What Happened to the Jambands Community?
Long before there was even the word "jamband" for bands to distance themselves from, The Grateful Dead played. As those who saw them know, there was more to seeing a Dead show than just the music. Sure the music was the centerpiece – as many people were forcibly reminded after Jerry’s death – but that isn’t the only thing that was there. There was a culture present. There was an assumption that people would help out complete strangers; more frequently than not that would actually happen. When I first started seeing them, the feeling of being accepted was a large part of the attraction. As great as the music was – and it was indeed great – there was also a feeling that there was something going on beyond just that, a gathering of like minded souls who spent the rest of their time hiding that side of themselves from the world. It was powerful.
Fast forward to 2005. While there are many wonderful people seeing the shows, outside of SCI and some of the festivals, there is active antagonism towards the idea of shows being about more that music. Instead of thinking of the crowd as a whole, many people now join "teams." The stigma on scalping tickets faded in post-hiatus Phish and the poster scene actively encourages financial speculation. This is not to say that things were perfect back then – the Grateful Dead sure handed out a lot of flyers talking about problems – or that they’re horrible now, but I did prefer the kinder lot, the one where at least lip service was paid to the idea of acceptance and eccentricity was encouraged, not an excuse to take pictures to post on mocking websites. How did we get from there to here? I don’t think it was just one issue. It was a long process that has many factors.
- Scene telephone *
There is one thing about the Grateful Dead experience that is literally impossible for any new band to create. The Dead were an actual creation of late 1960s San Francisco. That being a time in which there is incredible interest, the older fans of the band were always a source of fascination. What Deadhead wouldn’t want to hear stories about seeing the band in the Haight during a time where it seemed like anything was possible? Outsiders viewed seeing The Grateful Dead as much as a cultural statement and a time machine as being exposed to 2.5 hours of music. It’s hard for that not to affect the people attending the concerts to some degree.
Phish didn’t come out of a culture of resistance – ranging from the violent to the surrealistic – to a military draft for an inscrutable war. Few people ever asked anyone, "Wow, what was it like to be a college student in the mid 1980?" However, some trappings of the Grateful Dead remained. The band itself was fans of the Dead; they were an obvious influence for Phish in terms of how they ran their organization. While older Phish fans couldn’t say that they were witnesses to San Francisco before it was overrun with heroin addicts, they could say that they saw the Grateful Dead when Jerry was a force and the scene still was interesting. Phish grew as the Dead were dying, so some of the energy and culture of the Grateful Dead’s world got transferred to Phish’s. It was a translation obviously. Most of the people who made the jump were the younger fans, so instead of being a culture that grew organically out of a turbulent time, it was a reflection of that culture. Some things are going to get lost.
Current bands – with the exception again of SCI which has a disproportionate number of older Deadhead in their scene – end up with a reflection of the Phish scene. We’re now two full generations removed from the Grateful Dead world. Some changes in the nature of the fanbase is to be expected.
- Vocabulary shift*
It has been argued – perhaps most famously in Orwell’s 1984 – that how we think about a subject is colored by the words we use to talk about it. There has been an obvious word change in the last decade and it does affect how we think about people. If you saw someone wandering around a concert parking lot in the early 90s with a beard and somewhat ragged clothes, you’d be tempted to use the word "hippie" to describe him. Now the word of choice is "wookie."
The change in connotation is obvious. Even when South Park devotes an episode to mocking hippies, they do so out of a sense that the people have ideals, that they should spend more energy living up to. Hippies are well meaning – if sometimes naive – people who value others – sometimes to a nauseating degree. Wookies are selfish jerks who think only about gatecrashing, scamming people, and breaking into cars during the show. When you think of the person next to you as a potential thief instead of an interesting person who might have some cool stories, it’s not surprising that your attitude towards them changes.
As much as I’d like to blame this change on people being prejudiced, there’s no question that it was forced upon the scene. It was the acceptance of the Grateful Dead scene that lead to people learning that there were many soft touches there. Any culture that preaches the joys of individualism and has an instinctive dislike for authority is going to be vulnerable to people who think that means you can take whatever you want and no one will care. The people who followed the Dead around got more and more demanding and things went downhill rather quickly. (Personally I suspect that this was an unintended consequence of the camping and vending ban, as that lead to the more responsible Deadheads staying home leaving touring for those already a little predisposed to disobeying rules.) Once a scene gets invaded by that sort of leech, it’s hard to remember sometimes that most of the people who look like that are incredibly nice.
- Avarice and Greed *
In the summer of 1993, I saw the Grateful Dead 13 times and Phish 10 times. The following year I made it to 26 Phish shows. I managed to do this despite living off of $7200 a year. How? Selling sodas after the show. Phish tickets were $20, gas was 70 cents a gallon in places, and you could frequently get cases of soda for $4 (at least in Las Cruces). At those prices selling 30 sodas a night at Phish (and frequently 50-70 at the bigger Dead shows) didn’t quite let me break even, but made it possible to do an entire tour for what it would cost for me to just sit around at home.
