Thursday, December 18, 2008

Phish Thoughts

Earlier today music industry columnist Bob Lefsetz wrote the following about Phish's oft-rumored appearance at Bonnaroo.

Would the Stones play Coachella?

Who gives a shit about the Stones. But Phish fans are diehards. Phishheads believe that Phish is God. They trekked to see the band at its own festivals, year after year. Is the band afraid they can't sell a ticket anymore?

This is no way to come back, playing it safe. Phishheads don't want to hang with Springsteen fans at some clusterfuck in Tennessee. Yes, Bruce is rumored for Bonnaroo too.

No one's special anymore. No one means anything. A festival is bigger than any act. Which is why the best can go on sale without listing any participants.

A great band is sui generis. It should never open for anyone. It's not part of the scene, it IS the scene.

Phish should do arenas. Then its own festival. It's hard not to believe they're doing Bonnaroo because of their manager's involvement.

You might think this is bullshit. You'll point to the gross. You'll say everyone's happy. I'll say this is the kind of thinking that fucked up our business. It's only about money, not about soul. Phish should only think about its fans. Not its manager's need to sell out a festival that dropped significantly in attendance last year.

Festivals are the new radio show. Do a few and you can't tour independently, i.e. on your own. You fatten the coffers of the promoter, but you fuck your own career.

Come on. A good song is not good enough. We're in a business where greatness is important. If you're not willing to split hairs, if you're not willing to argue the details of a band's career, then you're not a rock and roll fan. Fans worry about the minutiae. It's only Live Nation, beholden to Wall Street, that does not care about the man on the street.

You might say it's about the hang. About going to the show and getting fucked up with your brethren. I'll say it's about the music.

Maybe a festival is too much about the hang. Which is why Phish should not be playing Bonnaroo. Because it's the music that entranced its fans, the communal hang came after.

Do you want to mix your Sweet Sixteen with a Bar Mitzvah party? Do you want a vacation where you can bowl, surf and ski? Come on. Have a little self-respect.

Phish's comeback might fail, but let's see if they can stand on their own two feet.

Or maybe Phish is the new Jack Johnson. Maybe they're gonna play EVERY festival this summer.


The best part of the Lefsetz Letter is seeing where the conversation turns when everyone responds, kind of like the music industry’s answer to Phantasy Tour. Lefsetz also usually sends a "Mail Bag" follow up where he prints response letters from a handful of folks who write in (and by folks I mean everyone from random readers at home to Bonnie Raitt to Al Schnier, who happened to write in earlier this week). I am particularly excited for this next Mail Bag since I'd wager I’m within six degrees of Mike Gordon to most of the people who are passionate enough to spend their Thursday writing Bob a letter about Bonnaroo (it is a small scene after all, isn’t it?). Anyway, without further adieu here is my response:

Phish isn't playing Bonnaroo because they can't pack sheds. The fact that their Hampton comeback shows sold out instantly, scoring a "volcanic" Google ranking (the modern-day Billboard chart?) along the way, is tangible proof that they maintain an arena draw.

Phish is playing Bonnaroo because it is the most efficient way for them to throw a festival without having to handle all the logistics themselves.One of the major reasons Phish crumbled is that--like the Grateful Dead before them—the cart had started pulling the horse, which is to say their overhead and infrastructure had become unmanageable.

They tried to scale back by taking a hiatus in 2000, but the same problems followed them when they returned and, in the end, the only way to survive, oddly enough, was to level everything and start from scratch. In 1996, the fact that Phish drew 60,000 fans to a remote location felt like a cultural statement but, in 2009, I'd rather see the band focus on their music than
sit in on meetings regarding traffic and parking.

In many ways, Bonnaroo is the ultimate Phish festival. The inaugural Bonnaroo capitalized on Phish's two-year hiatus and, essentially, used the band's DNA to create an entirely new beast: The festival organizers hired key members of Phish's festival production team, recruited similar
vendors, booked the band members' solo projects and, at the risk of accenting my own hippie-rock roots, captured "the vibe" of the Phish experience, a rare place where music managed to outweigh merchandising (at least in the traditional sense).

It makes sense musically, too. Bonnaroo is a direct outgrowth of the Phish/jamband scene and, in a very elegant way, has grown along with that scene to encompass all sorts of music, from jazz and bluegrass to country and metal and indie to pop and electronica. Like many of the original
Bonnaroo fans who still make the trek to Tennessee on a regular basis, there was a point in my life when I pretty much only listened to Phish, but now my iPod is filled with everything from Gillian Welch to Andrew Bird to the National to Cloud Cult to TV on the Radio to Marco Benevento to Dr. Dog and MGMT and, if Arcade Fire were to play a late-night set
after Phish, I might even camp (maybe).

You are right about one thing, though: festivals are the new radio shows…or at least what radio shows used to be: the best place to hear new and different music. I've discovered countless great bands festival hopping, from Jack Johnson (at the first Bonnaroo, not so coincidently) to
Metallica, a band I never would have paid to see if they weren't lined up next to The Raconteurs, Chris Rock, My Morning Jacket and the Disco Biscuits.

Maybe it’s true that the younger fans are going to Bonnaroo because “the festival's name is now bigger than any individual act” — but maybe they will also realize that they like Phish too and, hopefully, everyone else there will remember why they loved them in the first place.

-Mike Greenhaus, Relix Magazine

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