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Columns > David Steinberg - Some Are Mathematicians

Published: 2005/08/08
by David Steinberg

Why Should We? – The Role of a Critic

The question asked by Dan Greenhaus
last month is an interesting one. There are many Phish fans who didn’t
like the spring 70 Volt Parade tour. Why do we complain about the tour?
Why not just not listen to it and call it a day? While I can’t speak to the
motivations of anyone but myself, there is more than just a bitterness that
we don’t have Phish anymore behind the critiques [1].
On online forums there has been quite a war lately between the fans of
Trey’s material and those who have been underwhelmed by that. Lost in the
debate is the simple fact that both the lovers and the haters want the same
thing. We all want to go to a show and be blown away by the music. The
divide, of course, is that one group of people is already having that happen
and the other is sitting around being bored.
Sure, one could react to boredom the way that Greenhaus suggests. However,
that seems to be less fair to Trey than the way of the critic. Yes, people
complain and moan about pretty much anything Trey does these days [2], but
that means that we’re paying attention to the work that he creates. We’re
taking him seriously as an artist and holding him to high standards. What
performer wouldn’t prefer that to apathy? As long as we think there’s a
chance that the next show or the next tour might do it for us, it makes
sense to try. Giving up completely is kind of depressing.
Now we could just keep our opinions to ourselves. That’s true. However,
criticism serves some purposes. Artists can live in a bubble. The
experience of playing a show is far different from that of being in the
audience watching it. The feedback that fans give doesn’t help too much
either as few people would say anything bad about a concert if they got a
chance to talk to Trey. Just about the only form of honest reaction they
get – besides from ticket sales – is from reviews that fans post on the
Internet. Fans discuss what they like and don’t like, factions form around
some consensuses, and the information has a decent chance to get back to
performers. Being artists, they should take the fan advice with a grain of
salt. Pursuing your artistic vision is more likely to pick up and keep
fans than trying to change to please everyone. However, I think people
would rather know if they were making unpopular choices before they find
themselves opening up for a puppet show. It’s probably not coincidence
that Trey has shuffled his lineup and made changes to his song rotation.
Some of the complaints apparently were legitimate.
Negative reviews can help keep fan interest too. Suppose you walk out of a
show that kind of bored you. If it’s an off night from the band, you might
want to give them another chance. It’s likely that you might enjoy a show
where they were clicking better. On the other hand, if everyone is raving
about the concert, then it’s more likely that this just isn’t the band for
you. Bad reviews can have the counterintuitive effect of getting people to
see more shows than good ones.
There was a celebration at the cancellation of the Zooma tour, but the
motivation might not be as bad as it first appeared. People were happy for
that not because it was revenge for taking away Phish, but because it was a
tour that they weren’t interested in. Speaking as a fan (as opposed to
someone who likes Trey as a person – that person wants Trey to have
everything work out just fine), I’m glad that this tour failed as it might
challenge Trey. For over a decade, Trey’s career has been defined by ever
increasing successes. Now though he has a failure. For the first time in
ages he has to win over a crowd. Trey has a challenge in front of him I’m
dying to see what he does to meet it.
[1] Unfortunately, there is a faction in the fanbase that feels entitled to
pretty much anything from Trey because of 2004. While they exist, I think
they’re a small minority of the critics – let alone Phish fans as a whole.
[2] One thing to observe, by the way, is that we are not a monolith. While
it does seem that fans complain when Trey does X and then they complain when
he stops doing X, usually it’s completely different people doing the
complaining each time. Phish draws people who like all sorts of different
kinds of music as the band played in many different styles. Unanimous
agreement on any topic is a rarity.
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
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

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