Wednesday 07/30/2014 by Lemuria


This is one of several items we're hosting at today to engage with students in Stephanie Jenkins' Philosophy class. Here, I attempt to answer questions submitted by her students – about the band, its management, its fans, changes in them, and how that relates to community (this week's topic in the course)...

  • I was fortunate enough to have attended this past Sunday's Merriweather show. Clearly this show was "different" from everything else done this summer (to date). Do you think the band makes conscious decisions to attempt a performance like this or -- as my friend put it on the ride home - "does it just happen?". How much does the bands relationship with its community effect this kind of unique performance.

Every factor – decision, intention, community, happenstance, flatulence, etc. – matters at least a little bit for every show. How much any one mattered for any particular show (that is, how much of the variance in show quality or improv or excitement, is explained by any one of those factors), perhaps not even the band members know for certain. (Mike didn't even know that he teased "The Cave"!) But there have certainly been lackluster crowds, mediocre locations, and darker times (It's not all good, brah); and Sunday was a hot crowd in a storied venue when the band is (by most accounts) trending up.

  • Do you think Phish -- and bands in general -- choose fan friendly venues that foster community? Is music + community a "magic formula" for band success?

I suspect that all bands, from Phish to the ones that’ll start this weekend in some basement or garage, always want a venue that maximizes the experience, whatever that means. And Phish clearly has been attentive to fan experience, from the start, in innovative ways and to degrees that others don’t typically match or approach.

But I don’t think there’s a strong direct link from venue to community. There are lots of factors about venues – including whether they’re conducive to good sound, security, crowd control, and a good experience for the band – that indirectly facilitate community, partly by there being good shows which focus and ignite the crowd. (David Byrne even makes an interesting argument that the architecture of music venues has affected the kinds of music made, which helps understand a shift from Anarchy to Fuego, if not YEM to Wombat.) I suspect that the band evaluates such factors in terms of their own experience moreso than ours (they’ve played some great shows in some shitholes), and that the benefits to community are essentially just laudable side effects, at least insofar as venue choice goes.

  • I think the recent addition of a Phish "pit" is a horrible thing for the phish community because it presents a division in the crowd between what I consider a core group of "greedy" individuals (for lack of a better term; you know who they are) and those who are really just excited to experience the rail or be close to the band. Do you think the "pit" is bad for the Phish community?

There’s always going to be a rail, and certain folks are always going to make their way there. There are advantages to rows and chairs, but weeding out “those (and esp. He) whom shan’t be named” probably doesn’t overcome the advantages of mobility and camaraderie that come from a bit of open space.

  • Do you think outdoor shows foster community more than indoor shows?

Per person? No, because there are more people distributed in more ways, and their interaction may be more with the environment than focused on the band - dispersed, distributed, distracted. Put 1/10 the people in a room staring at a stage, and each person is probably more engaged, connected, etc. – however you conceptualize and operationalize community. Outdoor shows tend to have more people, who might have or express or indicate more community in the aggregate, but they are unequally communalized.

Phish, of course, creates exceptions, including nearly a dozen festivals that far exceed the norm for "outdoor shows" -- scores of thousands camping on site, expansive art installations, not to mention innovations in re-entry, water and bathrooms, and, at Coventry, mud. Okay, not all of their unique moments have been desirable, but you might be surprised how much community that mud generated: the stranded walkers, the market for boots, the inescapable suck into which we were all pulled and enveloped. It was a special sort of hell that no one wanted to leave, and that folks walked miles of highway to enter - and was an historic illustration of community that was epically outdoors.

  • For me, I feel as though 2009's Festival 8 in Indio was perhaps the most positive Phish -- and perhaps any -- community experience I’ve ever had. What show(s) shows bring to mind community for you?

So many, but I’m old. :) I saw community at my first show, with vendor spillover from Dead tour (I bought a burrito and a phan sticker), and fans trading tapes in the lot. I sincerely felt it at least as early as 2/20/93, with perhaps a dozen friends on the rail, mezmerized and hysterical. I saw it grow over the years, and even build across tours (for which summer ’93 is memorable). There were many instances where the birth, growth, and evolution of community among fans was apparent – and perhaps none where it was absent. But Clifford Ball was probably the peak, surpassing even Big Cypress. From start to finish, it felt like everyone was smiling at each other with a, “Yep… wow… can you believe it?” look.

  • At Phish shows and festivals in general, I find the lot/camping scene to be an "important space of hope". It's a break, for a day or a week. There's not much that I'd rather do than hit a few shows on a local run or a 3 day festival like Clifford Ball or Dick’s. This is precisely because of the friendliness and generosity that defines the lot scene. It's a vacation for your persona(s); you can just be yourself.

