37 years and going stronger than ever, what businesses can learn from one of the greatest bands you've never heard of.
I grew up in the 1980's in Glens Falls, New York. A small town sandwiched between New York City and Montreal. In other words, the middle of nowhere.
Summers were spent riding my bicycle as far and as fast as the sun permitted, and winters involved a lot of skiing and bumming as many rides over the border to Vermont as I could find.
And it was on one of these bummed trips that I remember my next door neighbor Bobby Linehan saying to me, "Hey D, gimme the tape with the fish on it. The one with P H."
And thus began my lifetime love affair with one of the most successful musical acts you've probably never heard of.
Roots, Rock, Roggae
Formed in 1983 via The University of Vermont and Goddard College, Trey Anastasio, Jon Fishman, Mike Gordon, and Page McConnell have gone on to blaze a rarely touched path across the musical landscape.
To put this in perspective, from 2008-2012 the band generated over $120M on North American ticket sales alone. Only one of their albums has ever made the Billboard top 10 rankings, they've never had a hit song, and have only ever made one music video.
In an industry the traditionally relies heavily on hype and subsequent media airplay or streaming, how is this even remotely possible?
The answer lies in community.
Give 'em what they want
Back to passing Bobby that tape.
For the past 36 years, Phish has had a dedicated "Taper Section" in the crowd. A technique they adopted from the Grateful Dead as a way for fans to capture the unique and magical beauty of the band's live shows.
And this is no hold-your-phone-up-and-shoot-this-song kind of deal. From my own personal experience of talking with tapers at shows, these folks had some serious equipment and seriously knew their shit about the intricacies of recording live music. In other words, these were high quality recordings. The kind you don't want to keep for yourself, but that you want to share and trade with your neighbor. And his neighbor, and their sister, and all the geeks in your drama club. ... or maybe that was just me?
To the point - Phish realized very early on that one of the best forms of marketing. Let your biggest fans:
Share the love.
... and evangelize for you.
"I saw The Dead for the first time ever in 1983 in Hartford, Connecticut. ... It was the first time I'd seen, in a rock and roll setting, music as a community builder. Where the band members were all listening to each other and improvising, where the audience was an an active participant in a musical event. It totally changed my concept." - Trey Anastasio
Going against the grain of ejecting fans from a show for smuggling a tape recorder in, Phish did the exact opposite and allowed not only taping of their shows, but openly welcomed these budding engineers, and gave them the choicest spot in the house, right behind the soundboard.
Phish wasn't in the music business. They were in the business of family building.
Live shows might have been the heart, but communications were the brain.
And long before the days of instant information retrieval, a.k.a The Interwebs, what better way to communicate with your family than via the mail?
(sidebar - phish.com went live in 1996, long before many bands had any type of internet presence).
Specifically a newsletter? More specifically the Doniac Schvice?
This was the first time I'd ever heard of, or subscribed to a newsletter. Circa 1991 (or so). I put my 15¢ stamp on that envelope and eagerly requested my addition to the list.
What came back about a month or so later, kept me entertained for hours. Mike's Corner, Fish's Forum, Page's Notes, and most importantly Tour Dates and the all important Tickets-By-Mail order form.
To the point - Phish isn't about a one off experience. By providing regular updates, thoughts, and good humor through regular communications, the "sale" isn't really a sell but rather:
Giving them an open invitation.
"There are people I look out and see that I really, genuinely, feel a connection to." - Trey Anastasio
Phish have never been ones to shy away from audience participation. One of their oldest songs, "Harry Hood" features a classic audience shout-back. Once sung by Trey, the "Hood" is a lyric he can forget night after night, as it's the audience's job to follow the call of "Harry".
For their 1995 fall tour, the band decided to up the game. Literally. They played an interactive chess game with the audience.
At the opening of every show that tour, a giant chess board would be flown in from the rafters and the band would make their move at the beginning of the first set.
Audience members were then given the opportunity to cast their vote on the next move. Once the votes were tallied a randomly selected member of the audience would come on stage and make the move on the board.
To the point - Fun and interactive activities with your community will drive the desire to:
Keep coming back for more.
Now I know that not every business is in the business of being rockstars. But that doesn't mean you can't act like one. Or think like one.
Remember, ultimately your customers and potential customers are your bread and butter. So let them:
- Share the Love
- Give them an open invitation
- Keep coming back for more
See you all at the next show!
Lead Image: Rene Huemer
All other images: Unknown