The Future of Phish Listening

Curation of a Catalog

Last year, in honor of Phish’s 30th year of making music together, we initiated a rather ambitious project to catalog Phish’s entire career, year by year. The goal of the project, initially, was to break down the bands career into an easily digestible infographic that charted the evolution of Phish’s musical styles over the years. The reason we did this?

To illustrate that Phish’s music was about one thing, EVOLUTION, near-constant experiment and change, progress and movement.

This is the Master KEY that detailed the styles and types of jams, allowing us to break them down

We had been motivated by the never-ending debates around which year, tour, and jam was better than another. We felt, and still do, that discussing art in this context was ultimately limiting for the community. We were missing the forest for the trees, in essence.

So what did we do? We recruited a bunch of our friends and followers online (and off) to pick apart Phish’s career, year by year, tour by tour, song by song and finally jam by jam. We had 12 team members in all, and over a period of about 3 months, we all listened to (at least) one entire year of Phish. In some cases, team members listened to two or even three years of Phish.

We took the project as far as we could without finishing it, going so far as to get quotes from multiple artists, designers and illustrators who were to take our data and work alongside us to visualize it. We had initially thought about creating the infographic and posting it online for all to see, free of charge. Then we thought that if the project was done artistically enough, this would be something that people would want to own and investigated the possibility of a print for sale. Ultimately a few things backed us off these ideas.

  1. We decided as a team we didn’t want to make money off of Phish, at least not in this way. For a band that has given, and continues to offer us, so so much, it felt somehow not Kosher to profit off their work.
  2. Perhaps we should have realized this before we started, but it made no sense to produce a 30-year infographic when we were in the midst of that 30th year. Still, we put in place the mechanism whereby we could continue the work, finish 2013's annotations and deliver a product just after the most recent NYE run.
  3. launched in the middle of our project, completely upending what we knew to be possible with the data we were compiling. We had discussions with @jeffplang who created the site, as well as Alec and Justin from Phish.OD. All these brilliant developers loved the data and immediately thought about integrating it with their various projects.

Unfortunately, time and tour caught up with us, and once Andy and I found ourselves on the entire tour, there was little time to keep up with the project as we were busy chronicling the tour online through our various platforms.

Now What…

Well, we aren’t sure, but since we just passed the year anniversary of the initiation of the project it occurred to me that our database was far too useful to remain private and I wanted to open up the work to the wider community, Primarily, so that people could see the staggering amount of work that went into this. Don’t get me wrong, we loved every minute of the project and though a lot of it was work, it was like getting a crash course in Phish for many of us who had never listened to years chronologically, or pushed themselves to free associate descriptions and definitions of various Phish jams.

You’ll see very quickly how many identifiers we had to ideate, purely. The hardest part, besides the raw listening, was building the protocol of the database. We had to come up with a classification system for how each jam could be defined, keeping one eye on the data and the the other firmly fixed on how that data would be visualized. For instance, some of the terms we came up with were the following:

Type Genre Species Style Coloration Jam Elements.

These were the top level column headings. For “Style” we eventually came up with the following titles:

Ambient. Baroque. Basic Tension and Release. Bliss. Contemplation/ Reflection. Cow Funk. Cubist. Deconstruction. Digital Delay. Loop Jam. Dynamic Jam (quiet loud dropouts). Experimental (Pushing Boundaries). Grateful Dead Type 2. Hyper Funk. Loops and Echoes. Meat and Potatoes. Millenial (Sirens, Delays, Tractor Beams). Nightmare Music. Plinko. Polyrhythmic Minimalism. Pure Creation. Shred-Fest. Silent Jam. Space Funk. Standard Rock Jam (Type 1). Storage. Trey-led Noodling Jam. Undefined/NewVocal. Post-Modern Psychedelia. Machine Funk. Future Funk.

