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January 16th, 2020 5:31:43 pm

Identity and Connection in the Phish Experience

Harnessing the transformative social capacity of the Phish subculture to affect positive social change

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Phish fans are a fervent lot, often mocked as being a cult following. However, these fans comprise a unique and powerful component in the Phish experience, as they maintain enormous capacity for greater altruism. This paper attempts to explore the importance of identity and connection in the Phish experience with the goal to illustrate how sub-cultural identification within Phish yields genuine potential for positive – and lasting – social change in a broader context.

Identity and Connection in the Phish Experience

Harnessing the transformative social capacity of the Phish subculture to affect positive social change

Lindsay Martin-Wood, MPH, MID

Music, Identity & Connection

Music has long wielded a special power to validate and unify. Music touches us spiritually and is capable of transcending values to facilitate constructive and enriching encounters with others. In an era of social media and globalization, our identity – the distinction between ‘self’ and ‘other’ – has become increasingly important. However, the hybrid space within music offers the possibility to simultaneously identify or feel solidarity with individuals from different backgrounds while maintaining association within a group (Volgsten 2014). This new, third space holds the potential to affect cultural values on various levels.

A closer look at the power of music via culture-theoretical themes such as identity and connection conveys a more traditional perception of culture, thereby illustrating the potential to spur positive social change (Volgsten 2014). Within the context of the Phish subculture, community rituals and personal interactions consistently invoke themes such as civic engagement, morality, health, politics, self-awareness and connection. Indeed, this sphere is ideal for ethnographic research and therefore should be of interest not only to social scientists and music fans, but to anyone interested in creating a positive difference within this platform.


Phish is a band from Vermont whose members include Trey Anastasio, Mike Gordon, Page McConnell, and Jon Fishman. Since their modest start in the early 1980s, Trey, Mike, Page and Fish have transformed Phish into one of the biggest live musical acts in history. Phish is most well known for their genre-bending, improvisational style, long jams, sonic complexity, varied setlists, lyrical whimsy, indulgent humor, and intense live performances. Their work is artistically and emotionally layered. More often referred to as ‘shows’ than ‘concerts,’ none is ever the same, and repeat songs among runs within a tour are rare, if nonexistent. Phish unequivocally delivers a unique live musical experience that has attracted and sustained countless devoted followers.

Shows are multi-sensory, full body experiences involving visual, auditory, emotional, somatic, cognitive, and energetic components (Taylor 2018). Perhaps what makes Phish most unique is their dynamism and relational component; their focus on live performance and audience connection is foremost in their delivery. The exchange of energy, sound, and light that takes place at a show is just one aspect of their uniqueness and succeeds in drawing individuals seeking various facets of connection. For Phish fans shows are a place to experience the magic, suspense, and spontaneity absent from their quotidian existence while bonding intensely with tens of thousands of strangers seeking a similar outcome.

Indeed, fans are an inherent part of the Phish experience, and their presence is characterized by unparalleled loyalty and fervor. While diehard fans may simply appear to be chasing the ultimate jam, the perfect set, or an elusive song, they are really attempting to seek a deeper, conceptual understanding of information and experiences – whether they realize it or not. Many fans spend countless hours of their lives devoted to seeing as many shows as possible each tour, collecting/trading live recordings, and analyzing/discussing shows in incredible depth. Phish shows and digital platforms create new spheres of social interaction between various levels of the public and result in creative entrepreneurship, participation, involvement, and meaningful connection (Punnett 2019).

Fans: The Phish Subculture

A classic definition of subculture is a self-defined cultural group within a larger context, often having beliefs or interests at variance with those of the dominant culture (Oxford 2019). In the Phish community, fans comprise a unique subcultural entity rooted in a preconceived idea of being distinct from the mainstream popular culture. At a glance, the Phish subculture appears to be branded by ‘alternative’ lifestyle choices; however, the reality is that this group is as difficult to pin down as the band it follows.

The concept of subculture is an important explanatory tool for sociology. A cultural identity is important to an individual’s overall health and well-being, and a strong personal sense of history and tradition can enhance one’s cultural identity, belonging, and self-esteem (Grusec and Lytton 1988). Because an individual’s identity is influenced by a combination of cultural values, beliefs and practices, these components of culture can help to shape and define purpose and direction. In a world gone mad, subcultural identification is a byproduct of an individual’s attempt to make sense of things.

Religion offers an ideal illustration of subcultural prescription. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), researchers who study the psychology and neuroscience of religion have found that religion may actually be a consequence of how our brains function, “growing from cognitive tendencies to seek order from chaos, to anthropomorphize our environment, and to believe the world around us was created for our use” (Azar 2010). Besides striving to cultivate social order, encourage community cohesion, and espouse moral values, religion fulfills the basic human need for identity and connection.

It is our inherent human desire to create meaning and find purpose. We do this to validate our existence, define our identities, and to create space for ourselves in the universe. All beings exist in relation to other beings; Buddhism, for example, recognizes that interconnectedness is the true nature of all beings, as we are not only connected to other people, but to the air through our breath and to the universe through light (Pomnyun 2016). The spiritual aspect of the human experience is inextricable from the biological, psychological, social and emotional. Seeking to identify with others is a way to validate our existence on all levels and allows us to awaken to a life of purpose and presence, both individually and collectively. While religion is the traditional vehicle for this quest for identity and connectedness, many of the basic values we share, such as love, family, independence, order, peace, and idealism can be found in secular society. Nowhere is this quest to fill a spiritual void in modern secular culture more evident than in the Phish experience.

