Miracle Builders: The Unlikely Empire of Phish (Relix Revisited)

Tyson Schuetze on November 21, 2012

For many of us Thanksgiving weekend will always be associated with Phish shows. So in addition to the video clips we’ve presented, here is an archival piece that ran in our November 2004 issue following Phish’s “final” performance at Coventry, which explores the business of Phish.

In the south end of Burlington, Vermont, on the first floor of the former Maltex cereal factory, is the home base of Phish’s business side, Dionysian Productions. Inside, there’s little indication this is a management company that oversaw an estimated net profit of 19 million dollars in 2003. The design is spacious, sleek, and minimal. Bare white walls are occasionally interrupted by select Phish memorabilia: a picture of the band from the 2003 New Year’s Eve show, a poster from the 1999 Big Cypress festival and a promotional poster for 2002’s Round Room. In the lobby, there are hardwood floors, a leather couch, a fish tank, and a wide coffee table with several magazines strewn about, including a Relix that is conspicuously near the top of a small pile.

The office is unusually quiet. The only sounds are the subdued hum from the central air system and the bubbling fish tank. There is no music to be heard, Phish or otherwise, and the phones are nearly silent. (Later, during my tour of the facilities, Trey Anastasio calls and Jason Colton, Phish’s internal publicist and marketing director, excuses himself.) It is a rainy afternoon in early September, nearly three-and-a-half months after Phish announced their retirement, and there is a palpable anxiety that lingers in the office. As of this writing, there has yet to be any official announcement of Dionysian’s fate.

Phish management is hesitant to grant this interview given the nature of their current situation. Colton, who is visibly uncomfortable being interviewed, explains, “We very much like to stay in the
shadows. We tend to be very much not-public, and that’s what you’re seeing. We’re the management company – who gives a shit?”

Horatio Alger Never Envisioned Hemp Bootstraps

After meeting with many Dionysian employees, I sit with founder John Paluska in his long, narrow office. Tall and skinny, dressed in corduroys and a striped shirt, Paluska is calm, confident and grounded as he recounts the long history of his organization. In March of 1988, Paluska, a junior at Amherst College in Massachusetts, took a break from a ski trip to see the young
Phish perform at Burlington’s Nectar’s. At the gig, Paluska spoke to Mike Gordon, who handled Phish’s early business.

“If you wanted to book the band, he was the guy you talked to,” says Paluska. The next day, Paluska followed up and booked them to play The Zoo, a co-op house in Amherst where he was

living. Invigorated, he obtained press kits and demo tapes from the band and began canvassing Amherst and the surrounding area colleges, trying to encourage people to book Phish. “It was very organic and unassuming,” says Paluska of the beginnings.

Shortly thereafter, Paluska began working with friend Ben Hunter as the unofficial co-managers of Phish, landing some Boston gigs over the summer. “I remember not even telling people that I was a manager because I didn’t have any experience whatsoever and didn’t have any clue what I was doing,” says Paluska. “It was a pretty primitive form of management. It was almost like being a door-to-door salesman.” Because of their existing relationship and enthusiasm, in the fall of 1988, Paluska and Hunter – while still students – were asked to manage Phish in a more official capacity.

Upon Paluska’s graduation the following year, he managed the band part-time. Hunter was soon relieved of his professional duties in circumstances that Paluska prefers not to discuss, but mentions student status as having some bearing, and – ultimately – a decision by the band that they wanted Paluska alone.

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.

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.