Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Phish Scene So White: Let's Talk

I was at a retreat about four years ago and we were asked the question, “Who’s your tribe?”  It was a way of getting at one’s identity, where you feel most comfortable, most like your true self.  I immediately thought “Phish fans are my tribe” because music festivals are my happy place—of course for the music, but also because of the generous, communal vibe created through a shared love of that music.  I always leave hoping I can bring a bit of that positive energy back into my “civilian” life.

In the ensuing years, as the Movement for Black Lives took hold and the nonprofit I work for held several racial equity conversations and trainings, I began to have a pretty disturbing thought: Damn, my “tribe” is pretty much all white.  (It’s also very male—more on that at another time.) 

In the wake of the hate-fueled violence in Charlottesville, and amidst the national conversation about white supremacy it launched, this seems like a good time to talk about race and privilege in the Phish / jam-band community.

The fact that the fan base is extremely white isn’t particularly surprising.  Phish is a band of four white guys from Vermont, one of the whitest states in the nation.  They developed their fan base at elite northeastern colleges, which are disproportionately white (and wealthy).  They play jam-infused rock, a type of music that owes much of its roots to black American artists but that has long had a very white fan base (see: any Grateful Dead concert).

That it’s not surprising, however, doesn’t mean it’s totally innocent.  The fact that Phish built such a white fan base playing their twist on black music in front of rich college kids is itself reflective of centuries of cultural appropriation and racial hierarchy.

Then there’s the question of whether it matters.  There’s no bustling movement to integrate Phish shows.  In a country where white supremacists murder counter-protesters, black people are regularly shot by police, and Latinos are targeted for harassment and deportation, it seems hard to get worked up about the demographic mix of Section 119 at Madison Square Garden.  Diversity is important in lots of places such as democracy, workplaces, schools, and neighborhoods—because it brings inherent value and ensures equality of opportunity.  But, does it matter at a rock concert, or in a music-based community more broadly?

Probably not as much inherently.  The opportunity stakes aren’t nearly as high, and there’s not necessarily a clear collective goal that would be furthered by more varied perspectives in a music scene.  It may not be critical to building an inclusive democracy or society that we all rock out together.  But, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter at all: broadly speaking it would encourage racial healing if we shared more passions across difference.  To the extent that racism is rooted in seeing people who don’t look like us as “other,” seeing people who look different grooving to the same tunes would discourage this outlook.

And, this intersects with another, related question: Do people of all types feel comfortable at a Phish show, or is the scene exclusive based upon race?  Whiteness tends to build upon itself—once a scene or culture is overwhelmingly white it becomes very difficult for it also to be welcoming for people who don’t fit neatly into the mold.  The same is true of class, gender, and other lines.  We could be denying people access to a great experience because they are not white—and that’s a problem.

As I became more aware of systemic racism baked into U.S. history, politics, law, and culture, I began to notice a few things about our own beloved Phish community.

Our entire scene is built upon a foundation of white privilege.  Walking around Magnaball in 2015 I had this disturbing thought for the first time.  A Phish festival is essentially 30,000 (white) people running around with glitter all over us, selling all manner of non-FDA approved meals, and openly consuming all manner of drugs—all while police officers stride around on horses just making sure we’re safe.  Can you imagine 30,000 black people being afforded the same indulgence in the United States of America in 2017—or at any time in our history?

We’re not immune to racial bias.  Most Phish fans aren’t overt racists, but I have heard some fucked up shit at shows.  And, unfortunately when I have heard the occasional racist outburst I have not heard anyone intervene and tell that person his bullshit isn’t welcome in our scene.  (To be clear, I have failed to intervene myself.)  Beyond overt racism, we all have our implicit biases and tend to make assumptions about people based upon shortcuts like class and race.  This is magnified in a heavily white environment. 

It might not be so awesome to walk around a Phish festival or show as a person of color.  At Magnaball I really started to think about what it might be like to be a person of color walking through a sea of white Phish fans.  Would it be a welcoming space?  Or—especially if you’re a black male—are many people assuming you’re there to make a buck selling them something rather than enjoying the music? 

