Miracle Builders: The Unlikely Empire of Phish (Relix Revisited)
From the Bottom…
The business grew steadily as Phish moved from playing small clubs to playing small theaters; from traveling across the country in a van with a few roadies to traveling with a professional crew and a much larger set-up. Dionysian, named after Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and ecstasy, moved from apartment kitchen tables to make shop in Lexington, Massachusetts, and hired its first office employee. In 1992, Phish signed with Elektra Records. “It was a gradual expansion of scope,” says Paluska. “Making the
leap to a theater-level act, that was a big jump. I remember thinking ‘Do you think they will all come, if we go and play a theater?’”
After trying to go the more conventional industry route with 1994’s Hoist, Phish and Dionysian realized that their original approach was far more effective. “There was a realization almost from the outset that the best thing the band had going for them was that their live thing wasn’t dependent on any external hype,” says Paluska. “It was almost like two separate universes in a certain way.”
As this set in, Dionysian looked to the successful blueprint set forth by the Grateful Dead of making their livelihood from touring. And the band toured frequently, playing between 50 and 200 shows a year, and generating millions in revenue (see sidebar) by the mid-’90s.
From the Tongue to the Schvice
In 1995, Dionysian moved to Burlington to be closer to the band and accommodate the growing operations. More employees were hired, often attracted to the organization by their love of the music. “The majority of people that work here have been here for years,” says Colton. “They are loyal to the band and they are loyal to each other.” Some came to fill very specific roles and some needed time to find where they could best assist the organization, but nearly everyone involved would come to wear many hats.
With the publication and mailing of the Döniac Schvice newsletter (circulation 200,000) six times annually, and the primitive internal mail-order ticketing system (beginning in the summer of 1995), there was no shortage of labor-intensive tasks. “It is very project-oriented here,” says Colton. The projects would grow larger. In the summer of 1996, in Plattsburgh, New York, Phish held their first festival, The Clifford Ball, the largest concert event of the summer and a mammoth logistical undertaking for Dionysian. Establishing precedent, a large support staff was brought in to make sure the operations ran smoothly.
From 1995 onward, one of Dionysian’s most difficult tasks was finding the delicate balance between streamlined and flexible functionality. Paluska wanted to ensure that the organization didn’t become a burden on the band, as was the case with the Grateful Dead, and some have claimed became true of Phish. The creation of the band’s website in 1996, and its 2000 overhaul, would serve to further automate many aspects of the organization and reduce staff.
The No-Pressure Sale
Across the hallway from Dionysian, through doors with the block-lettered name “Tom Ravel” on smoke-tinted glass, is Phish Dry Goods. Behind several offices and an eating area is a 2,500-square foot warehouse storing all Phish merchandise sold online, alongside overstock from previous tours. This is by far the liveliest area of the operation and, as Sublime plays in the background, college-age kids work busily to fill the flood of post-Coventry orders.
Undoubtedly, Phish’s tenacious merchandising has been one of the most public conflicts between the band and their management. “It wasn’t like we were in pursuit of the money,” says Paluska, more animated than usual. “How could we have simplified it? I don’t know. You can do a good job merchandising and reaching all the stores that want to sell your stuff, or some enterprising bootlegger is going to fill that void if you are asleep at the wheel. There were just a lot of things that needed to be attended to.”
Following discussions with the band, a decision was made to keep the operation in-house so that it could be more tightly monitored. And, aside from Phish’s own website, Dry Goods has not advertised its merch since the inserts in the Schvice. “There is a strong intent to make sure that we are servicing the music as opposed to exploiting the band’s image,” says Colton.
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.
Dame shares a song from her new EP Preventions of Heartbreak.
Golden Bloom stopped by Relix to perform a tune from their latest EP No Day Like Today.
The Chapin Sisters share an tune from their new album A Date With the Everly Brothers.
Minneapolis-based Night Moves share a song from their record, Colored Emotions, live at Relix.
Cloud Cult share a song from their latest album live at Relix.
The Giving Tree Band enjoy a spring day on the Relix rooftop, while performing a classic Grateful Dead tune.
Canadian singer-songwriter Hayden performs a duet with his sister-in-law Lou Canon. The song appears on Us Alone his first record on Broken Social Scene’s Arts & Crafts Productions.
The Milk Carton Kids share the first song from their new album, The Ash & Clay.
Here is the new video from Serbian guitar ace Ana Popovic. “Object Of Obsession” appears on her latest album Can You Stand The Heat.
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