Phish, and some of their fans, at Seattle’s Key Arena, 10/18/2014. Photo by me.

Here We Are Now, Entertain Us

or “an app update too far”…

Your customers are a fickle bunch, and hard to please. I know this, because on at least some level, all customers are. They grow accustomed to what you provide for them, and it doesn’t take long for “extras” to become the norm, expected.

A common misconception among brands with extremely loyal customer bases — niche-market products with cult-like customer followings — is that a rabidly loyal customer base can be a mitigating factor to this basic truth — that the more slavish your following, the more you can take them for granted.

Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. Far from there being a sliding scale of tolerance — with loyalty offsetting mistreatment proportionally — the opposite is actually true. Customers who feel a special sense of ownership are highly attuned to any misstep by their favorite brand, and because we’re all on the Internet now, the fallout can be swift and brutal.

So, enter Phish. The 30-plus-year-old rock band from Vermont has developed, arguably, the most successful niche following in the history of Rock and Roll (whether they, the Dead, Insane Clown Posse, or someone else deserve that honor is beyond the scope of this post — for our purposes, they make a fine example).

Full disclosure: I am a dyed-in-the-wool Phish fan, and if I could, I would attend every single one of their concerts (additionally, explaining *why* I and so many others are so entranced by Phish is similarly beyond the scope of this post — you’ll just have to go with it).

Suffice it to say, if the band is playing, I wish I was there. And I’m not alone. Whether, on a given night, we’re in the mood to sit back and gaze at the tapestry of music that the band creates, or pick apart every thread on the Internet in real time, Phish fans can’t get enough.

Phish have always been leaders in the Rock and Roll Customer Experience movement. Taking a page from the Grateful Dead’s playbook, they established a mailing list and direct-to-fan mail-order concert ticketing early in their career — long before the Internet and outfits like MusicToday brought “fan club” tickets to every band who cared to offer them.

They encouraged fans to record and circulate their music while many other bands were busy fighting Napster for their share of (arguably illusory) recorded-music revenue, and they were one of the first bands to live-stream a concert over the internet — all the way back in 2000! — for free. They accommodated fans wanting to record their concerts with special “taper section” tickets, and despite a healthy circulation of audience recordings — they are arguably the best-archived band in history — they were one of the first to offer professional recordings of concerts immediately afterward.

Upon returning to the stage after a hiatus (OK, retirement — but that’s also beyond the scope of this post) late in the last decade, they responded to overwhelming demand for concert tickets by live-streaming multi-camera shoots of many of their shows in real time. They assumed responsibility for a massive amount of technical support (OK, there are partner companies involved, but still…) in order to deliver for their fans. And their fans have responded, by and large, by opening their wallets.

I bring up these examples of music-industry innovation to set the context in which a significant portion of this band’s fanbase — the most vocal ones, to be sure — have taken to the internet and turned on the band, at least for today.

Most of Phish’s innovations listed above predate the advent of the mobile phone. But the introduction of the iPhone and its accompanying App Store coincided nicely with the buildup of archival “Live Phish” releases, and the age of niche specialization in popular music. So, a few years back, the band developed (again, with partner help) a “Live Phish” iPhone app, giving fans access to digital versions of their archival purchases, and perhaps most importantly, the ability to stream a recording of the most recent show the band had played. I can’t remember how much it cost at the time — $2? $4? — and while I wasn’t much into paying for apps then, this one I gladly shelled out for.

A friend of mind used to drive his band around in a 80's-vintange Dodge “Vantasy” conversion van, and we used to joke that the radio sounded great but only played Pink Floyd. Phish’s app is the closest thing to that in iOS form — a dedicated internet radio that plays only a single band’s music. The mere fact that there’s sufficient demand to support something like this should tell you something about splintering and specialization in music fandom these days — but also something about the degree of ownership these fans feel over the band and their music.

The app was (and is) buggy — it crashes frequently, and one can only start songs at the beginning — but despite all of this, the mere fact that I can listen to the most recent show — particularly helpful when the band is on tour far away from me — made it worth the warts, and the cost.

Yesterday, the band announced a long-awaited update to the app — it’s allegedly more stable, supports gapless playback and fast-forward/rewind, and it’s free! Yay! Us hippies love free stuff!
The rub? It also includes a $9.99/month (or $99 / year) streaming subscription, granting streaming access to the entire archive.

And the “last show” feature? Gone. (To be fair, the “featured show” is still there in the original version of the app — it’s just not the most recent show that’s “featured” anymore).

The single feature I was excited enough about to make me actually pay for the app in the first place is gone — and again, I’m not alone.

If you’re wondering what the tolerance limit for niche-market specialized music spending is in this crazy, brave new music world, you may have your answer — the new app is currently rated a mere 1.5 stars on the iTunes store, which along with a sampling of customer reviews, indicates two things to me:

  1. People — no matter how slavishly devoted to a single band they are — are apparently none too keen on spending an entire Spotify subscription’s cost to stream a single band’s archives.
  2. If you take away a key feature in an app people have paid for (regardless of how little they paid), no amount of updates, new features, or bug fixes will mitigate the feeling that something has been taken away and this aggression will not stand, man.

The success (or not) of Phish’s new paid-streaming service will be very telling. While I don’t expect them to publicize the numbers, or give us any real inkling as to the overall success of the program, it sure would be nice to know if the niche-music market can support this kind of thing.

For now, all we have are the rabid, screaming Internet rantings of angry Phishheads (yes, autocorrect — it’s a word), no longer able to stream last night’s show, bro. That, and an abysmally-rated app update.

The band has been pretty good at addressing criticism head-on in the past — another mark of a Customer Experience standout — let’s see how they handle this one.

Phish, and some of their fans, at Seattle’s Key Arena, 10/18/2014. Photo by me.

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