While working on this post I’ve had the opportunity to talk with a number of Phish fans who are people of color, and have learned a bit about their experience. 

First, not everyone feels there’s a problem. Christopher Jett is a 41 year old of African-American and Native-American heritage who has seen more than 250 shows since 1994.  He told me, “I have never felt uncomfortable at a Phish show. In fact, that's where I feel most comfortable in my life period.”  “Honestly,” Christopher added, “being a person of color on tour, especially in the 90's was a positive experience. It actually helped me become who I am because I was one of two to three people of color on tour at any given time. Everyone knew me, even the band, and that's fucking cool.”

Lisa Nolan of North Carolina also saw her first show in 1994, and is a member of a Facebook group of about 50 African-American Phish fans.  She hasn’t seen much racism at shows, but does encounter a persistent assumption that she can’t possibly be that into the music: “People are always amazed that I’ve been to as many shows, know as much about the scene.” 

Shaunea Robinson has been seeing Phish since 2010, and she picked up on that theme.  “I'm constantly asked if this is my first show, even with a faded tour shirt on,” Shaunea told me.  “I took my fiancé (who is not at all a Phan) to Magnaball, and people constantly assumed because he was a white man that he brought me along.  They would speak to him and not even acknowledge me, then get surprised when he told them it was only his second time seeing the band, but I'd seen over 30 shows.  These days, if I'm doing a show solo, I'll avoid conversation, just so I don't have to see the surprise on someone's face when they find out I'm actually knowledgeable about Phish.”

Beyond that, Shaunea told me that negative encounters are rare, but she’s had experiences that “have ranged from weird to awkward to downright hostile,” including being accused of selling fake tickets.

Jamie is 36, and has been attending jam-band shows with her 46-year-old African-American husband Alex (who saw his first Phish show in 1991) for 18 years.  She had a much more frustrating story to tell about their experience.  Jamie wrote that Alex is constantly asked where the bathroom is (“100x a night, no exaggeration”) because people assume he works at the venue, despite that fact that he’s “clearly wearing a Phish shirt with sunglasses and a Grateful Dead hat, and still all of this happens because hundreds and hundreds of people each run can only see his skin color, not that he could maybe be a potential Phish fan.”  She says that their time together “usually gets intruded on by arguments with racist frat boy types” and while they encounter this problem at lots of concerts, “it's always waaaaaay worse than anywhere else at a Phish show.”  She continued:

Racism happens at 100% of Phish shows, both blatantly and drunkenly and by those just inexperienced and sheltered… Some people think he's the token 'cool black dude' at shows and he hates it and would rather they go away and let him dance. Mostly it's people thinking he works there…and it happens every 5 minutes…. It really is a buzz kill and puts a damper on his weekend and all of the fun that it was supposed to be, to realize that even in the place he was hoping to have the most fun and be the most free and blissed out, people still see him only as his shade of melanin, and that the world, even the more fun part of our lucky world, is still full of race stereotypes. 

In sum, a Phish show is clearly no Trump rally, but I think it’s fair to say at minimum that our beloved scene hasn’t been welcoming for all people at all times.

So, what can we do?

First, I think we white Phish fans need to start having this conversation.  It’s our responsibility to address the challenges in our community.  Most of the fans of color I spoke with—even the ones who’ve generally had good experiences—were excited to hear that I was attempting to spark a conversation about race among white Phish fans, especially about the white privilege. 

Shaunea told me she has a good crew that makes her feel comfortable “but other times, when I have brought up the issue of race and racism in the scene, I'm either silenced or derailed with ‘love and light’ rhetoric. It's disappointing, because for a group that is generally socially conscious and left-leaning, a lot of white Phans seem to turn a blind eye to racial disparity.”  Jamie says when she’s brought up her husband’s negative experiences in the past people accused her of making it up.

