Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Phish Reunion: A Study in How NOT To Treat Your Most Passionate Customers (Fans)

Many folks who do not follow the jam band music scene remain peacefully unaware of the frenzy Phish fans are in after this week's rumor on the Rolling Stone website that the band will play the super-mega music festival Bonnaroo. The debate centers on differing opinions on whether the band should headline a music festival packed with other musical talents or whether the band should host their own music festival. This argument--which is intelligently summarized in several blogs including Mr. Miner's Phish Thoughts and The Lefsetz Letter--is especially electric because the band has been on a hiatus that began after their rain-soaked musical debacle of a festival in August of 2004.

Whether or not the band should headline Bannaroo isn't the real issue, in my opinion. But it is representative of a more deeply rooted and growing hostility by long-time, fervently passionate Phish fans toward the band, their new mega-manager Coran Capshaw and their corporate management company Red Light Music. And what's caused this bitterness among the music-loving masses, you ask? I argue that it's the lack of connection and community between the band and its ardent and amorous admirers. And in this new social era where brands (or bands) can more easily connect and communicate directly with their fans (customers), remaining silent like the band has done is about the lamest marketing tactic around.

Since the announcement of Phish's reunion and their reemergence from solo tours and silence, we've heard little from the band on their future plans, their feelings about the last four years, and anything that would help humanize them and connect them to those of us who love them the most and who are essentially responsible for their rise to the ranks of fame they currently enjoy.

All this silence from the band and their brigade, while the negative buzz swarms around them like bitter bumblebees, is both deafening and disappointing. How simple would it be to write a blog post, contribute to a community conversation on Facebook, or reach out on Twitter where the bass player Mike Gordon occassionally tweets? Upon glancing at the band's official website there are very few communications directly from band members that don't appear to have been scrubbed in the PR machine. A few examples include one letter from June 2008 from Page McConnell, Phish's keyboardist, "Mike's Corner" where his last post was from July of 2003 and in "Fishman's Forum" where drummer Jon Fishman's only post was from May of 2000.

Companies large and small are joining their customers in online conversations through communities, forums, blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and a variety of other social tools. This helps these companies deepen their relationships with their customers and inspires greater brand affinity because of these connections. Many other musicians get it too. From Dave Matthews
(another Redlight managed musician) to Imogen Heap musicians are using Twitter to connect with their fans.

So what's up with Phish? As the band gets pummelled in what I'd call a PR nightmare, their voices are conspicuously silent. They haven't bothered to write one blog post to thank their "Phans" for their support over the years. Not one band member has commented on other blogs to share their own reasons why they want to headline a music festival like Bonnaroo instead of hosting their own. And noone from Phish, including Mike Gordon, has Twittered to tell their most loyal Phans--many who were shut out of the ticketing process for their reunion show at Hampton Colliseum--how much they are valued and what steps the band plans to take to keep those folks engagaged.

Is this silence one of those tired old marketing tactics where brands refuse to comment in an attempt to minimize the effects of negative criticism? Or is it mere laziness by the band and their management company who appear to be more focused on profits than people? Whatever the reason, this silence could cost the band dearly. Because even the most dedicated phans are questioning not just their plans to see Phish's probable summer tour, but doubting their devotion altogether. And let me tell you, former customers of brand--or fans of bands--rarely stay silent.