Jam Bands Weather Economic Uncertainty With Ingenuity and Loyal Fans

By Melinda Newman
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, August 9, 2009

Marc Brownstein is fretful. The Disco Biscuits bassist has 4,992 friends on his Facebook page. If he adds eight more, the social networking site's regulations dictate that his friend page must become a fan page, which many fans rightfully assume could be run by an administrator or manager.

"I don't want a fan page; it's just another barrier between you and the fan. The fans on my Facebook page know they're talking to me and I know I'm talking to them and I value that," Brownstein says, sounding genuinely distressed that he is keeping the 60 friend requests he gets per day in "Facebook purgatory" -- neither accepting nor declining them -- while he figures out his dilemma.

There is a strong connection between the fans and such jam bands as moe., the Disco Biscuits and Umphrey's McGee. Unlike pop music, where the chasm between a rock star's seemingly glamorous excesses and the supposed drudgery of his fans' lives is celebrated, jam-band culture preaches closing the gap between artist and audience.

No band exemplifies that ethos more than Phish. The band, a major influence on the newer generation of jam bands, plays Merriweather Post Pavilion on Saturday as part of the group's first tour in five years. The tour sold out minutes after going on sale, according to Billboard, making Phish one of the summer's toughest tickets. Umphrey's McGee keyboardist Joel Cummins remembers seeing Phish as a fan more than 15 years ago. As an audience member, he observed certain ideals that he says he and his bandmates carry forth every night on stage: "They respected their fans' level of intelligence, never playing down to them."

"There's a sense of community and togetherness and the perceived lack of boundaries between musician and fan," agrees Dean Budnick, who is executive editor of Relix magazine and founder of Jambands.com. "There is that sense of mutual discovery in the music between the fan and the band of 'Wow, can you believe here's where we are?' The fans feel like they're part of that collective journey."

And in these tough recessionary times, that "we're all in this together" spirit is a tie that binds.

When Pedro Lemaitre of Arlington got laid off last summer, "one of the first things I thought was, 'Where can I go see the Disco Biscuits?' "

Like many jam-band fans the 26-year-old Lemaitre, who has found a new job, keeps coming back. He's attended 48 Disco Biscuits concerts since 2004. "I've never seen two shows that are the same," he says.

But not all fans can afford his level of interest. In some ways, the recession hit jam bands early. When gasoline soared north of $4 per gallon last summer, Brownstein says he knew the Disco Biscuits were in trouble. "We make our money on the traveling fan because half the crowd isn't from the town we're playing," Brownstein says. "The first three rows are the same kids every night."

After a "rough tour" in 2008, Brownstein says the members of the Disco Biscuits "powwowed" with their manager and booking agent and decided to drop their ticket prices from $30 to $35 to around $20. The result, Brownstein says, is the band's best tour in its 12-plus-year history. "You don't make new fans at $35," Brownstein says. "We were seeing ourselves hit a plateau. The number one thing you can do is write new great music to bring your crowd. We wrote about 50 new songs and drastically cut the [ticket] price."

Such thinking is smart, says Jonathan Mayers, partner in the New York-based Superfly Productions, one of the organizers of the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival. The Manchester, Tenn., multi-artist event started in 2002 as a celebration of jam bands. It has expanded far beyond that scope but still embraces the genre: Phish played two headlining shows at the Bonnaroo Festival in June, which drew 75,000 fans who bought tickets that started at $209.50 for a four-day pass.

"It's not about how much I can take off the table; it's about what's fair," Mayers says. "Everyone wants to make money, but it's about being inclusive. It's about making it so that people can attend the event and that will hopefully build a long-term base."

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