What Journalists Can Learn From Phish.

They’ve only made one music video — and that was back in 1994. Their concerts last hours — and sometimes feature as few as four songs. Fans say they’re the group that’s taken the torch — an already-lit, funny-smelling, tightly-rolled torch, I might add — from the Grateful Dead.

They’re the most popular jam-band on the planet. (1) I’m talking, of course, about Phish.

But this band isn’t just about playing extended jams for potheads. They’ve made a living out building a brand so powerful, fans spend the summer driving around the country following them.

Any band with that kind of power over their fan base might have a few lessons worth learning. That’s why Phish is the focus of the latest edition of “What Journalists Can Learn From….”

1. Adapt to Your Audience: Back in the 1990s, when most bands were just selling tickets via concert venues or Ticketmaster, Phish came up with an interesting concept: Phish Tickets By Mail. Explains Wikipedia:

For each Phish tour…, specific instructions for mail order were listed in the band’s newsletter, “Doniac Schvice” (and, later, Phish.com), usually involving envelopes of a specified size, postcards and return postage in the event the ticket order was not fulfilled. There were very specific details that needed to be done, in an effort to deter scalpers and ticket brokers. The ticket orders were then outsourced to a business to fulfill the orders. In the final years of the mail order process, ticket orders were processed by the staff at the Flynn Theatre in Burlington, Vermont. The order in which ticket requests were fulfilled was random, and no seniority or special treatment was given to any fan. These tickets were printed in limited amounts on colored paper with foil and some sort of design as shown above, and only issued through mail order.

Weird? Certainly. But weirder than having using an army of 12-year-old boys on bicycles as your primary method of news distribution? Probably not.

But here’s the interesting thing: old-fashioned newspaper distribution is still around, but Phish Tickets By Mail has evolved. In 2001, the band moved all pre-sales online. At first, some fans were inconvenienced. But here’s what Phish proved: if it’s easy enough to use, fans won’t mind that initial inconvenience. Phish concerts sell out faster than ever — and a team of mail-opening employees at a theater in Vermont are no longer needed. The lesson: keep production costs low and operate in a lean way, as long as it’s in the best interest of your fans.

2. Make It Your Own: Phish is famous for their covers, from Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” (see below) to ZZ Top’s “Jesus Left Chicago.” They’ve covered so many songs, they needed a separate Wikipedia page just to document them all.

What makes Phish’s covers unique is the way the band adapts them into their set. You’re not getting a bar-for-bar cover; if anything, you’re in for a Trey Anastasio guitar solo, or maybe an a capella rendition of a southern rock classic. They’re just covers, but to fans, they don’t feel like them. The lesson: The song doesn’t need to be an original, but the way it’s being delivered does. The way you package your stories matters.

3. It’s Okay to Be Weird: Phish has become famous over the years for unusual stunts. Here’s an example straight from their Wikipedia page:

During this fall tour, the band challenged their audience to two games of chess, with each show of the tour consisting of a pair of moves. The band made their move during the first set, and, during the break between sets, the audience members could vote on their collective move at the Greenpeace table. The audience conceded the first game at the November 15 show in Florida, and the band conceded the second at their New Year’s Eve concert at Madison Square Garden. Having played only two games, the score remains tied at 1-1.

There’s so much to love about this, but here’s my favorite part: it’s fan engagement on a massive scale. Fans can actually see the impact that they’re having, and they’re deeply invested in what’s going on. The lesson: If it seems weird, or unfamiliar, or out-of-the-box, then that’s probably not such a bad place to be. Some of the best ideas are the uncomfortable ones.

  1. Sorry, Dave Matthews.