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Long Riders: Jam Band Circuit As Business Model

Although one of the biggest players is leaving the scene, the jam band model of steady touring, long and varied shows, and encouraging fan community is now a viable alternative to the label-dependent radio and CDs model that has become a victim of the changing market of media consolidation, file sharing, and vast entertainment options for consumers.

Bela Fleck is one of the jam band model success stories:

    One week in July, Béla Fleck performed with his band, the Flecktones, at three zoos in the Pacific Northwest. By Saturday, he had moved to Deer Valley to sit in with the Utah symphony. Then he was off to Interlochen, Mich., to start the Midwest leg of the tour. He’ll play this weekend in Ohio and West Virginia.

    Summer touring season is the working musicians’ version of retail’s holiday shopping season: a chance to reap bigger dollars from more people in a compressed period, before students return to school.

    A look at banjo master Fleck and how he runs his business in the digital age shows how drastically the industry has changed. A new CD release gets attention, but with many young customers bypassing CD purchases for free pirated songs on the Internet, touring pays the bills. Fleck says concerts reflect 70% of the band’s income, records 20% and merchandising 10%.

    Fleck will realize 40% of his yearly touring income crisscrossing the country to perform with his jazz/bluegrass/world music band at amphitheaters, auditoriums, amusement parks — even a farmer’s market in Kansas City. In summer, audiences swell from 1,000 to 2,000 people nightly to anywhere from 4,000 to 20,000. The Deer Valley show sold out, at 4,000 tickets.

    ….the Flecktones don’t have a string of top 10 hits. They’ve never had a hit single, a gold album or substantial radio airplay — the usual tools needed to sell concert tickets.

    Yet they’ll perform to nearly 500,000 people this year in about 120 shows, grossing $8.5 million to $9.5 million for the tour. Bongiovanni says it’s a rare act that can pull in audiences for so many shows. Of the top 100 touring acts last year, most average 50 shows or fewer. Only six did more than 100 shows.

    Fleck has tapped into the jam-band phenomenon pioneered by the Grateful Dead in the 1960s and further established by groups such as Phish, the String Cheese Incident and Dave Matthews Band.

    Like the Flecktones, jam bands specialize in long shows, varied set lists and a rapport with fans that allows them to tape shows freely — and encourages them to trade songs online.

    Fans do that at the official Flecktones Web site, www.flecktones.com. ”It’s helped our live audience to be bigger,” says Fleck.

    ….Fleck plays the banjo — usually associated with country and bluegrass music — in a jazz setting, with backing from bass, sax and electronic drums.

    The Flecktones often jam with musicians who sit in with offbeat instruments such as the bassoon, tabla, oboe and ukulele. Fleck also often plays classical music in shows and has recorded two classical albums.

    ”The strength of our business is having a diverse audience,” Fleck says. ”It turned out to be a good business plan. We’ll play some blues and maybe that won’t win over 100% of blues fans, but 15% will like us and come back. Same goes for other styles. Pretty soon you have an audience that’s significant.”

    ….But to earn the big bucks, at least for the Flecktones, means living an unusual lifestyle that requires sleeping on a 45-foot Prevost tour bus with no full bathroom, shower facilities or privacy.

    Living on the bus, Fleck concedes, ”isn’t for everybody. It’s tight in there, and it’s a real party all the time. You have to be OK with that.”

    The entourage includes the band members: sax player Jeff Coffin, bassist Victor Lemonte Wooten and his brother Roy, who plays electronic drums in the shape of a guitar and calls himself Futureman. There’s also the tour manager, lighting director, sound mixer and bus driver.

    Wooten has no complaints. ”On a plane, you have to get up very early after staying up very late and sit in an uncomfortable chair for a long time. On a bus, you sit around and watch TV or lay down in your own bunk.”

    When Coffin joined the group in 1997, the Flecktones were touring the country in a van, and sleeping in motels. ”When a band gets to the point where you can live on a bus, that’s luxury.”

    ….Fleck manager David Bendett says the band switched to Sony because the label offered a big advance — he won’t reveal the number — and a unique arrangement: three albums on Sony’s Columbia jazz label and two on Sony Classical.

    Fleck’s Grammy-award-winning recording of banjo classical music, Perpetual Motion, sold 94,000 copies, unheard of for a classical album, where many symphonic recordings sell 40,000 to 60,000 copies.

    ”If you can sell 100,000 records for an art project, then you’re doing really well,” says Fleck, who was named after classical composer Béla Bartók. He credits the sales to the exposure from the touring.

    Perpetual Motion is profitable, because of the economics of his Sony deal. It was the first record on his classical contract.

    The latest, Music for Two, a classical project with bassist Edgar Meyer released in the spring, has sold 17,000 copies, and moves ”around 1,000 copies a week,” says Sony Classical President Peter Gelb. ”The touring really helps.”

    ….Hardy Jones says he’s seen the Flecktones more than 130 times — three times this year. ”Their music just speaks to me,” says the Kansas City, Mo., kitchen remodeler.

    ”No one plays stuff like they do,” says Brady Gambels, 19, of Salt Lake City, seeing his second Flecktones show, in Deer Valley. He was part of the crowd standing by the stage to have a CD cover signed by Fleck; the band always mingles with fans after the encores.

    But Flecktones fans will have to find other concerts to attend in 2005. The group plans to take a hiatus from the road next year, their first in 15 years. [USA Today]

Everyone needs a break from that kind of perpetual motion lifestyle, and what do you want to bet that Phish will get back together at some point also? With this model, you don’t play, you don’t get paid.

About Eric Olsen

Career media professional and serial entrepreneur Eric Olsen flung himself into the paranormal world in 2012, creating the America's Most Haunted brand and co-authoring the award-winning America's Most Haunted book, published by Berkley/Penguin in Sept, 2014.Olsen is co-host of the nationally syndicated broadcast and Internet radio talk show After Hours AM; his entertaining and informative America's Most Haunted website and social media outlets are must-reads: [email protected], Facebook.com/amhaunted, Pinterest America's Most Haunted.Olsen is also guitarist/singer for popular and wildly eclectic Cleveland cover band The Props.

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