August 15th, 2017 By Sean Callahan
“In a world gone mad, there must be something more than this.” This is a stadium-rockin’ lyric from one of Phish’s newer songs “More”, and sums up all that has and will go on from the band’s current 13 show run at Madison Square Garden, cleverly dubbed ‘Baker’s Dozen’.
For those of you who don’t have an obsessed Phish fan as a friend or family member, let’s start here. Phish is a band. Sometimes they are classified as a ‘jam’ band (a term I personally find pointless). They are a band that has existed since 1983, and has succeeded below the mainstream for more or less that entire time (outside of a few down years where the lead singer and guitarist lost his mind on drugs, but that’s a different story). They are sometimes classified in the same genre of the Grateful Dead for a variety of reasons, but let’s just say, they are a band that creates music most people cannot easily embrace. Rolling Stone has recently said of the band and this 13-show run, “the formula strikes a balance between well-laid surprises, long passages of relaxed conversational interplay, and the goofball groove-oriented exuberance that makes Phish repugnant to civilians and beloved to Phishheads.” Pretty much sums it up.
Within this special residency, come Sunday August 6, Phish will have played 13 shows and somewhere in the area of 260+ songs, with no repeats. Some are covers (including Tay Zonday’s Chocolate Rain), but for the most part they’re Phish originals. No other band alive has the ability to do this, period. No band could get away with it, no band could physically do it … or even care to. All this while selling out the most famous arena in America while no one else is paying attention besides a core group of fans (like myself). To this core group, this is the World Series. We track this in the way others follow Game of Thrones, politics, their favorite baseball team, The Bachelor (my wife), or whatever fun thing that makes you feel alive (and nerdy). Phish has certainly made these run of shows extra special for the live attendees, but has also offered up high def webcasts of every show for $25, reaching out the rest of the world of ‘phans’ who can’t be there. From a business standpoint, this band is crushing it. With that, I thought it was a good time to offer up my thoughts on what marketers can take away from this silent juggernaut … and maybe shed some light on what is actually going on with the business of Phish.
1. BE COMFORTABLE WITH OVERSPENDING ON THE LITTLE THINGS
Having been in experiential and event marketing for 16+ years, I’ve certainly gotten into a few budget battles with clients over the ‘little’ things. Phish does not care about these debates. This band overspends on big things (their sound equipment and lighting being #1) but also focuses a lot on the little things that their fans (consumers) get excited about. During ‘Baker’s Dozen’ the tickets are card-stock printed in the shape of donuts to push on the theme. Each show is centered in some ways around a different donut flavor (from Federal Donuts in Philly – www.federaldonuts.com). They have unique designs from a variety of artists, producing different merch for every show at every price level. They simply have made enough money in their lives, that they are focused on splurging at key moments to say thank to their old fans … and to make sure they keep it contemporary and intriguing to new 18 year olds looking to get involved. The old adage of ‘you gotta spend money to make money’ is never more alive than with Phish … and is true for every brand out there.
2. TAKE BIG RISKS
For the past several decades, Phish has normally traveled around the country during this summer period (like every other ‘normal’ band). For Baker’s Dozen, they took a huge risk of pissing a large portion of their fan base off by only staying in NYC. To try and thwart this, they’ve over-delivered to a point that most fans are still in awe of. Perfect fun. Perfect weirdness. Perfect inside jokes. Perfect variety. At least one 20-minute song per show. It’s what every Phish fan wants. It’s a big risk, for sure, but one that has had most fans applauding and thanking these group of 53-year-old white dudes they worship. Additionally, during these themed shows, there have been a variety of new cover songs that don’t necessarily fit within their standard tone as a band. It could have failed massively, but the band has built up so much good will over the years, that these risks are welcome diversions. Try something new. If it’s done with good intentions and love, truly passionate fans of your brand will respect you more in the long run for trying something out.
3. EMBRACE AND FURTHER CHANGE
This is certainly a standard adage of biz … and something Coca-Cola probably has felt this past week from die hard Coke Zero fans … but it’s true! We’re always changing as people, life is always changing, and so do brands & bands. Much to the surprise of most non-Phish fans who just vaguely know and make fun of the band, they’ve been putting out new music their entire career. Like with risk, it doesn’t always work, there are certain songs that fans hate (myself included), but some of it works exceptionally well. In 2014 Phish debuted a live ‘album’ (of sorts) that is more or less devoid of lyrics and based off an album from 1964 of sound effects. Seriously, this happened. And to Phish fans, it was one of the greatest things that ever happened! It’s weird, it odd, it’s not easily accessible for a neophyte, it’s risky and I’m sure it was hard as hell from them to learn, but it paid off. Embrace the full evolution that is life. Change with it, run to the light, and magic can happen.
4. NOSTALGIA IS ALWAYS EFFECTIVE
While change happens, and new works, so does nostalgia. Since 2009 especially, Phish has at the same time embraced new and nostalgia. In some ways, it is the new that makes the old even better. There are 30-year-old Phish songs that the band ‘could’ play every night, but they don’t … and that makes those times when they do all the much sweeter. For a certain segment of brands, there is a lot of untapped magic in the old, from time to time. I think there’s too much respect given to what’s next. While evolution is inevitable, and time keep ticking on, there is magic in history and to ‘going home’. Phish can play a 30-year-old song in a fresh new way on any given night … and it works for a 16-year kid who barely knows it … and that 40-year-old guy who fell in love with it in 1994.
5. WORK HARD AND LISTEN
This may be obvious, but this can’t be easy for them. These 4 guys are loaded now. They could phone this in and people would still give them all their cash … but they DON’T. Phish fans are highly critical. We all think we’re food / art / music critics … and will happily tell you what we think of each show … and since the dawn of the internet, have made these critiques well known and distributed. Phish has not talked much about their music in a way since 2009, or embraced publicly any dissection of it, but we all know they’re paying attention. They hear it and they care. These guys want to provide a quality product for a small segment of the population, and they work DAMN hard to do it. Brands like Patagonia, Ben & Jerry’s, NIKE, Sierra Nevada … they hear it, and they actually pay attention to try and make the brand experience a great one.
6. EMBRACE TECH AND BE SOCIAL
Phish has spent, what I can only assume, a ridiculous amount of money, time and effort on their own app, Live Phish, where for $10 / month you can listen to every Phish show minutes after it is over. The quality, sound and user experience is nearly perfect. In addition, a significant amount of all of Phish’s live shows over their history are on the app to listen to as well. Is there anything remotely like this from any other band right now? On top of that, the band’s twitter feed provides live updates of song lists in real time to track … and has an A-list photographer on staff at every show, providing awesome stage pics via social. Do they have to do this? Hell no! Is it an unnecessary cost at some level? YES! But, it’s these extra efforts, attention to detail and embracing new channels and technology that keeps it all fresh and from becoming a state fair act.
Listen, I know that this is certainly not for everyone. There are certain bands I love that I try to bring people into all the time. Phish is not one of them. They are weird. It’s full of inside jokes, odd fairly-tale style stories, the scene can be a bit much to take sometimes, and I get it. It’s certainly not for everyone … and I get how easy it is to make fun of. However, for brand, sponsorship and entertainment marketers, there is a LOT to learn from the way they run their business and the ‘product’ they provide their fans. You may never be able to talk to me about the nuances of the 1998 Riverport Bathtub Gin, but I could certainly get you to see the value of embracing certain commercial moves of Phish. If you can see through the smoke, there’s gold in there.