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The art and business of non-stop gigs

LiveMint logoLiveMint 15-09-2017 Sanjoy Narayan

This July, when Billboard published its list of the top 50 moneymakers in music for 2016, there were hardly any surprises at the top end of that list, dominated as it was with familiar names: Beyoncé, Guns N’ Roses, Bruce Springsteen, Drake, Adele, Coldplay, Justin Bieber... I’m sure you get the drift. The surprise was tucked away near the middle of the list, at No.26, the spot occupied by Vermont-founded band Phish, which earned $13.7 million (around Rs87 crore) during last year. That may be less than a fourth of what Beyoncé made ($62.1 million) but consider this: 98.5% of what the band earned came from touring and not from album or track sales. Since its formation in 1983, Phish has released 13 studio albums, including last year’s Big Boat, and several live albums, but none of those has made much money for the band whose revenue comes from following a strategy that has come to be known as “the always-touring” business model.

In 2016, the four-member band (comprising Trey Anastasio on guitar; Jon Fishman on drums; Mike Gordon on bass; and Page McConnell on keyboards) sold nearly 250,000 tickets for 48 shows (sheepish disclaimer: I bought three for their New Year’s eve run in New York). And this year, in addition to their peripatetic gig schedule, Phish did Baker’s Dozen, 13 consecutive sold-out shows at a single venue, New York’s Madison Square Garden (capacity: 20,000 plus). The average Phish concert lasts three and a half hours; the band’s music is a hybrid of many genres; and it is heavily into improvisations during its live shows with the same song seldom sounding exactly the way it sounded the last time they played it. Its following comprises dedicated fans, many of whom travel from venue to venue to watch shows. This year, many fans watched multiple numbers of the Baker’s Dozen shows when they happened between 21 July and 6 August, some taking in all 13 of them. The band didn’t disappoint: Phish didn’t repeat a single song during those shows, each of which had a unique set list.

It’s a curious kind of supply-driven model of business. Supply enough gigs and loyal fans will turn up. It isn’t new either. The birth of the “always-touring” business model was in the mid-1960s with its most famous adopters being the Grateful Dead in whose footsteps today’s breed of psychedelic jam bands such as Phish, Widespread Panic, Disco Biscuits, Umphrey’s McGee, moe., and others follow. The Grateful Dead hardly made much money out of album sales even in a pre-digital, pre-CD era where physical formats such as vinyl and cassettes were the only way to own music. They toured relentlessly, sometimes, particularly in their early years, clocking more than a hundred shows annually. Moreover, in a policy that perplexed the music industry’s establishment, they allowed their fans to freely tape all their gigs and trade amongst their peers those bootleg tapes. That idea may have had egalitarian, hippy-ish origins but became for the band, wittingly or otherwise, the bedrock for a great business model: free taping and bootleg tape trading acted as a peer-to-peer promotion among fans as well as an introduction to the band for newbies who hadn’t yet been turned on to the Dead’s music. This in turn led to bigger turnouts at the band’s concerts and a virtuous cycle of “always-touring” was born.

Although many of today’s generation of jam bands such as Phish were formed before the digital era began, they have been quick to leverage the advantages of technology, particularly in a regime where music sales of any kind are falling sharply and streaming songs brings piffling earnings for musicians or bands. But few have honed their business model with as much finesse as Phish has. For instance, along with ticket sales and distribution companies such as Ticketmaster, Phish uses distribution strategies and concert schedules to ensure fans pay fair prices and are not scalped, calibrating gigs (in terms of numbers and venues) so that everybody gets a stab at paying face value for tickets rather than black-market rates. The band’s management is extremely web-savvy and offers downloads and streams of multi-format digital files of pristine quality recording of shows minutes after they are over. Other digital bells and whistles, such as a slick Live Phish app, offer fans the ease of remaining plugged in with the band. And constant touring has led to rare bonhomie and rapport between band members and the audience. At one of the New Year’s Eve shows in New York, I saw fans hand over to the stage gifts such as handmade T-shirts for some of the members, which were accepted with genuine grace.

At the core of its appeal, of course, is the music, which can be divisive: you either absolutely love Phish or you do not care at all for their brand of spontaneous jams blending genres ranging from jazz and blues to rock, reggae and R&B. And there’s definitely something cultish about it all. At shows there are inside references, either through cues from something the band plays or one of the members, usually frontman Anastasio, says, a riff or a phrase or a sequence, or by how the crowd behaves, thousands joining in to sing lyrics that sometimes are so abstract that no one can figure out what they mean. You could call it a weird sub-culture or you could sneer at fans’ obsession with the band and its music, but as the Billboard listing shows, Phish’s is a business model that works. There’s money in non-stop gigging.

The Hollywood film ‘Almost Famous’ that chronicles life on the road with fictional rock band Still Water. Photo: Getty Images

The Lounge list

Five tracks to bookend this week

1. ‘Bouncing Around The Room (Live)’ by Phish from ‘Phish St Louis ’93 Live’

2. ‘Waste’ by Phish from ‘Billy Breathes’

3. ‘Oh Baby’ By LCD Soundsystem from ‘American Dream’

4.‘Over Everything’ by Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile from ‘Lotta See Lice’

5. ‘Protest Song’ by Broken Social Scene from ‘Hug Of Thunder’

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.

The writer tweets at @sanjoynarayan

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