We also had a separate column detailing the elements alive in certain jams. Take a look at his list:

Brilliant Clavinet Crosseyed Tease Dynamics (volume..)Fishman Cymbal Crash Fishman Jazzy Feel Fishman Roll Swing Fishman STOMP Full Band Stop Start Guy Forget Tease Loops Machine Gun Trey Manteca Tease Metally Roar Mike Slapping/ Popping Mike’s Bass Bomb Mike’s envelope filter Mike’s Fight Bell Mike’s Synth pedal Mini Kit Narration Oye Como Va Polyrhythms Rotation Jam Secret Language Segue-Fest Sirens Start/ Stop Rhythmic Streets of Cairo Talking Heads Synth Tease-fest Theremin Tractor Beams Trey “Death from Above” Wailing Trey Feedback Trey Piano Trey Reverse Guitar on Boomerang Trey Rhythmic Chording Trey Scratching Trey uncompressed fuzz tone Trey Wah (funk sound)Trey Whammy octave doubler effect Trey whammy bend (non-siren or whale call)Trey/ Mike Lick TradingTrey/ Page Lick Trading Undulating Bass Lines Unspecified Synthesizer Vacuum Whale-Call Horns

I think you are starting to get the picture. Still no? Ok, well here is an actual picture.

screenshot of the database

About halfway through the project, Phish Tracks launched. I quickly got in touch with Jeff, realizing, like many of us, that he had just completely upended the entire paradigm of Phish listening online. No longer would fans have to download shows from the Spreadsheet. No longer would jams and shows be discussed without reference, perhaps the biggest legacy of Phishtracks. Want to listen along with someone far away? A simple link sent via email, text or twitter would take us right to that moment.

Phish listening had been revolutionized over night.

And it showed us that technology platforms were the way to go with our data. We envisioned, and still do, a platform, website, app, whatever you want to call it, that would take our database, and make it searchable and sortable.

See, Jeff Lang and his Phishtracks had solved one very big problem. You could now listen to any Phish song or show anywhere.

But unbeknownst to Jeff, in solving one very big problem he introduced an even bigger problem. Because now that you could listen to ANY show or jam, the question becomes, what the HELL do I listen to?

There exists no definitive guide nor even a framework for how to listen to a catalog as vast and varied, as complicated and diagonal as Phish’s. All that music, all that live art, waiting to be discovered.

The problem is that we don’t know every song or every jam. We know our favorite shows, jams, tours and years. We know that if we pick a show from Fall 97 or Summer 99 what we are likely to hear, psychedelic funk and millennial spaciness respectively.

But wouldn’t it be better if we could search. Or choose a jam we know and have the application deliver similar jams, indicated by style or genre or the elements within those jams?

For instance, a web platform that had drop down menus, and an algorithm that linked the data to a search engine so that for instance, if you wanted to hear all “David Bowie’s” that were “longer than 15 minutes” that contained “a Type 2 jam” with “Psychedelic” elements, you could. You might even, and probably would, end up discovering a host of jams you had previously overlooked. Those jams would lead you to shows you weren’t aware of, styles, and you might end up with a deeper appreciation or understanding of how Phish evolved over time.

Using the search criteria above, he database could easily return 14 “David Bowie’s” that matched those criteria, and a playlist would be automatically generated. That playlist could be saved, shared, even commented upon. We envisioned a little card, a social notation where people could share, like, follow each created input. This would create a massive curated list of jams, songs, shows, elements. It would be linked to a Phishtracks or PhishOD style stream and boom, you were off to the races.

But there is more. Let’s say you didn’t even care what song you were after and all you wanted to hear was a “bliss jam” from “Summer 1999.” The service would punch out 25 jams from Summer 99 that had Bliss elements. Same with any of those criteria we hardwired into the database. Did you know that Phish toyed with Plinko jams all the way back in the late 80's? You would if you queried the database, because our researchers found a few instances of that.

Now we were getting somewhere. And you know? We still might. For as you can probably tell, the reason we are opening up this project to the community, is obviously, so anyone can see for themselves just the staggering amount of work that we and our team conducted. Yes, you should marvel. We killed ourself for this thing. Totally worth it.

