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Columns > David Steinberg - Some Are Mathematicians

Published: 2006/04/16
by David Steinberg

Can There Be a ‘Next Big Thing?’

If you spend as much time on message boards as I do hey, how else could I get these shiny new column topics you probably have noticed the pattern. As soon as a band manages to headline its own show in a bar, their fans immediately start talking about how they will be playing Madison Square Garden within two years. While its always fun to see people excited about the band theyre interested in, watching a musical generation plateau well before this stage only String Cheese Incident has come close to the growth expected of them by their diehards but even that was short lived makes one wonder about the obvious question. Will we ever see another jamband grow to the point of headlining a shed tour?
Before investigating if there can be another huge band in our scene, perhaps first it might suffice to explain why having one would be a good thing. There is a case to be made for a band staying small. It might be a clicho say, ‘More room for me to dance,’ when hearing someone express disinterest in your favorite band, but there’s a real argument behind that. Theatres tend to be cheaper than sheds, look cooler, have better sound, fewer hassles, and ultimately are a more enjoyable concert experience. Who would want to deal with hard tickets instead of picking one up on the day of the concert? Why would anyone want to become a target of police suspicion because they have a bumper sticker (or forty) of their favorite band on their car? What’s the advantage of becoming big anyway?
While being a rock musician is an easier job than digging ditches, its lower level is not as cushy as Dire Straits might make you believe. Sure, you can romanticize long rides in a beat up van when youre young and see it as a stage, but it gets old. You cant play 200 shows a year forever if you ever want to have a family; at some point you have to get big enough to be able to reduce your touring but still be able to make a living. For a practical example of this phenomenon, look at the Disco Biscuits. Would medical school be as tempting to Sam Altman if he were giving up hundreds of thousands of dollars a show and the opportunities that go along with being famous? Maybe he still would have left, but it would have been a lot harder to make that decision.
Its not just the life between shows that becomes easier when you become big; the concerts can be improved. Bands can afford better instruments and lights. Tour buses give musicians time to write songs on the road (or just get more rest) instead of having to take their shift behind the wheel or worrying about where they might break down. A bigger name leads to better slots at festivals and an easier time to get people to sit in with you. Phish was able to use their marketing clout to try to improve the fan experience. Having automatic sell outs makes venues willing to put up with a lot more than they would for a band that struggles to half fill the place.
In addition to improvements for the musicians of a band that makes it big and the fans of that band, it also is a good thing for the scene to have at least one major player. Between playing aftershows and having people hand out discs in the lot, there is plenty of exposure to be received from having a jamband playing sheds. More importantly, it’s what creates the lot scene in the first place.
I know that some people hate the lot and I can easily understand why bands wouldn’t want to deal with the traveling circus following them around, but it had an incredible upside too. It provided a temporary escape for people trapped in bad situations. You might be the designated freak in your town, but you could be accepted and even rewarded for that on tour. The tolerance of the lot made a huge difference in the lives of many people; not having that is a loss.
So there are reasons to root for another big thing. The question is if that can happen again. There, unfortunately, the news is not that good. I’ve addressed some of the problems in previous columns (the Internet distorts the growth process, ticket prices make people look for more of a sure thing than the hit or miss that an improvisational show can bring, the scene described in the previous paragraph no longer seems to exist), but there’s a bigger issue that no one seems to notice. It’s actually very hard to make it big.
The problem here is Phish. They made their growth seem so effortless that it seems that any band could do the same after a few years. There’s an expectation that the way that Phish grew is a normal progression, but thats wrong; theyre the exception. Projecting a career with the assumptions that Phish is repeatable is like hoping that you can win the World Series of Poker because Chris Moneymaker won as an amateur.
That assumption really seeps into the growth conversation. No weakness of any band could ever effect their future because Phish had similar issues and they still could play to sold out sheds. Any argument that uses a line of reasoning like, ‘It amuses me to hear you discount this band for not having soul because this is the same thing that Deadheads said about Phish,’ is missing the point.
Phish largely managed to overcome their weaknesses before they got big; Hoist was the current album when they first played Madison Square Garden, not Junta. The silly lyrics and occasionally sterile compositions [1] were largely a thing of the past by then. Another thing to realize is that Phish never did make it to the peaks that the Grateful Dead did. Sure Phish were big, but they couldn’t consistently sell out stadiums for normal two set shows. If the perceived lack of soul of Phish from Deadheads lost them a large chunk of the audience, a similar perception could have the same effect. However, since it’s going off of a smaller base, it could be the difference between playing sheds and playing theatres.
Another strike that many current bands have against them now is that they specialize. Bands that do ten things well have a better chance of making it big than those that do one thing incredibly well. Sound Tribe Sector 9 gets the techno crowd, Yonder Mountain String Band draws the bluegrass fans, Jacob Fred gets the jazz fans, but they’re all drawing to subsets of an already small crowd. To draw a crowd, you have to appeal to multiple groups; not only does that expand your potential fanbase, but it creates the possibility of having distinct styles of shows. If tonight’s concert is largely in a different style than tomorrow’s or 2006 is different from 2009, fans have more reasons to come back [2].
Can there be a next big thing? Sure there can. There are bands that are growing and it is possible that one of them will be able to make the difficult leap from theatres to arenas. However, being possible is a far cry from being likely. If Phish came of age during the perfect time for a band to get big (beginning of the Internet, the Grateful Dead were both at the peak of their popularity but the nadir of their musical abilities), current bands are facing the exact opposite. Without a gateway band to expose new fans to the concept of touring, with the expectations so much higher now for a new band, with the concept of jambands being subject to mockery from the very people who used to enjoy them, there just seem to be too many forces allied against there being another major presence right now.
Jambands much like new computer companies need to pretend that the 1990s never happened. The period of massive growth is unfortunately behind us. It might take decades again until a band can regularly invade the sports palaces of the country. Until then, let’s enjoy the theatres for what they are. When someone finally does break through, we’ll all be pining for these days anyway.
[1] Anyone who pointed to the Junta era as proof that Phish has no soul needs to listen to the quiet part of ‘The Divided Sky’ and then explain how that is the case.
[2] Of course, there is the cautionary tale of String Cheese Incident. Their dramatic change of sound splintered their fanbase much more than 1997 Phish did. The moral here is that a new sound has to be an addition more than a replacement. Reviews from 2005 shows were much more positive as the old sound reemerged without supplanting the new one.
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 http://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.

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