I’m not sure that our overarching goal should be to make the scene more diverse.  If fan diversity increases as a result of making our community more welcoming, great.  But, the last thing we should do is try to drag our friends who are people of color into our scene to make ourselves feel better.  And, as noted above, diversity isn’t as inherently necessary or valuable in a music scene as in other aspects of our lives.

I think our dual goals should be to make the scene as welcoming as possible for people from all kinds of backgrounds; and to be more aware of our tremendous privilege, and bring that awareness into the other aspects of our lives in the form of a responsibility to fight racial oppression.

On the first front—making our scene more welcoming—I can think of a couple of things that would help. 

Be race conscious, not color blind.  Research shows that being aware of our own biases can help combat them.  So, don’t pretend you don’t see race.  Acknowledge difference and the background assumptions that can come along with that, and make a direct effort to treat fans of color just like everyone else.  Lisa summed it up well: “As a fan of color, I just want to be treated like any other ‘phan.’ I'm there to share in the groove just like everyone else there.”

Be on the lookout for unwelcoming behavior and intervene.  Let’s commit to each other that whenever we see or hear anything that would make our scene less comfortable for people of color (or women, LGBTQ folks, people with disabilities) we will proactively intervene and make it 100-percent clear that such rhetoric or behavior is not welcome in our community.  This could be micro-aggressions against people of color (like assuming they work at the venue or are vending), or racist comments or jokes among an all-white crowd.

Next, we must acknowledge our privilege and treat it as a responsibility.

Can we turn our community into a force for racial equity?  Folks in the Phish/ jam-band community are already a pretty progressive bunch.  You can probably count the number of Trump voters at any show on a few hands.  And though the band is famously apolitical, drummer Jon Fishman was quite vocal in his support for the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign. 

But, can we take that base and turn the community into the strongest band of white anti-racists around?  Can we model what it means to create a welcoming majority-white space at our festivals and shows?  More important, can we embrace the responsibility we have as people whose happy place is steeped in privilege, and use the realization that people who aren’t white wouldn’t be allowed to enjoy our favorite thing as motivation to smash racial hierarchy in this country? 

In other words, can we as a community get active in fighting racism on the issues that really matter?  To take one example: mass incarceration and over-policing in communities of color.  If the police searched us as aggressively as they do black people a good chunk of us at any show would go to jail. 

I think these should be our collective goals.  And I’d be very excited to be part of a conversation about how to get there.  Or about different, better goals.  Let’s just start talking about race in the jam band world.

If you’re interested in being part of a conversation about race in the jam-band community, please email Adam at

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Why You Shouldn’t Talk During the Music at Concerts (and Especially Phish Shows): From the Guy Who Will Occasionally Ask You to Quiet Down

You’re out at a concert with some good friends—maybe some folks you haven’t caught up with in a while.  Perhaps a particular song isn’t your favorite so isn’t holding your attention.  Or maybe you’re pretty into the music and it’s making your mind race and wander so you want to loop your friends in on what you’re thinking.  Your friend seems into chatting too, so no harm done, right?

Not quite.  In my view (and that of many music fans), you should really do your best to hold the conversation until set break or after the show. 

First, to clarify: getting to know your neighbors is a great thing to do at a show.  It contributes to the communal vibe and helps everyone have a great time.  I typically ask people next to me where they’ve come in from (since a large percentage of folks at any Phish show have traveled from somewhere else); and learning a bit about their lives and sharing our experience makes the show a lot more fun for me.  And, of course, you’ll want to bond with the friends you’re come with.  The only time not to hold a full-fledged conversation is when the music is actually playing.

Here's why.

The people around you can hear you—and it can be super-distracting.  You may not realize how your voice can carry, but the person directly in front of you likely has your conversation coming directly into her ears, competing with the music, which is emanating from speakers not nearly as proximate.  The people behind you can see and hear your conversation, forcing them to look over / through you to try to stay connected to the show.

Some people struggle to stay dialed in to what’s happening on stage even without any distractions.  Staying present and paying direct attention for hours straight is getting harder with every minute we spend glued to our smartphones; and depending upon what’s happening in people’s lives, what substances they’ve ingested that night, people’s minds can wander.  It’s that much harder to be present and connected to the music when someone’s conversation is ringing in your ears.  For some people around you, your talking might reduce their enjoyment marginally.  For others it might make the difference between an amazing, connected experience and a missed opportunity.  Either way, why do you want to reduce your neighbors’ fun?

