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Published: 2002/09/25
by John Zinkand

The Wheel is Turning: Whats Next For Your Favorite Small Band?

2002, the year of the palindrome, is certainly not ending as it started. As 2001 came to a close, the jamband landscape was still lacking two of its major players: Phish and The Remaining Members of the Grateful Dead. Phish had been absent for nearly a year at the close of 2001, and there were no tell-tale bubbles floating to the surface to indicate a return to the stage may be possible. Trey and Page were working on their respective solo projects while Mike pursued film and Fishman pursued life as Fishman. Meanwhile, the remaining member’s of the Dead had not played a show together since Garcia’s death in 1995. At Phil’s New Year’s Eve show in Oakland at the beginning of the year (or end of the year if you insist on being a pessimist), we received a small hint that a full-blown reunion may be in the works when Mickey, Billy, and Bob all joined Phil for a “Crusader Rabbit” set. Little did we know back then that the two sleeping giants of touring would both be back and playing live by the end of 2002.

Upon announcement of the Terrapin Station shows at Alpine Valley, the jamband community was full of positive chatter. Shortly after these momentous shows went off without a hitch, people immediately started planning for The Other Ones Fall Tour Soon afterwards, Phish announced an end to their hiatus with a New Year’s Eve show scheduled in New York City and more touring to follow in 2003. This great news was met with elation as people booked rooms all over New York City for New Year’s Eve, and prayed for an envelope filled with Phish tickets to arrive in the mail. All eyes in the jamband community were now focused in on these two staples and reigning behemoths of the scene. I wondered, though, how this triumphant, and nearly simultaneous, return of the two heaviest hitters in our scene will affect the smaller guys.

Some people may see the return of these two major acts as a great thing for the smaller band. They say there are all sorts of unseen benefits to the small fish by following in the big guys’ wake. The young, new bands can coordinate their tour dates with a major act’s tour. This assures that the smaller band will be playing for a full audience at an “after show party” at a local club. It’s a great way for little bands to build up a fan base. Some negative nellies may see it as leeching fans from an established act, but who cares? An up-and-coming touring outfit should take fans any way they can get them. Terrapin Station had side stages where the smaller bands performed and even Phish’s last big summer blow out in Oswego, NY catered to the smaller bands by providing various stages in the lots on which they played. With two such generous giants’ wake to ride in, now could be a great time for the newer bands.

Another positive benefit to the smaller band is the captive audience walking around in the lots both before and after the big concert. The young band has a great opportunity here to hand out flyers about upcoming gigs, recordings, etc. Also, a music fan that has been stymied in their attempts to buy the big Phish ticket due to an overwhelming demand may find comfort and solace in checking out a smaller, hassle-free show at a club. In the absence of the touring monstrosities, many people have probably become accustomed to seeing shows at smaller venues, and consequently, the bigger venues may now rub them wrong when tried on again for size.

Finally, the major acts attract a bigger number of brand new fans since they both garner national media coverage. New people in the scene will eventually ask “What else?” when they tire of Phish or The Other Ones, and will ultimately discover the plethora of smaller touring bands our fertile scene has to offer. While no one wants the scene to spin out of control due to a massive numbers influx, all can agree that people are what make this great jamming music possible. As Phish and the Other Ones generate a bigger fan base, people will seek out more music and discover the smaller, up-and-coming, hard-working, jambands.

Of course, the other end of the spectrum would argue that the big band’s tours will squash the smaller bands’ efforts. How will jam music fans afford to see a club show when they have already spent their entire nest egg on a complete tour-load of tickets costing $40-$50 a pop? Many jam music fans love to tour with one of the big guys. Touring imparts a feeling of unity and family while providing a social scene made up of parking lot landscapes in which one can buy, sell, and trade just about anything. Obviously, committing to a full tour is a major investment of time, money, and energy. After such a major investment is made, will people still have the motivation and cash reserves left to check out the smaller bands at clubs?

Many would argue that the folks who were experimenting with and checking out the smaller bands will quickly spurn them in favor of seeing their old favorites, Phish or The Other Ones. Thus, the two arena-fillers could actually take away from the burgeoning fan base of an up-and-coming act. For instance, how well will the Big Wu show in Minnesota be attended when there happens to be a pair of Phish or Other Ones shows in the near vicinity? The smaller bands could see their fan base evaporate before their eyes on what would otherwise be a packed Friday night show. Why go see a local band you can see almost any day of the year over one of the touring powerhouses?

Another negative effect of the two giants’ going back to touring, of course, is the sheer price tag of their tickets. Many jam music fans are college students or have limited funds to spend on live music. While they could see five smaller shows for the price of one Phish show, they probably won’t. Most folks will save their fifty dollars for the one big show that is scheduled for their area, forgoing the smaller, but often longer and more energized performance, of the club-level band. As a result, the small bands will have a more difficult time packing bars with people and booking subsequent tour schedules.

As 2002 comes to a close, the musical landscape looks surprisingly different than it did at the beginning. One thing is for sure, there is plenty of music to hear. The big bands should be reinvigorated when they return to the stage, while the young bands will be playing their hearts out in the bars and clubs in an attempt to get bigger, as the cycle repeats itself. Whether one chooses a small club band or a major act that has been around the block a few times, the music is abundant and readily available. We’ll just have to wait, watch, and see how things pan out for the giants-to-be, patiently warming up in the bullpen.

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