Over the past four years, the rock band Phish has generated over $120 million in ticket sales, handily surpassing more well known artists like Radiohead, The Black Keys, and One Direction. Since their start 30 years ago, Phish has consistently been one of the most popular and lucrative touring acts in America, generating well over a quarter billion dollars in ticket sales.
Yet, by other measures, the band isn’t popular at all. Only one of their original albums has ever made the Billboard top 10 rankings. None of their 883 songs has ever become a popular hit on the radio. They’ve made only one music video to promote a song, and it was mocked mercilessly by Beavis and Butthead on MTV.
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.
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