Miracle Builders: The Unlikely Empire of Phish (Relix Revisited)
From the Top…
At a certain unidentified point, Dionysian’s primary income-generating function became a distant second to controlling the sprawling community that was, by Paluska’s admission, growing beyond his or the band’s control. “There are a lot of things that go with being as popular as they got, and you can either chose to deal with them or not deal with them, but they don’t go away,” says Paluska. An admitted control freak, Paluska talks a lot about controlling the Phish brand, using phrases like “charting a course,” “serving as an interface,” and “filtering.” (Colton echoes these statements using almost identical language.) But mostly they talk about tending to the business and trying to make decisions based on the band’s best interest.
In many ways, Phish and Dionysian have been able to write their own rules, because their success was almost completely independent of record companies, radio stations, press, corporate
sponsors and other entities that bands often need to kowtow to. Phish’s lucrative touring career, which Paluska calls the “leading actor” of the organization, has allowed them to enter into many negotiations in positions of absolute leverage, allowing them demands (such as the obscuring of corporate advertisements at venues) that other bands simply couldn’t get away with. “We are dealing with outside organizations all the time. And everybody has their own conception of the band. And it’s often just way off,” says Colton.
Dionysian has spent much time crafting the public perception of Phish, saying “no” and exerting its own quality control on everything associated with the band: access, images, recordings,
merchandise, right on down the line. Pharmer’s Almanac author Andy Bernstein believes this is one of Dionysian’s most impressive and visibly influential achievements. “It’s very rare that you see things from Phish that don’t seem to fit. Phish is always Phish.”
Where the band members’ notions of image management meet Dionysian’s aren’t exactly clear. As the band became more focused on musical pressures, their involvement in the daily business operations lessened. In many ways, Dionysian made the decisions for them, based on the trust that had formed over the years.
“After so many years of working on behalf of these guys you know what feels right,” says Colton. “[Though,] there are projects where they wanted to know every detail, and approve every image and punctuation mark,” says Colton, citing The Phish Book as an example. “None of them love doing anything but walking on stage—or, in some cases, making records.”
You Don’t Miss Your Water ‘til…
Replete with its own philanthropic program, Waterwheel, to give back to local communities, Dionysian is a typical small corporation—one created solely to serve the needs of Phish. Employees receive benefits and pension plans and sign what the organization terms “standard” lifetime non-disclosure agreements. Business managers and accountants have been hired to analyze bottom lines and costs of goods.
And Dionysian has worked hard to protect the brand from dilution. They have imposed strict (and questionable) content regulations on fan websites and bootleg T-shirts, actively policing the bustling free enterprise outside of Phish shows. Their most visible case, an unresolved pursuit of Sean Knight and his business, Knighthood Tees, has run on since 2000 (bankrupting Knight in the process). A fully realized drama on its own, the legal matter intricately revolves around the protection of Phish’s intellectual property rights and Knight’s usage of Phish song titles on his shirts. To the Phish organization it is a question of intent; to Knight it is artistic expression.
As unwieldy as Phish’s popularity became, without them, Dionysian would not exist. But Paluska believes also that, without Dionysian’s nurturing, Phish may not have reached the level that it did. He talks frankly about being hurt by recent public comments by Anastasio, about how the business was run, before talking specifically about the festivals and the “magical experiences” he feels he and Dionysian helped create over the past 16 years.
As he discusses Phish’s end, he becomes more philosophical without yet enough distance to fully look back on something that could never be controlled, no matter how hard he tried. “I’m really proud of how I’ve handled their business,” he says. “I think that we did well and I think that they feel that way, too. We were all improvising as we went, from them on stage right on down. This whole thing was a big improvisation.
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