Most people won’t say anything to you—but that doesn’t mean you’re not bothering them.  I don’t think folks should be talking during shows because of how it affects others’ experiences (see more below) and I am not shy so if you’re talking around me I’ll likely ask you (as nicely and sincerely as I can) to quiet down.  But, I’m pretty rare.  Many times when I speak up it’s actually on behalf of someone else I can tell you’re distracting but who is unlikely to say anything.  I’ve been to more than 40 Phish shows with one particular friend and I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen him distracted by “chompers” (that’s right—there’s a nickname for talkers in the Phish world, which kind of makes my point that people get bummed out by it).  I’m more naturally extroverted and perhaps more comfortable with confrontation than he, so I tend to intervene—and he and others will often thank me for doing so.  Most of the time when I say something, people can tell I’m being sincere and apologize and stop talking.  Not always, but more often than not.

We’re all creating this experience together—and you’re not helping when you’re not in it with me.  A Phish show is a collective experience.  The band is leading the way, but the audience is an essential ingredient.  Because the band is improvising, reacting off of our energy, our role is a bit more than just being along for the ride.  With a collective experience like this, at some level you’re either contributing to the experience (dancing your ass off, throwing light sticks, filling up your neighbor’s water bottle when you go take a piss) or detracting from it (er…talking…that’s pretty much the only way, aside from getting too drunk and being belligerent).  Think about being on a sports team.  Each teammate is either contributing to a winning culture by practicing hard, understanding her role, etc. or detracting from it by slacking off, hogging the ball, undermining the coach.  People are rarely neutral influences.

Would you enjoy the show more or less if everyone in the arena was talking?  Back in college philosophy class I learned about a way to tell if something’s right or wrong usually associated with Kant: if everyone did it would the system break down?  This is how I know it’s wrong to litter even though my one piece of trash won’t make a big difference: if everyone litters our cities and streets are filthy places to live.  Well, ask yourself: if everyone was acting like I’m acting, would a Phish show be more or less awesome.  If your answer is “less awesome” it’s probably a good signal that you should reconsider your course of action.

So, to wrap up, here’s my sincere request.  First, do your best to keep the talking to a minimum when the music is playing.  A quick comment here or there—totally fine.  A full-fledged conversation—not cool.  Next, make an extra effort to be aware of your surroundings and your impact on other people.  If someone keeps looking at you when you’re talking, it’s likely because you’re bothering him but he isn’t quite willing to say anything. 

Finally, if someone does ask you to quiet down please understand that this is not because that person is being a dick or trying to ruin your night or tell you what to do.  It’s because your actions are making her show less fun and rather than stew about it or accept a situation that is probably having a similar effect on others, she is doing the best possible thing: speaking up nicely and giving you the opportunity to be gracious and contribute more helpfully to the collective experience.  Please assume good faith and be gracious and grateful, not snarky and offended.  Everyone in your section will appreciate it, and the anti-talker just might buy you a beer after the show.

Monday, August 7, 2017

What’s the Deal with Phish, For Those Who Aren’t Fans (But Love Hamilton)

You may have heard that the jam-rock band Phish just wrapped up a 13-night stand at Madison Square Garden—a run the band has dubbed the “Baker’s Dozen.”  The Garden has been pretty full every night, and as word spread of how hot the band’s playing has been the final few shows have sold out.  With the end of this run, Phish will be in the top handful of bands in terms of the total number of shows at “the world’s most famous arena” (at 52)—keeping company like Elton John, The Grateful Dead, Billy Joel, and the Boss.

When I’ve told friends, work colleagues, and all manner of non-“phans” about the 13 shows; that I’ve come up twice from DC to see a total of four; and that I know a few people doing all dozen (+1); most people react with a bit of bemused curiosity.  Why would anyone go see the same band so many times?  What is it with this weird band and the subculture of people who follow them around?  Didn’t this whole hippie thing die out with Jerry Garcia 20 years ago?

