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The Business of Phish: Building a Tribe

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A recent post on the Priceonomics Blog looked at “The Business of Phish" with a focus on the early years of Phish's steady development and the eventual emergence of Phish as an improvisationally-oriented jamband and touring phenomenon. Along the way they hit three touchstone concepts of contemporary tech and marketing that are well-illustrated by musicians at work.

Rohin Dhar, whose wife is a fan of Phish, wrote about their business side for Priceonomics and, in the process, reveals how closely music and business can be intertwined.

It's an interesting long read about a band that gradually learned to play in public, re-emerged as an improvisational act and built a tribe in the process.

Dhar references Malcolm Gladwell's “theory of 10,000 hours," which basically posits that lots of practice leads to outsize success, when discussing the musicians pre-Phish and early Phish commitment to practicing and rehearsals. This commitment led from intensive practice with instruments to “highly analytical listening exercises."

But I was more struck by three concepts Dhar didn't reference but illustrated nicely.

Phish Business Buzzwords: Interation, Pivot, Tribe

Iteration - systematically working one's way through product variations to find a product/market fit.

Dohar quoted Phish biographer regarding their early local gigs in Goddard, Vermont that started small and allowed them to develop their act:

“'They sort of sucked when we first started seeing them,' admitted Tom Baggott, a Phish fan and acquaintance. 'They were getting it together. They were sort of sloppy, you know, but that was the fun of it. That was the magic of it. It was like there was a big joke going on and all the early Phish fans knew the punch line—which was that this was gonna be something big.'"

Pivot - “make a structural course correction to test a new fundamental hypothesis about the product, strategy and engine of growth."

Though they worked improvisationally, Phish didn't launch as a jamband. Quoting the band's archivist:

“Before 1993, it had seemed to be a very practiced, concise show that flowed real fast and didn't necessarily have any huge improvisational moments. All of a sudden there were huge improvisational moments everywhere."

Tribe - “a group of people connected to one another, connected to a leader, and connected to an idea."

Appropriated from other cultures by people much like Phish, the concept of building a “tribe," as Phish was doing from the beginning, is back in vogue. Their biographer revealed:

“This all worked to Phish's advantage, as they weren't swamped by success but experienced a slow, steady climb, during which they nurtured their craft in an environment where they gained a following one fan at a time. They gradually cultivated a varied audience of college students and hipsters from Burlington and environs."

Phish first revealed the power of their fanbase when they rented a club in Boston that refused to otherwise book them and sold out the 650 seat venue. The tribe followed them from Vermont for this special event.

By slowly building a tribe and developing an act designed for live shows, Phish became one of the standout touring bands competing comfortably with artists who sell a lot more records.

Phish has gone through some serious ups and downs but the features that made them a success remain relevant not just to other musicians but to other businesses as well.

Article via Brad Barrish at TopSpin Media.


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