While the general rate of inflation has been low these last 12 years, prices related to seeing concerts have skyrocketed. Ticket prices have doubled and gas has tripled. Meanwhile the profit margin for my old product is disappearing as soda prices at grocery stores go up but lot prices stay the same; that $1 price is hard to move from because dealing with change is more trouble than its worth and no one would accept a jump to $2.
"I can see that’s a problem for the soda vendors," you ask, "but how does that affect the scene at large?" When people find it harder to support themselves by selling benign products, they’re forced into a couple of choices. Assuming that not seeing as many shows isn’t an option – sure that’s the practical approach but how much self control have you mustered over the years?- people have to either make more money or spend less money. Both of those lead to problems.
To make more money, you have to climb the ladder of sketchiness. Beer is more profitable than soda. Pot is more profitable than beer. Pharmies and hard drugs make more money still. Nothing good results from large scale drug dealing in the lot; those who realize that stay on the spend less track. That causes other issues. When I was doing my tours, I was able to pay face (or on occasion slightly less) every night. As the economic divide grows, there are more people asking for tickets well below face. That causes frustration among the people who bought the tickets. They feel like people are taking advantage of them. In order for a college student to see a tour without parental help, they have to delve into some morally questionable behavior one way or another. Once again the responsible people remove themselves from the scene, those who don’t care stick around, and what was a community becomes a little bit less so.
- On line cd ‘trading’ *
Don’t get me wrong. I still love the rise of archive.org and bit torrent and other ways where people can get music without having to jump through hoops. My past praise for these new technologies was not a lie. I will always love them. However, there is a flip side to asocial trading. Downloading a zip file from a website does absolutely nothing to build a community.
Sure it was a real pain to get more music in the 80s and 90s. However, one thing the old system did was to force the community to be tighter. When you saw a car with stickers on it, or a person with a t shirt on, there was an additional reason to strike up a conversation. Maybe they have that tape that you’ve been looking for (or the one that you didn’t even know that you should have been looking for). While the early rise of the Internet made it easier to make new connections, tape trading was still a stick used to enforce social norms. If you were a big enough jerk, who would let you into a B&P pool? Develop a reputation as a bad trader and you’d be lucky to ever get another tape. Elitism isn’t always a bad thing.
- The coarsening of society *
I saved this one for last, because I’m liable to come across as an old man ranting, "Kids these days with their baggie pants and their Disco Biscuits,"  but I think there has been a shift in culture here. It all comes back to the political correctness movement.
For about 15 minutes on some college campuses, there was an overreaction from the left in an attempt to get people to be more polite. While that attempt was fruitless and quickly died out, the backlash from it has been around for decades. In the name of not giving into political correctness, people think its their moral obligation to be as big of a jerk as possible as much as possible to anyone who does anything even slightly outside the norm. Mention in passing that you’re a vegetarian? Expect to have people go on and on and on about the joys of eating meat. Get a lot of pleasure out of a science fiction movie? Expect "Triumph the Insult Dog" – or more likely a drunk jerk who thinks that he’s as funny – to come to the showing to mock you for having the nerve to have non-mainstream interests. Have long hair or dredlocks? Expect your picture to be on w00ks.org so people can endlessly mock you. Sure some of it is just friendly ribbing, but there’s a rather mean undertone to it. Maybe the "Rakefighters of America" see themselves as fighting the people who are fond of gatecrashing, and I do have to give credit for the slogan of "Hate wooks not hippies" but their logos judge based on appearance, not actions. It’s hard to build any sort of community when you have people making jokes about being violent on other fans because of how they look. Yes, I know, it’s only a joke. Lighten up. After all, it’s completely impossible for that sort of joke to have any sort of consequence at all, right?
- Can a scene be recreated? *
The Grateful Dead scene was something that was very important to me. The friends I met through it were some of the best people I ever met in my entire life. The same is true for people I met on Phish tour and even recently on SCI tour. I would love for people in college now to have similar experiences. That’s why I hate to say this, but I don’t see any way in the immediate future that a friendly community could exist again outside of very small circles.
For a while the outside world seemed ready to leave us alone to create our own little world, but those days are gone; in addition to all of the internal problems addressed above, both the most recent Bonnaroo and Phish Deer Creek run had outsiders come in to attempt to rip us off with three card monte players.
If this is important to you, the best advice I can give is to go to smaller festivals well outside of major cities. The more work that it takes to get into a show, the more likely that there will be some sort of community affiliated with those who attend. Try to sneak below the radar, invite people who will bring more good than bad to the event, and maybe you can keep it for a while. Who knows, maybe you can prove me wrong. I dare you!
 The trap of assuming that things were better when you were young is why I avoided potential reasons involving styles of music (e.g. techno brings in sketchier kids, metal brings in angrier people) or chemicals consumed. It might be true, but there’s an extremely high chance that it’s an illusion.
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 Capitol Centre in 1988 and never has been the same. His Phish stats website is at www.ihoz.com/PhishStats.html
He is the stats section editor for
The Phish Companion and is on the board of directors for the Netspace Foundation. You can read more of his thoughts at http://www.livejournal.com/users/thezzyzx.