What I've Learned From the Smartest Working Band in Show Business

Joshua Passman  Follow

The past few years were no doubt the most challenging of my career.  I think it’s safe to say that most people would agree they worked harder during the depths of the recession than they ever did during their careers (assuming they were employed, of course).  While we may have worked harder, did we work smarter?  When the world around us seemed to be falling apart and each day brought unprecedented challenges and crises, it was frankly quite difficult to take a step back and think about how to work smarter. I spent a great deal of time putting out fires, but did I have the time to think about how to work more efficiently?   Admittedly, the answer is no.

With the economy and markets seemingly on the rebound, and hopefully fewer fires to put out,  my personal goal in 2011 is to  be more efficient with my time and get more done by working smarter, not harder.

Phish at The Greek Theatre in Berkeley, CA this past summer

Where will I look for inspiration, ideas and best practices on how to achieve this goal?  Always one to believe that good ideas are all around us if we keep our eyes open, I've found inspiration from an unlikely source.

Drum roll please...

My source of inspiration on how to work smarter in 2011 is the band Phish.

Phish has been around for about a quarter century and while they may not be a household name, their fans are extremely devoted.  While they sell out large venues in minutes to a relatively young and very digitally savvy crowd, they also treat their fans to performances at smaller, more intimate theatres.

Phish fans are unique in that they overwhelmingly prefer the band's live performances over studio albums.  Each show is original – completely different from performances before and after it.  With a huge repertoire of songs, fans look at each show as an opportunity to hear something they've never heard before or oldies-but-goodies that always bring a smile to their face.

Phish studio album sales don’t nearly stack up to those of big pop stars and other acts, and their songs rarely get air time on the radio.  Because they so much prefer seeing the band live to listening to studio versions of their songs on CD or the radio, even the biggest Phish fans may not buy the newest albums when they hit record stores.  For years, touring has been the band’s main source of revenue. From 1990 to 1994, they played around 120 shows a year (or, just about what Lady Gaga played in 2010).  For the second half of the 1990’s, they played about 80 shows a year. As the band members have gotten a bit older and have more family responsibilities and other priorities, their touring schedule has slowed, much to the dismay of fans.  They averaged about 48 shows a year from 2009 and 2010, well below their peak during the 1990’s.

So, what does a band playing fewer shows today than in the past have to do with working smarter? If you consider how strong their fan base remains despite dramatically cutting their touring schedule, it has everything to do with working smarter.

Phish played three sold out shows at Madison Square Garden on Dec 30 and 31, and on Jan 1. What were fans to do if they couldn’t get to New York City, were unable to get a ticket, or could not find a babysitter?  For such fans, Phish made all three shows available via Webcast.  Fans could buy a single show or pay for all three nights at Livephish.com, a dedicated Web site for live audio and video downloads.  By opening up the shows to a far greater audience than can fit in MSG, Phish created new streams of revenue from each show and gave fans from as far away as Alaska, and beyond, the ability to usher in the New Year with them (working smarter, not harder).

Making unique content available online to fans isn’t a completely new move for the band.  Phish makes all of its live shows available online to download at Livephish.com.  After a performance, anyone can go online and download the show to their laptop, iPod or other device.  New shows generally cost between $10 and $18 (depending on the quality of the file format chosen).  Fans who were lucky enough to see the show live can simply go to Livephish.com and enter a code printed on the ticket to download the show for free.  For a few extra dollars, the show is available in a higher quality file format. Older shows are archived and available for download, or on CD, generally at lower costs. The band works smarter, not harder, by continuing to earn revenue on each show by making them available for download.

By knowing their audience, leveraging new technology and integrating savvy marketing techniques, Phish has found a way to work more efficiently.  I do not know members of Phish or their management personally, and I have never sat down with them to discuss their marketing strategy.  Do the four members of Phish even see what they do as a job?  I don’t know.  What I do know is that what they have done with Livephish.com is brilliant from a business perspective in that they can spend less time on the road (I will assume here that they do not want to do 120 shows a year like they once did) and can generate more revenue without jacking up ticket prices or limiting shows to mammoth football stadiums.

Working smarter, not harder - that is my goal for the New Year.  Phish has provided me with some great food for thought and inspiration.  Happy New Year everyone!  Here’s to a great 2011, and to working more efficiently and strategically. CJP

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