Well, here is my attempt to explain, for the benignly curious.

Each show is completely unique.  For starters, it’s important to point out that Phish will not repeat a single song over its entire 13-night MSG run; so each show will be entirely different than all the others.  They can pull this off because of an extensive catalogue of songs, their willingness to mix in covers (more on this below), and the fact that they at times extend a single song to 25 or 30 minutes—so even with two sets and a good 2.5 hours of music they are not playing as many tunes as another band might in just an hour and a quarter.

From this perspective, seeing Phish 4, 5, or 13 times at MSG is less like going to see Hamilton several times in a row; and more like if Lin Manuel Miranda set up shop at a Broadway theatre for 13 nights and produced an entirely new play each night—mixing together songs you love from his various plays and throwing in some new stuff you’d never expect from him.  If you’re a Miranda fan, you might not be satisfied by going to one show—you might try to get to as many of those as you could.

You’re part of something, not just observing.  Most rock shows—even great ones—are heavily produced.  The Stones or U2 will play a pre-determined list of songs in largely the same way they did the night before and the audience is there to witness.  Sure, there might be a sing-along at some (usually predictable) point; but there’s not that much actual interaction between band and fan.

Not so at a Phish show.  Because the music is intensely improvisational and the band usually doesn’t know what they’ll play before they get on stage, the audience is not behind the metaphorical “third wall” witnessing something preplanned.  Rather the band and the audience are part of a collective experience everyone is helping to shape.  The epitome of this was something from the 1990s called “Big Ball Jam” where the band threw a large inflatable ball out into the audience and based their playing on how the fans manipulate the ball—throwing it around quickly, holding it for a pause, etc.  This is happening in more subtle ways throughout each of their shows—musicians feeding off the energy of the crowd and vice versa.  This is one reason nobody sits down at a Phish show—it just wouldn’t work if the band was playing to a group of politely seated, golf-clapping aficionados.  They’re hosting a party and you’re a valued guest.  Nobody can throw a great party on their own—even the best hosts need their guests to get into it, let their hair down and join the fun.

In this way, the Hamilton example above isn’t quite right.  It’s actually more like if Lin Manuel Miranda was producing 13 different shows and needed you and your friends to help him pull it all together—he’ll actually choose different songs and put a different accent on each riff depending on the vibe in the room.  It’s a pretty fun thing to be part of.

The music builds to euphoric crescendos throughout the night.  Phish specializes in a particular type of somewhat orchestral style—both in their composed music and their extemporaneous playing.  Several times throughout the evening, Trey, Page, Mike, and Fish will take the audience on a journey that builds from a base that can be at times even quiet and contemplative steadily forward through 10 to 15 or even 20 minutes towards a euphoric peak where the whole building is jumping around, screaming, throwing light sticks and generally losing their minds in the best possible way.  This is all helped along by Chris Kuroda who runs the lights and is often referred to as “the fifth member of Phish” because of how he needs to be seamlessly in tune with the musicians to help create the holistic experience that tends towards euphoria.

A friend told me she heard the Phish scene described as a “secular mega-church” and these crescendo jams are our speaking-in-tongues moments.  It can be cathartic and healing.  The same friend told me how her stresses at work melted away as the band took her on this journey at Saturday night’s show.  I’ve long thought that one reason Americans are more church-going than residents of other countries is that we don’t have any other place in our culture (like soccer games, pubs) for singing together, which I think is a primal human need.

The vibe is fun, creative, and communal—not snobby.  Each member of Phish is a virtuoso at his instrument, and fans are known to endlessly dissect the music in the chat rooms, etc.  Like in any subculture, some Phish fans can get competitive about how many shows they’ve seen or passionate about exactly which era of the band’s history or version of their favorite song is the pinnacle.  But, most people are just happy to be there and the band doesn’t take itself too seriously, and this comes through clearly at the shows. 

