Friday, July 31, 2009

Why is Phish so cool?

I remember the first time Phish announced they were going to play at Madison Square Garden in NYC in late 1995. I was flabbergasted! How could this band I had first seen in a bar in Ithaca, NY in 1990 with maybe 100 people in attendance have garnered such a huge following? How could a band who has 0 Top 10 billboard hits be playing several nights to a sold out crowd at MSG? How could this band most people, at the time, had barely even heard of be so successful? I'll try to explain it as best I can.

Unique Experience
One of the most important aspects of Phish is that they try to make each show a unique experience. If they play a 3 night stint somewhere, all 3 shows will be different in that the setlists will vary. Phish creatively tries to mix it up (and succeeds). This is a step away from the mainstream music concert tour where everything is choreographed and, as a result, each show in the tour is the same. Also notable about Phish shows is the lighting. It becomes a performance with the work of Chris Kuroda, who synchronizes the light show with the music (which is no easy task considering the band is improvising a lot of the time). All of this makes Phish fans want to see more that just one Phish concert in a tour if they can.

They also try to play in venues that are fun and friendly for the audiences. Venues like The Gorge Amp in Washington State or Red Rocks Amp in Colorado have absolutely beautiful surroundings. The Thomas & Mack Center in Vegas is, well, in Vegas! Hampton Coliseum in Virginia has also always been a favorite. Additionally, Phish will periodically host festivals where they will play a 2-3 day stint in a remote location where fans can come and camp out; usually with fun activities and art installations to help make it a destination.

Taping Is Allowed
Phish allows their fans to tape their live performances! Again, this is a step away from the mainstream music concert tour which considers such activity illegal. In fact, Phish designates a specific area of the venue they are performing at (called the “Taper Section”) where people who wish to tape the show can set up their equipment.

There are official rules about taping though, which from my experience, most tapers/fans abide by. Here is a summary of the policy:
  1. You can only tape in the designated taper section (usually behind the soundboard). Sometimes you need a “taper ticket” to enter the taper section, and sometimes it is first come first served.
  2. You cannot interfere with someone else’s enjoyment of the show. For example, you can’t tell the people next to you who might be cheering to be quiet so your recording will come out better.
  3. I’m pretty sure there is a limit to how tall your mic stand can be, but not sure.
  4. And finally, you cannot sell or profit from your recording. You can trade it for other recordings; but that’s about it. The only people who can sell a recording is Phish - and they do sell nice soundboard quality recordings of their shows on
Taping was (and may still be?) the common denominator amongst fans. Early on, in the early/mid 90’s, many fans traded audio cassettes. This is pre-Internet, pre CD burning for the masses, pre MP3, & pre iPod. It was technically challenging at the time to transfer digital recordings to the layman so audio tapes were used (some people used DAT but that was rare). In fact, I recall at this time I was purchasing most other music on CD’s and had a CD player, but I also had a tape player specifically for Phish tapes (and other live music recordings) because I had no Phish music on CD. I had a nice sized tape collection of Phish and traded with people I met or knew.

Audience Participation
Phish often times involves the audience in their shows.
  • I recall a tour where they played chess against the audience, where every show they would make moves on a huge chess board (I forget who eventually won; the band or the audience).
  • For Halloween, they have costume contests for audience and often play a 3rd set where they will cover another band’s album (most notable was the White Album in Glens Falls, NY in 1994 where this tradition started)
  • One year (early 90’s) at the State Theatre in Ithaca, NY they gave away their old tour van by throwing the keys to it into the audience (and a guy I know nick-named “Toast” caught them).
  • They used to have giant inflated balls they would send into the audience and each band member would “play along” with one of the balls, thus giving the audience “control” over what they play.
  • They created a “secret” language of sorts, where Trey would queue the audience with a signal of some kind and everyone would react (for example; Trey would quietly play the first verse to the Simpson’s song and the whole audience would say “DOH!”)
  • Sometimes fans bring glow sticks and start throwing them around, which looks really cool, and the band will reciprocate with appropriate lighting and music.
These examples and many others not listed, contribute to the whole “unique experience” that keeps fans coming back and makes it worth it to make a show a destination trip.

