’t matter. What they have built is undeniable and should be a teachable case study for every band in the world.

Photos are by D.J. Reiter and used with permission

12 Responses

  1. Chris H

    I would argue they are on of the few exceptions that prove the overwhelming rule: it’s about hits.

    The “tribal ritual” thing does have value no doubt, but I can get that same feeling (for me) at a VH concert, with hits too.

    • FarePlay

      Don’t think so, Chris. VH is an incredible band with tons of fans that know and hang on every note of every song, but these tribal bands like the dead and phish are really quite different. By dead head standards I’m a casual fan with maybe 50 shows from 1967 to 1995 mostly in the seventies, but unlike say Bruce Springsteen, who I’ve also seen about 50 times starting in 1976, for me seeing the dead was as much about the connection with the audience as the music, whereas artists like Springsteen and Tom Petty just have so many incredible songs.

      DMB, great band with one of the best drummers in the biz with an ascent to popularity that was amazing. Saw them in 1995 at the Greek Theater in Berkeley weeks after Jerry Garcia died; DMB played a beautiful GD tribute and GGG’s gonna love this, it was the first concert I took my son to. We both loved “Under The Table And Dreaming” and listened to it together in the car.

      Over the years, Dave Mathews has written some great songs, but nothing comes close to Under The Table in terms of being an iconic record from start to finish or like Born to Run, tells you so conclusively who the artist is.

      There’s nothing about this record that’s “A Typical Situation”.

      • GGG

        Yea, you can get a same sort of religious experience from the music of any random great act that more or less plays the same show every night, but I agree there’s a totally different vibe around the bands that people go to see numerous times a tour. Sometimes it can be obnoxious setlist fanatics, but usually its people more in tune because they are paying attention to so much more hoping to catch some great moment. People can make fun of the bros and wooks at Phish shows all they want, but I have yet to see an arena/amp show with more of the audience’s eyes and/or ears glued to the stage.

  2. Adam

    Wow, really happy to see some press on Phish that takes them somewhat seriously. I’ve been going to shows for well over a decade now and even when they aren’t having an “on” night I still have loads of fun. The comments on the crowd are particularly true – its part of what makes the shows so great. There is genuine excitement and all the energy comes from a positive place. Great scene that band has going for them… AND they deserve all the respect in the world as one of the first bands to have a serious online forum group and a following… I once wrote a paper in college exemplifying the online phish community as a prime example of an early adopter when it comes to internet marketing and indie artists. This band made it all on their own in a time when this wasn’t the norm. Kudos to that. They keep it going today with the same energy and care as they did 20 years ago.

  3. GGG

    I agree with Chris, it’s certainly a great business model that bands should take a lot of ideas from, but if you look at comparable bands, they are still levels below or had a hit.

    Someone like Umphrey’s McGee, they’ve been at it for a long time and have equally rabid fans. But they’ll probably be a theatre act forever. And on the flip side, you could argue DMB would have continued to grow since their music is much more accessible than Phish, but Crash Into Me and Crush, later on Space Between, certainly helped put a lot more asses in seats. And now they haven’t had a hit in a while and attendance is waning.

    Then you look at someone like Bruce. He’s got infinite hits AND plays for 3+ hours and could outsell any other classic act that tried to tour as much as he does.

    • Ari Herstand

      I thought about including DMB in this piece, but it distracted. I could write a book on DMB – I’ve been to 25 concerts. They are in a very similar boat. Very few hits but have been touring arenas consistently for two decades. And they were the top grossing touring act from 2000-2009. Crash – 1996, Crush – 1998, Space Between – 2001. So those hits didn’t really play into that monster attendance.

      I wouldn’t say their attendance has been waning. Not in the least. Still selling out the same venues they always have.

      • GGG

        I really don’t mean this to have a DMB dick measuring contest because I grew out of that years ago and like how you’re just as much a fan as me, but having said that, I’ve been following them since I was 12 years old. My first of over 40 shows was in 98 and I’ve been in the Warehouse since mid 99. And they are 100% not selling out the same venues they always have. I’ve been going to see them at basically the same venues for the last 15 years. Camden doesn’t sell two nights like it used to. Hershey sells literally about half as much as it used to (they don’t even put the back half bleachers on sale anymore). Scranton, where they had the venue’s first ever sell out in 05 I think, has gotten like 75% at most last couple years, etc. I may be wrong, but I’m almost positive not even SPAC, one of the DMB Meccas, sold out both nights the last couple years. Don’t get me wrong, they are still selling plenty of tickets, sell out some places, and are making plenty of money, but no way in hell they could play stadiums like they did in 1999-2001.

        As for the hits, again, you could certainly argue they’d be at a similar level without them, they were obviously rising in the college/festival market well before they broke on the radio. But if you look at any remotely similar band, there’s a distinct difference between them and DMB. Mainly that DMB has a substantial female audience. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that they have that, while their biggest radio hits are ballady love songs.

        They aren’t the HS party act they used to be, and its OG fans aren’t old enough to have kids out of the house yet. They’re in that weird middle phase where they aren’t hip but they also aren’t quite a legacy act.

  4. asdf

    i really despise phish, hate jam music in general – but totally respect what these folks are doing. like-minded bands like the disco biscuits focus on a hybrid of jam and EDM and have curated their own festivals for a long time now (ie. “camp bisco”). no doubt, these crowds are spilling into and mingling with the EDM scene – another scene/genre almost entirely based on “the experience” rather than pop hits or albums. these people are getting rich and couldn’t give less of a shit about the “music industry” as we know it.

    • Ari Herstand

      Great points about the EDM scene. Absolutely. And whereas Phish (and DMB) have built movements and communities around their bands, EDM has built the scene around the festivals and the experience. Less about one act, and more about the scene. Not to say individual acts aren’t selling out arenas themselves (they are obviously), but time will tell if any single act can sustain this for decades.

      • FarePlay

        You’re walking on thin ice when you compare EDM to extended free form jam bands like the Allman Brothers, who just played what may be their last show the other night, and will be rebroadcast on Sirius XM over the next few days, the dead, dmb, radiohead, widespread panic, etc.

        I totally respect the EDM fan who hates jam bands, because they are totally different animals. It is not my place to trash EDM, because It doesn’t connect with me, but who cares.

        To bad you missed the dead, because phish is simply carrying on a tradition that started in 1966.