The String Cheese Incident: Inside and Out (Relix Revisited)
String Cheese Inc.
For a neo-hippy band of former ski bums, String Cheese evinces a surprising corporate savvy. They maintain control of everything band-related by working through several companies formed expressly for the purpose of shaping the band’s—and their fans’—destinies. Fans might see SCI’s carefree vibe, but keeping everything flowing smoothly, from ticket and album sales, to tour and travel booking and merchandise sales, requires as much business know-how as it takes to figure out a hot jam. In the early days, Moseley did most of the booking and the band just adapted to business situations as they presented themselves.
“The plan was always: ‘Let’s do this our way. Let’s not jump through the hoops that the record industry holds out for you… make videos or hits for the radio,’” explains Moseley. “It is more like what the Dead or Phish did. Just tour and keep as much control of the project as we can. We don’t want to work for ‘the man’—whoever that is—who owns the record contract. From early on, it has been real important for us to maintain control of our careers.”
As the popularity of the band grew, the need for a management squad became apparent. Enter the corporate side of SCI. The band created management companies as the need arose and stocked them with people they knew and trusted. When travel demands increased—getting themselves and fans to Costa Rica, in particular —Madison House Travel was formed. SCI Fidelity Records was created to release their albums and the albums of other artists they admired (Billy & Liza, DJ Harry, Comotion and Keller Williams). SCI Ticketing (which just added King Crimson to its roster), SCI Gear, Madison House Publicity and Madison House Design complete the cast. The companies now number seven and support an ever-growing cast of extras—33 in the Boulder offices and 25 on the road.
While adding a management team removed some of the pressure and allowed the band more freedom to concentrate on music, a new pressure arose: the burden of supporting a large extended family. “I’m not sure we imagined it would reach this point,” Moseley says. “I mean, we have all these people who work for us and help make it happen. It is a pretty big thing.”
“We spend a lot of money,” comments Carrie Lombardi of Madison House. “But part of why the band has gotten where they are is because they put everything back into it. None of the boys are pulling in the big incomes.”
String Cheese (or as self-styled Cognitive Dissident John Perry Barlow phrased it, “Grateful Dead 2.0”) take a page from the GD book, but are aware of the pitfalls that await should the band’s growth exceed its control: having to play ever-larger arenas to generate the income necessary to support the organization. The key to SCI’s plan is a fairly conservative corporate model: diversify.
“We’re able to learn from past experiences, from people with similar models,” Lombardi continues. “The difference is that we’re developing other artists to avoid having to be dependent on one thing. We don’t want to create an incestuous organism, but create independent businesses that work. Right now, all the companies are very diverse, so we don’t think that the band feels a lot of pressure from us; I think they’re grateful that we’re here.”
It is this interdependence between the band and their off-shoots that allow the members more time to focus on the tunes. “It is pretty much about the music still,” concludes Nershi. “It is not something I want to sit up at night and think about, but we do like to kid ourselves it is still only about the music.”
The Cheese stands alone
“There are a lot of bands out there that recognize the importance of the band-audience connection, but none like the String Cheese Incident,” declares fan Daev Brown of Boulder, Colorado, the band’s current home base. “In many cases, bands are conscious of the exchange, but if the audience has the perception of being at ‘just a show’ then that connection is incomplete.” The vast majority of SCI fans possess a nearly religious belief in the pure exchange of energy between band and audience, Brown believes. “When a large audience and the band are in tune and consciously circulating the energy, that’s when it becomes more than a show.” For many, it is this interaction that sets String Cheese apart from other bands on the “jam scene.”
The band is willing to take chances, too, for example mixing funk, rock, jazz, bluegrass and Latin rhythms all within the same song. If the experiment fails, no harm done, the crowd is ready to pick them up for another try. This latitude encourages the band to push their hybrid sound further, rather than opt to play it safe every night. When it all goes right, the combined energy can pull down the house.
This experimental attitude corresponds with “where we are as people,” Moseley explains. “It is good to get pushed. You are either expanding as a person with knowledge and growth and exploration in trying new things, or you are contracting out of fear or anger or whatever. We have a crowd that encourages us to expand and grow. I feel really fortunate that my passion for playing music is so closely tied to the same lessons that I need to learn in my life, and that I get support in that.”
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In honor of Umphrey’s McGee’s return to Summer Camp this weekend, we present the group’s Brendan Bayliss and Jake Cinninger performing this version of “The Pequod” from UM’s Anchor Drops.
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