Frequent Tours (and side note on age demographic)
Can’t travel to see Phish? Not to worry, over the course of a year they will likely be playing somewhere that is within reasonable driving distance to you. They tour frequently, usually coinciding with the seasons (Summer Tour, Fall Tour, etc). During Summer Tour you are likely to find a lot of kids out of college for the summer going to multiple shows (as I did when I was an undergrad). During those days, there were pretty much ONLY people in their late teens and early 20’s going to shows. While there is still people in that age group going, a lot of the people who were going to shows in their 20’s during the 90’s are now in their mid/late 30’s and still going (so the demographic has changed a bit).

Comparisons to the Grateful Dead
Comparing Phish to the Grateful Dead is a double edged sword. There are definite similarities in form, but many differences in style. The most significant similarities in form are the band’s focus on live shows over studio albums, frequent tours, making each live show unique, fan taping policies, the availability of live recordings as a commodity among fans, and the fan’s tendency to follow the tour around from city to city. As far as style goes, the only thing really very similar is that both bands could be considered jam bands. This article on wikipedia describes the difference as: “Phish tended to more closely follow a jazz language or tradition in their playing, which is very distinct from the Grateful Dead's roots in folk and Americana”. It did seem to me during the rise of Phish in the early 90’s that they were on their way to taking over the helm for the next generation on what the Grateful Dead had started with touring. Despite the similarities, I still find it to be politically incorrect when people compare the two groups as almost synonymous.

Death of Jerry Garcia
On August 9, 1995; Jerry Garcia passed and pretty much ended the Grateful Dead as it was then known. The Grateful Dead were still a regular touring band at the time, and they stopped touring due to Garcia’s death. Looking for a similar scene (again, with the similarities being in “form”), may Grateful Dead fans began taking to touring more frequently with Phish. There was a noticeable increase in attendance at Phish concerts and demand for tickets starting in late 1995. Although some may argue that it isn’t the case, I believe Phish's popularity explosion had a lot to do with the fact that Phish was no longer sharing the tour scene with the Grateful Dead after 1995.

Communication (From The Shivice to the Internet)
Phish and Phish fans have always made efforts to use whatever media means possible to keep connected. It started first with the Phish mailing list. Before the Internet and widespread use of email, Phish used to send a periodic newsletter to fans via snail mail called the “Doniac Shivice” (which I used to absolutely love receiving). I’ve read somewhere that at the height of circulation they were sending out 200k copies per issue.

Since the proliferation of the Internet, Phish stopped circulating the Shivice and started communication via email. They built out a website that now includes, where soundboard quality recordings of their shows can be purchased in MP3 or SHN for less than the cost of a CD just hours after a performance. Fans also distribute their audience recordings, legally according to Phish's taping policy. Before digital distribution you could probably find a copy of a particular show within a few weeks, but with the Internet and digital distribution you can download an audience copy of a show within hours of it's completion.

Fans also started various independent websites where people can connect about Phish, trade music recordings, look for tickets, find tour information, etc. Most recently, Phish began using Twitter to send out setlists from shows in real time - which I think is ground breaking use of Twitter for live music.

On the Fringe of Pop Culture
It amazes me that a band that sells out festivals in the middle of nowhere to 70k people, or 3 night stints at MSG, can remain on the fringe of pop culture. There are references to Phish in the mainstream, like with cameo appearances on the Simpsons or with the Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream flavor (Phish Food) named after them – but they still are not considered mainstream. I honestly hope it stays that way, b/c nothing can ruin a good thing or a best kept secret faster than too much media attention.

Added 8/26/09:
Phish's Secrets and More For Growing A Cult Following

Debunking The Stereotypes
(are all Phish fans *really* pot smoking neo-hippies?)

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Craig for this extensive and informative post. My favorite Phish song is "Down With Disease." I'm also a fan of the (short-lived) supergroup Oysterhead featuring Trey, Stewart Copeland (drummer from The Police) and Les Claypool (singer/bassist from Primus).