The best thing for a cult band is that you live in your own bubble. The vast majority of people who know about your band at all really care. A small group of people is willing to travel long distances to see you again and again and the rest of the world doesn’t know that you exist. Almost all of the feedback you receive is positive as most of your interactions happen inside that group. It makes it easier to be creative when you know that the people who will be exposed to your ideas will be those predisposed to like them.
While that might help in art, this support can curtail growth. Word of mouth gains are the most sustainable, but it’s also a slow process. In Seattle it could be called The Showbox cap. Rising from the Tractor Tavern (300 people) to the Crocodile (560) to The Showbox (1000) happens all of the time. What isn’t happening anymore is bands then moving on to the Moore (1500) let alone the Paramount (2800). Other cities have bigger or smaller capacities of their glass-ceiling venue, but it seems to neither be a Seattle phenomenon or something related to any one band.
Drawing 1000 people a night is a sustainable model to keep playing, but what it’s not the rock star fantasies that people have. No one ever picks up a guitar and thinks that if everything goes right, they could co-headline a theatre tour and make a solid middle class living. The goal is Madison Square Garden. It’s playing a sold out Wembley. People want their mansions and their Lear Jets and they’re getting a low interest rate mortgage on a sensible house in the outer suburbs.
What can make this so frustrating is that it looked incredibly easy. All you had to do was allow taping and this would be inevitable. In retrospect Phish’s rise was the most insane thing ever. Most bands don’t go from the Roseland to a sold out MSG in under two years, especially without some sort of radio hit or press or general acknowledgement that you exist . While Phish’s growth was the most extreme, Widespread Panic did it. Blues Traveler and the Spin Doctors suddenly got some airplay and won the mainstream growth achievement; that thing is worth 100 points! A few years later String Cheese managed a slightly smaller version of the same trick. Still the lesson was learned. Play good music, develop a cult following, and the next thing you know you’ll be huge. Just like the Disco Biscuits whose rise to stadiums will be inevitable as long as the rules don’t suddenly and irrevocably change.
Alas the Internet gave for a while but now it’s in the taking away stage. Why listen to radio when you can just create a Pandora station that’s crafted to your personal tastes or listen to your friends’ Spotify suggestions or even listen to the two months of music that you already have in your mp3 directory? Bob Lefsetz loves to explain how all of the approaches one might use to get big don’t work anymore. Moreover, the new ways also don’t really work. Between newspapers, movies, and music, large parts of the economy are running off of hope. Eventually someone is going to figure out a new business model that will work. In the meantime, let’s keep our company going so when it finally is figured out, we’ll be able to make money off of it. Personally I’m not convinced this path exists, but I’m hoping along with everyone else.
Until it’s discovered, bands are going to try weird things. It has to be frustrating feeling like you’re at the peak of your artistic ability, knowing that the new ideas won’t always come this easily, but not getting the breakthrough that you need. And that’s where the bubble can hurt.
Bands have flaws. Jerry forgot lyrics. Phish sometimes stumble over their compositions. Bobby is cheesy. String Cheese used to do those group hoot things. We all accept them and focus on the things that we like. As long as you play it safe and play to your fans, you don’t have to worry much about your flaws. Try something new – like, say, writing a PR song for a city – and you expose yourself to people who are much more willing to judge.
I’ve listened to Umphrey’s McGee Chicago song and while I’m not a huge UM fan by any means and this song isn’t going to convert me, it’s not nearly as bad as The Huffington Post article would lead you to believe. However, even from the perspective of a non-fan of this band, I still live in a worldview that respects what they’re trying to do even if the music isn’t to my liking. I’m not sure if the lesson here is to be true to your art or that the chance of great reward comes with great risks, but once again Umphrey’s did something rather fascinating. Their music might not speak to me but as long as they do things like the UM Bowl  and try to find a unique way of getting around the current venue ceiling, I’ll always have to keep an eye on them.
 We all accept that Phish just sell out these venues but I was reminded of how weird this is in Greensboro 2003. I was getting some Dipping Dots – hey they’re the Ice Cream of the Future! I was hoping for some messages hidden inside about what stocks to buy – and was talking to the dippee. “Not many bands sell out this place. What’s their big hit?” she asked. It was kind of awkward to explain that they had nothing that even resembled a hit ever.
 I could discuss the issues raised by intentionally trying to recreate your best spontaneous jams forever. Is that a nostalgia act – is there any way that Phish reproducing the 12/29/94 Bowie jam in Portsmouth this summer would be a good thing? – or is it closer to being an homage, or is it a way of turning a peak moment into a song, or (as is most likely) is this just a way for me to overthink things again.
David Steinberg got his Masters Degree in mathematics from New Mexico State University in 1994. He first discovered the power of live music at the Capital Centre in 1988 and never has been the same. His Phish stats website is at http://www.ihoz.com/PhishStats.html and he’s on the board of directors for The Mockingbird Foundation. He occasionally posts at the Phish.net blog and has a daily update on the Phish Stats Facebook page