Agreed. Phish forged serious territory with multi-day, massively-attended, one-band festivals. They do it right, and they do it well. ... Except for Coventry, which sucked -- but we can't glorify festivals without remembering the one that reached the lowest depths. (Have I mentioned the mud?)

  • I suspect that most healthy people have some sort of "occasional community" that achieves the same end; getting dressed up and going to church, washing and waxing their Mustangs and going to the car show, bingo, and so on. These too are more substantive than the sense of community with folks you run into every couple days at dunkin donuts and you each half smile at each other. I hope that even if someone doesn't like Phish or the Dead that they have something in life that fulfills the need for community wonderfully as Phish does for me. (Although I think we have more fun than the church going bingo players: more intense, at least as genuine, consistent, pleasant and joyous fun.)

Right. Every body needs a hobby, a passion, something in which they have faith - Jesus, football, the White Sox, Gravity Falls (new season starts Friday!). But something different happens among music fans. I wouldn't argue that it's deeper, more embracing, or whatever for individuals - but as a collective, there's clearly something further going on. Going further.

  • Do you think that the sense of community and belonging and joyous interaction is felt as strongly in other communities as I feel when I'm going to shows? I wonder if music creates and amplifies the Dionysian, the emotional interaction, reaching out. Does an impending NASCAR race create an equivalent satisfaction on race day for those fans? I hope so.

It doesn't seem possible. What's the most collective behavior in which NASCAR fans engage at an event - the wave? or some fraction of them cheering for a particular winner? What at NASCAR, or baseball, or even a Justin Bieber concert (and I've attended two; long live Kuroda!) even approaches the collective mindmeld of audience reactions to and engagement with Phish performances - or, for that matter, with 1000s of other acts? You can sing along (but please don't), air guitar (but no windmills, please), or bounce en masse. Whatever anyone wants to say, philosophically or psychologically, about what's inside the heads of fans in other communities, music fans - and arguably Phish fans chiefly among them - have achieved a level of groupact (never mind groupthink; I'm a sociologist) that's startling.

  • It has been stated that some music may cause listeners to enter trance states. However, Bicknell states that "performing musicians do not usually fall into trance states." Do you think this holds true for Phish band members? Being new to Phish, I have observed that there is an intimate connection between the audience and performers. The Dionysian aspect of Phish music causes the audience to "fade into complete forgetfulness of self," as Friedrich Nietzsche puts it. Do you think this same phenomena happens to the band members as well? Just from observation, Trey seems to lose himself in the music. Does this happened with every band member. How do they describe their experiences on stage after each concert?

The members of Phish aspire to a trance state of some sort, as perhaps many improvisational artists do, from their early Oh Kee Pa Ceremony practice/jam sessions, to Mike's frequently writing and speaking about the space between awake and asleep, to... well, just look at Trey's face, when he's doing that back-and-forth rocking with his mouth agape staring into the lights. Certainly some of it is focus, to get through complex improv - but some of it seems more tranced out than Bicknell suggests is common. Trey indeed loses himself in the music. And, on the best nights, so does everyone in the room.

  • For you, which Phish song brings the crowd together more than any other?

YEM and Divided Sky do it all: Well-known starts (and audience reactions) as a catalyst, epic composition that illustrates their chops, calm (before the storm) retreats for refocus (and a few clouds of bowl smoke here and there), loose and flowing elements to breed serious improv, and explosive endings. It’s not (just) that I’m a JadedVet: Newer material sometimes gets epic, but doesn’t have all five of those elements, in particular the historied starting signals. Harry Hood also works, and Stash is fine but was better when everyone knew the right number of claps. ;)

Travesty. (And not because the song itself is a travesty, which I mention because some would have taken a one-word answer as a joke. I'd love to hear Horse > Silent > Wading -> Wading Jam -> Waiting -> Waiting Jam.)

  • Do you think fan-based commerce at shows (vending of all kinds) helps or hurts the Phish community?

That’s dense with vagueness and normativity: An answer depends on what helps, hurts, and community mean. :) To the extent that community is indicated in exchange relationships, fan-based commerce by definition is, and so helps (or, at least, expands) community. But some products and services, and some vendors and distributors, are probably more conducive than others to various aspects of community such as identity, membership, integration, ritual, connections, etc. (I hesitate to float examples or venture some typology, but there's something empirical to be said about such patterns.)

  • Do you think Phish -- the band -- should be doing more to eliminate rampant scalping and secondary market ticket sales that appear to directly impact real fans and the Phish community as a whole?

Phish has done more than most in combating the troublesome elements of scalping, and deserves props for it. There’s always room for discussion about doing more, but I wouldn't put an imperative on the band to do more - partly because I'm an empiricist and partly because I appreciate supply and demand. I’m not opposed to a free market for tickets, as long as the playing field’s equal. Clearly it isn’t always (ever?), and I share opposition to the hacking madness that some folks have used to spin online sales to their advantage. But I support a secondary market for folks who change their minds or lose interest or whatever -- shit happens.