But secondly, and perhaps more seriously, we believe that opening this up to the community will start some brushfires and we can use the wisdom of the crowd to figure out the best way forward. Perhaps some developer or designer will see this and take on our challenge to figure this all out. Perhaps it means we need to start a kickstarter project to fund this thing and see if we can’t build something by the community for the community. I can think of no better way to thank Phish than for creating something that honored their art, made it accessible to experts and newcomers alike. Done properly, the new app/ project/ platform would be a valuable guide to Phish, another in a long series of projects, curated by the fans for the fans.

We had some initial designs done by our friend @ShanePisko an artist and fan living in Philadelphia. Here are some of those images.

And here is another sketch:

Years on the left which when clicked would bring up the essential jams of that year, that would be able to streamed directly. The text would “tell the story” of that year in an organized, coherent way.

The above images are again, just renderings. But the goal was to skin Phish Tracks, or a new site, with information on the various years, eras, chapters of Phish’s history. For a beginner, if you clicked a year, you would get an essential playlist for that year, with a concise but comprehensive story alongside it.

The result was you now had a capsule that was consumable and relevant with the music to match at your fingertips. It was in this way that one could start to make sense of Phish’s career, year by year, tour by tour, jam by jam.

There are so many possibilities with a database like this. But also some very real limitations. For one thing, a lot of the decisions were subjective ones. At some point one of our researchers was listening to a jam and scrolling through the list of descriptors so they could identify the sound or elements or facts of a jam. Now the facts were easy, when was the date, the venue, the tour, the song, the placement, the time of the song. But things like coloration, style, genre are inherently much more subjective. We knew this going in and we never envisioned it as authoritative or final, just our best guess. We built in a redundancy system too so that many jams had multiple ears attached, and certain selectors were either confirmed or adjusted.

We also never finished a few years. 1994, 1999, 2013, and the 2.0 years were left off; we simply ran out of time and Andy and I found ourselves embroiled on Summer Tour, concerned with the shows, the travel and the adventure.

So what now?

No idea. But if you’ve made it this far and want to take a look at the database we are opening it up for all to see and use. We’ll move the conversation over to Twitter where you can ask us questions, provide feedback and critique and discuss with us some ways that we can maybe move forward. If we get enough support and help, maybe we’ll pick it back up, either raise or spend some money building this thing and finishing it right and advancing the prospect of Phish listening online for the next few years.

There is so much more to say but for know, we’re just gonna let everyone in to poke around. We have multiple copies of this so we aren’t worried about anything being changed or modified. The best way to use this sheet is to use alongside your own listening. We hit over 500 jams. If there isn’t one there that you want added, we’ll add it, or you can. There is an easy to follow protocol which we’ll work on pushing out.

Phish Deep Research

What do you think and what should we do with this? Would you contribute $10 or $20 to a project that got this into the hands of a designer and developer? If we get enough “Yes’s”, we’ll ramp up the project again and see if we can’t take this awesome dream into a reality.

And a word of incredible thanks to the incredible team members who spent hours and hours, and lots of fun emailing and group video chats, making this project one of the greatest things we could ever have done for and with Phish.

Those people are @BlissPhish @Pbshaughnessy @Phish_Forum @TodayinPhistory @jahphone @Andy_Greenberg @tourtweet @shanepisko @ghost_of_hood @coffe4u @okdeadhead. @feelingiforgot was especially helpful to us not only with his work, but for helping us manage and set up the database, streamlining it as we went for optimal performance.

Lastly, @stevengripp who even though was a bit of a latecomer to the project, was gracious with his time in covering the often frustrating but no less revealing early years of 1983-1986.

I think that was everyone. You can thank them for their incredible dedication and perseverance. I won’t speak for everyone (yes i will!) but I’ll say that this was one of the most exciting projects I’ve ever spearheaded and was a big part of what @Thebabysmouth was working on last year as we took a very long and deep dive into Phish and their history, their catalog.

Ultimately, we became even more familiar with the actualities of their art, and was a huge force towards our understanding the context of Phish. This was central to our writing over the Summer and into last Fall.

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