Phish.net is but one project of the entirely volunteer nonprofit Mockingbird Foundation. We frequently credit the volunteers involved, and accept critiques of our own roles among them. But we’re also proud that Mockingbird – which today turns 20 years old – has grown beyond the individuals behind it, and is now a structured, vibrant, productive entity that will outlive the participation of any us.
As we continue to envision the Foundation’s future, we take a moment today to look back – on the history of the band, its fans, and our attempts to contribute. We knew at the start that our vision was plausible and our intentions honorable. But the path following them to today was winding and confusing, testing both conventions and friendships. And it all started, of course, with that new sound coming out of Burlington.
Phish is a curious specimen. Because they share certain traits with apparent ancestors, the band and its concerts are often described with blunt classifications. Yet their musical diversity, performance ingenuity, and fan connections helped spawn a new lineage, of which Phish, even on their least ambitious nights, remain the exemplar – jambandus maximus.
They are a mutation of every convention: never-duplicated setlists, from a gargantuan repertoire, including live performances of seven albums originally recorded by other bands; legendary stage antics and ground-breaking audience interactions that advance the fun as much as the music; mold-breaking event management, including multi-day, single-band festivals; envied success and longevity, despite having avoided traditional models; and esoteric methods for practicing interactive improvisation.
They are often at odds with even their own history, whether by changing song titles or lyrics, shifting studio directions or stage arrangements, twisting audience expectations, taking breaks… or calling breaks different things – including a needed break, an indefinite hiatus, and a permanent breakup.
This complex variability is both magical and commercially successful. But it makes systematic observation and description of the band’s history an ongoing challenge. Many take understandable shortcuts, such as by chronicling the band in terms of its fans’ migratory patterns, retro plumage, and ritualistic consumptions. Our focus, instead and always, has been on the band itself, and particularly its rich musical history.
Borne of 1970s inspiration, intermittent training, four-track recorders, and Vermont ingenuity, Phish emerged from a dorm room and spread slowly, in time and space. The band’s migration – from its native habitat of northeast college-town bars, to national arenas and beyond – mirrored the Internet’s escape from its own academic roots.
Early adopters spread excitement from 1986 to 1990, as commercial service networks such as Compuserve and Prodigy blossomed while Phish travelled from Vermont to play in 11 other states. Horizons expanded in 1990, with the invention of HTTP, HTML, and URLs, and the band playing 12 new states. University students swarmed online from 1989 to 1993, as Phish followed the line of college towns going south.
Both audiences reached critical mass by 1994, the year each world shifted: The Internet opened to commercial usage, the first Netscape browser was released, and the W3C was founded to standardize the web, just as Phish produced the uber-polished Hoist, performed their first “musical costume,” and even made a “music video.”
For several years beyond that – through the births of Amazon and Google, and the band’s first live album and first multi-day festival – everything was looking up. But excesses around the turn of the millennium, including Big Cypress and Napster, were followed by concerns and then stumbles – online and for Phish. A progressive-rock band and a foundation-rocking technology – each with hints of a hippie aesthetic and a large serving of exploratory ambition – emerged, matured, and experienced growing pains together.
The timelines were not entirely coincidental. The band’s incremental successes and geographic expansion during the 1990s owe much to then-emerging online communities. Interactions within them allowed fans to learn new songs and antics before seeing shows, facilitated the exchange of recordings and insider knowledge, allowed the band to take otherwise premature tours west and south, and forged bonds (among fans and to the band) that persist decades later.
Further, as a path to both interaction and education, those communities also brought many fans to the Internet – earlier and more actively than most, with many of them sharpening new technical skills via band-related fandom. As a result, Phish didn’t just benefit from the Internet; it helped build it.
The band even advanced the process directly: A blurb in an early newsletter invited readers to join a fan-created email list, and the number of subscribers soon jumped from 100 to 300. Over successive years, fans used a wide range of bounded discussion formats, from the relatively obscure channels of IRC to the oh-so-popular rooms of AOL. In 1992, they created both the Usenet newsgroup rec.music.phish and the first phish.net website, each an open, public space and each a critical juncture towards this Foundation: Born in that newsgroup, and maturing through that website, has been a valiant effort to protect and preserve community resources, inspired by the band’s own lyrics.
The first fan-generated documentation about the band was started in 1991, undertaken on a volunteer basis, for the free use of fans, and out of love for the band. These included a lyrics file, guitar tabs file, and Frequently Asked Questions file (esp. “What are they saying in ‘You Enjoy Myself’?”, aka WATSIYEM). But first and foremost was the setlists file, inspired by Phish lyrics about the Helping Friendly Book, said to contain all of the knowledge in the universe, everything the peaceful and innocent Lizards of Gamehendge ever wanted or needed to know. The HFB helped the Lizards learn and live in harmony, until it was stolen by an evil king and later misappropriated by a turncoat.
Life imitates art: By 1995, those community resources (particularly the setlists) were being distributed by others – printed and sold in lots, and purloined for others’ products – putting their spirit and consistency in jeopardy. In October 1996, a fateful email discussion turned old friends into volunteers, determined to protect those resources, in a printed book and otherwise. As their first collective act, they sent a letter to John Paluska and Shelly Culbertson (cc’ing Tom Marshall), on October 28th, 1996 – twenty years ago today.
The group took a second cue from Phish lyrics, in which the Famous Mockingbird reclaims the book for the Lizards. By March of 1997, The Mockingbird Foundation was formally incorporated as an all-volunteer 501c3 nonprofit. Its mission is to coordinate, curate, and distribute intellectual property related to Phish for the purpose of funding music education.
Dozens of projects, large and small, have taken place under the auspices of Mockingbird, each of them all-volunteer and with charitable purposes. Proceeds from books, albums, posters, artwork, special events, partnerships, and other projects have funded more than 300 grants, in nearly every state, totaling over one million dollars so far – with the 21st round of grants to be announced in less than two months.
Mockingbird is now not only the leading provider of historical information about the band, but one of a small number of successful grantmakers in this important funding area – and perhaps the only one supporting both established organizations and newer niche programs nationwide. The Foundation is also of interest organizationally, for a variety of reasons: It has no paid staff, no salaries, and no physical offices, operating almost entirely online – partly because of the geographic dispersion of volunteers, and also in the spirit of the online community from which it emerged.
We hope that Mockingbird will be around for at least another 20 years, and we’re taking big steps to ensure its longevity and future success. We invite you to join in that process, appreciate your support of it, and look forward to seeing you soon – at a Phish show, at a Mockingbird event, or here on the site.
But, for today, join with us in celebrating that an unconventional quartet from Vermont could spark a dozen strangers nationwide, working through a new medium of interaction, to build something that would even last 20 years. ... To Phish!
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Phish.net is a non-commercial project run by Phish fans and for Phish fans under the auspices of the all-volunteer, non-profit Mockingbird Foundation.
This project serves to compile, preserve, and protect encyclopedic information about Phish and their music.
The Mockingbird Foundation is a non-profit organization founded by Phish fans in 1996 to generate charitable proceeds from the Phish community.
And since we're entirely volunteer – with no office, salaries, or paid staff – administrative costs are less than 2% of revenues! So far, we've distributed over $2 million to support music education for children – hundreds of grants in all 50 states, with more on the way.