(Note that collectively takes an admirable position that you should neither buy nor sell for above face value, and encourages fans to use with a highly rationed menu item.)

  • Do you feel as though Phish's relationship with Red Light Management has influenced their creativity and if so is it fair that this can ultimately effect Phish fans as a community?

I know approximately nothing about the band’s relationship with RLM, not even enough to make a sketchy supposition about its impact. But I suspect that any changes in the creativity of the band and its members, particularly to whatever extent those changes affect fans, are far more a function of their age and personal histories than of anything RLM is or does. (The relationship with RLM is itself partly a function of those factors.) I predicted it would slide once I heard they had a backstage cook and masseuse - though it of course slid much further due to drugs and other issues. Maybe RLM, unlike a posh backstage scene, is faciliating more creativity, letting them outsource the hassle and focus on the magic.

As to what's "fair"... No fan has any right to any level of creativity from the objects of their devotion. You don't vest some ownership in Phish continuing to be new, or even good - and no amount of commercialization diminishes anything you have or had. We all hope that wonderful beautiful things will continue forever, but they won't.

  • Pearl Jam's Ten Club is a fan program that rewards fans (who pay a nominal annual fee) with special offers such as pre-sale ticket opportunities, special CD releases, exclusive merchandise, etc. Phish offers a ticket pre-sale lottery but do you think a program like the Ten Club brings the community closer together or further apart?

RLM’s sister/subsidiary Music Today runs a number of fan programs, including those for Pearl Jam and (their first) Dave Matthews Band. I’m sure Phish was pitched the idea, perhaps many times, but my sense is that they opted out for a variety of reasons, including perhaps some opposition to exclusivity. So far, their unconventional decisions in other areas have borne out as wise; perhaps this one will as well, someday somehow. But it wouldn't be a fully obsessive fan community if we didn't collectively question things like the relationship with RLM, the relationship with, and the state of the LivePhish app.

  • If you had a chance to make a Phish app to bring fans together -- what would you build?

If folks want to glance at their phone in the show, let it bring them back into it, and both draw from and add to the richness of presence at the show. I want a list of designated phriends integrated with a map of the venue: Best Friend Bob is in this seat with the green checkmark, which you can get to if you turn right at the upcoming portal; Ex-Wife Suzy is here at the red X, but you can avoid her by using bathroom A instead of B; forum regulars The Zee Team are meeting here at the purple rhombus at setbreak to plan their chess move. Maybe there's a gaming system, using song predictions or personal gap records or whatever to increment scores on the user icons shown on the venue map. (Hey, ZZYZX's icon just flashed 300 - but Lemuria finally got his mystery ship, which puts him over the top!)

  • With social media everywhere, what channel do you think supports the phish community the best (Facebook, twitter, Instagram, PT, other)? Are there channels you would eliminate?

Depends on what kind of support you mean, what you mean by community, what you mean by best. I think they all satisfy different needs -- apparently they do, at least to the extent they continue to be used. (Anyone miss MySpace? OnLive? Google+?)

  • From your perspective, what is the role of in the phan community? has unparalleled data and related resources, and a community of users that’s notably (even measurably) more positive and engaging than you may find at some alternatives. We hope it continues to evolve to meet the data needs and community desires of evermore fans, while supporting music education grants on the backend. But some folks may prefer something less critical, or more abrasive, and certainly there have been fans who’ve moved on from, even of their own accord. I hope every fan finds whatever works best for them, whether that’s Facebook, GroupMe, Whisper, PT, or something else.

PT has entertained many people for many years. Long live PT.

  • My college roommate, Jim Raras, used to tell me that the original Phish Companion was almost called "The Turquoise Mountain Messenger" Is this true? :-)

It was almost called 100s of things, but I’m not going to contradict Jim Raras. :)

  • Does the presence of online communities like make the "occasional community" more or less of a “miracle”?

The Phish fan community has been extended, strengthened, even emboldened by two decades of online interactions in dozens of services and locales - throughout that time, and many others than have come and (for the most part) gone. I've met some of my closest friends through it, and become close friends with dozens of people I would never otherwise have known. We've shared birthdays, weddings, deaths. We've held scores of events, and generated hundresd of grants. Every part of it has seemed like a bit of a miracle to me, and I'm about as unreligious as they come. But every day, I'm thankful for Phish as well as for ... Okay, somedays less than others. ;)

  • How do you think the technological advances during Phish’s three decades have affected the community? Are we “closer” and more cohesive because of social media, smartphones, and the internet?

There are so many ways to answer that, but... oh, I have some email, texts, and PMs to address...

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, comment by GinsengCindy
GinsengCindy Great answer to the inside vs. outside question - well said!
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