One example from this MSG run sums it up nicely.  As noted, the band dubbed the 13 shows the “Baker’s Dozen” (buy 12 tickets and get your 13th free); each show has been themed around a donut flavor and featured songs related to that flavor.  Saturday, 8/5’s theme was “Boston Cream,” so everyone was expecting them to cover songs by Boston and Cream.  What they did was play a “More Than a Feeling” / “Longtime” medley squeezed into the middle of a hard-rocking “Sunshine of Your Love,” ultimately melding the songs together into a fun, creative jam.  Afterwards lead singer and guitarist Trey Anastasio quipped “we put together this whole thing just so we could do that.” 

For Halloween, the band puts on a “musical costume” and covers an entire essential album by a great band (I got to see the Rolling Stones’ “Exile on Main Street” in 2009).  For New Years, they often pull elaborate stunts or pranks.  The drummer occasionally plays a vacuum cleaner as a musical instrument on stage.  One song routinely features Trey and Mike jumping up and down on trampolines.  This is not a band that gets too precious.

Out in the audience the snobs who would judge you for being a newbie are few and far between.  The general atmosphere is generous and communal.  People talk to their neighbors (not during the show, please); find out where they’re from, share beer, water, and…other stuff; and a seating section often feels like a party of new friends-for-a-night.  When it’s all over people wish their new friends well and hope to cross paths again at another show.

There is an important caveat to this: a Phish show is an overwhelmingly white scene.  For people of color and white folks who care a lot about racial equity it’s quite a bit more complicated than what I’m describing above.  Phish fans are generally a pretty progressive, chill group of white people but that of course doesn’t mean there aren’t blind spots, white privilege (open consumption of drugs without consequence, anyone), and everything else that comes along with a culture where whiteness is a monolithic default around which anyone else needs to navigate.  I don’t think this whiteness has particularly sinister origins—the band consists of four white members from Vermont, one of the whitest states in the nation, so it’s not surprising they would build a primarily white fan base.  But it is complete enough that it builds upon itself such that people of color may not feel comfortable at the shows.  The Phish / jam band community would do well to put some serious thought into how to make our beloved scene (which can feel like a tribe in some good ways) a more welcoming space for people of all backgrounds and types.

There are also a hell of a lot more dudes than women—it’s one of the few places where you’ll see the men’s bathroom lines snaking much longer than the women’s (a bit of poetic justice).  As far as I can tell the sexism / misogyny that tends to come along with that is fairly well in check but I’d be interested in what my women Phish fan friends think of that and as I’m writing this I’m realizing I’ve never had the decency to ask—I should get on that.

They go all out for their fans.  The care and creativity put into the Baker’s Dozen (complete with a free theme-night donut upon entry) is exemplary of the general attitude Phish has towards its fan base.  Every two-to-three years they’ll stage a multi-day festival (one of the few bands who can pull that off with no other acts on the bill) where this comes out in full force.  In addition to three straight nights of great music there will be art instillations, rides (a big Ferris wheel at a recent festival) daytime and “secret” late-night sets, and (critically) aggressively clean port-a-potties.  The fans are coming for the music, not the extras—so they could pocket plenty more cash if they went barebones; but it appears they genuinely care about their fans’ experiences and want everyone to have as much fun as possible.  Bassist Mike Gordon is even known for riding around festivals in a golf cart and saying hi.

The music, the music, the music.  Last, and MOST (not least), Phish is a great rock-and-roll band that has been together for nearly 35 years, filled with members who are brilliant individually and deeply connecting to each other, and is playing at or near the peak of their game.  What they are doing musically right now is certainly special and possibly historic.  Jam bands might not be your thing, but if you’re a music fan generally this is something at least worth checking out.

When you add it all together you get an experience that is unique, collective, and euphoric.  It’s hard to appreciate what’s going down “in the room where it happens” unless you’re actually there.  So, next time Phish comes to your town, consider giving one show a try.  It might not be your thing, but I’ll bet when you leave you’ll at least understand why other people are so into it.  And, you never know…one show just might turn into 13.