If the traditional band business model is to generate hype through the media and radio airplay, and then monetize that hype through album sales and tours, Phish doesn’t fit the model at all. For a band of their stature, their album sales are miniscule and radio airplay non-existent. And so when the “music business” cratered in the 1990s because of file-sharing and radio’s importance declined because of the internet, Phish remained unaffected and profitable as ever.
Phish doesn’t make money by selling music. They make money by selling live music, and that, it turns out, is a more durable business model. This wasn’t some brilliant pre-calculated strategy by the band or its managers; it’s the business model that sprung forth from the kind of music the band makes. The band developed the kernel of this musical style during their first five years when they played almost exclusively in bars in Burlington, Vermont, and slowly, but organically, grew their audience.
During this period they maniacally focused on improving the quality of their music through intense practice and frequent gigs at bars. And while at first these gigs were relatively unsuccessful, over time their audiences grew, the band started to make money, and then, after five years of obscurity, they were profitable before anyone in the music industry knew who the hell they were. And with profitability came the freedom to make music on their terms.
In the parlance of startup language, Phish bootstrapped their business rather than seeking support from institutional players like record labels, talent agencies, and concert promoters. And that’s made all the difference.
I’m not a Phish fan at all, but I will always respect the hell out of them for what they do and the success they worked for. It’s a very inspirational story to me as a musician, particularly the bit about practicing.