Third Space

Third space theory is rooted in the sociocultural tradition of psychology. It emerged from an attempt to analyze culture by challenging the dynamics of sociopolitical power and culture through discourse analysis (Oxford Reference 2019). Homi Bhabha, an influential cultural and post-colonial theorist, describes third space as the hybrid realm between colliding cultures that gives rise to something new and unrecognizable – a new area of negotiation of meaning and representation. In this dynamic, hybridized third space, new identities are constantly being created and recreated (Sharif 2016).

Edward Soja’s variation of third space theory challenges a traditional perspective of space and spatiality. According to Soja, first and second spaces are two different, possibly conflicting, arenas where people unite physically and socially. Third spaces are the in-between areas where “everything comes together… subjectivity and objectivity, the abstract and the concrete, the real and the imagined, the knowable and the unimaginable, the repetitive and the differential, structure and agency, mind and body, consciousness and the unconscious, the disciplined and the transdisciplinary, everyday life and unending history” (Oxford Reference 2019). Both Bhabha and Soja’s theories, while different, similarly recognize third space as a constantly expanding, transcendent, and inclusive arena of cultural identity.

Both ways of perceiving and interpreting socially produced space help to simplify the theory and adapt the concept to different spheres. For example, home identity (first space) and work identity (second space) merge to comprise a distinct third space, a realm influenced by – but independent from – both home and work identities. This hybrid space could be filled with anything, such as gardening, yoga, or the violin. These third space experiences reflect a combination of the first two identities; they are separate yet inclusive. Third space is therefore the condition of existing in a space that simultaneously is – and is not – one thing or another.

In third space, self-awareness is drawn from shared experience, dialogue, and interaction (Soja 1996). In other words, this platform serves to cultivate two key components of third space theory: relationships and identity. The third key component, enjoyment, is essential to providing meaningful experience. Music, religion, hobbies, sports, and art are things we experience largely in the third space. The commonality of these experiences is their effect on our well-being, which includes such values as happiness, pleasure, and authenticity (Taylor 2018). Music, for example, has been shown to effectively reduce stress, regulate mood, increase self-awareness, and enhance social cohesion; the subsequent well-being can facilitate a spiritual transcendence, result in a perceived loss of time and space, and may yield greater connection to one’s values and authentic self (Taylor 2018).

Live music is a mind-body-spirit practice that is both an experience and a social context; it influences the development of personal belief systems and future actions, which consequently impact an individual’s authenticity, connectedness, and well-being (Taylor 2018). The Phish subculture is bound by relationships and interactions between fans, the band, and the music. Many fans, regardless of their experiential duration, have developed their identities within this context. The motivation inherent in their shared third space purpose has driven connections and helped to define their individual and collective identities which, in turn, are reinforced by creative Phish-related art and entrepreneurial endeavors, fan social media sites, health support networks, and even business networking groups. With digital media, distance in both time and space can be transgressed (Volgsten 2014).

For many fans, the Phish subculture embodies the ultimate third space experience. The intense bonding that occurs on this platform is characterized by emotional contagion, the experience of empathy and mood being spontaneously affected through music (Taylor 2018). Heightened self-awareness and empathy make this environment a ripe space to disseminate information, reduce apathy, and cultivate compassion. The potential for Phish – and fans – to make a meaningful difference in the world therefore largely depends on their willingness to connect and engage within their subculture.

A Picture of Bassnectar

The notion of Phish subculture as a likely catalyst for good is colossal. As part of our investigation and discussion of this subculture’s potential to evoke change, we will first identify ways that a similar community is successfully harnessing the benefits of third space to promote positive social transformation.

Be Interactive

DJ Lorin Ashton, better known as Bassnectar, is among the most renowned musical artists actively engineering a third space experience for his fans. Bassnectar’s music, like that of Phish, is impossible to categorize: his self-described “omnitempo maximalism” refers to the constantly transforming blends of sounds, speeds, rhythms, textures and styles that characterize his electronic productions (Golden 2008). Indeed, his genre-defying mixes deliver a highly personal sound, and shows are celebrated for their visual and sonic intensity, spontaneity, existentially charged experience.

And, like Phish, Bassnectar is well known for his varied and fervent fans – collectively known as bass heads – who comprise a subculture that he has described as being “as eclectic as the music, in terms of gender, style, and musical preference” (Golden 2008). Despite the following, Bassnectar remains humble and focused on the art, the community, and the impact – rather than the fame that he so dislikes (Diaz 2015). This ego-less philosophy has spurred an authentic connection with his fans, who he respectfully prefers to consider “awesome participants in an interactive art project” (EDMsauce 2019). Bassnectar’s approach to music has successfully fostered authenticity within the community by cultivating enjoyment, spirituality, creativity, openness, belonging, purpose, continuity, and validation. In other words, Bassnectar, for all involved, is a genuine third space experience.

Bassnectar and his team have harnessed the positive forces of third space experience and community and established ‘Be Interactive’ to make a difference through human engagement and social activism (Holland 2019). Be Interactive is motivated by innovative ideas, kindness, and issues that touch real people’s lives, inspiring “the empathic to make an impact through radical kindness, respectful creativity, volunteering, and charity” (Bassnectar 2019). For nearly two decades Be Interactive has invested massive time and energy into creative campaigns for social activism, sourcing money through ticket sales ($1 per ticket sold to Bassnectar-produced events), fundraisers, and personal donations. The organization facilitates involvement from everyday humans, inspiring them to “get involved, get engaged, and make a personal impact on the world around them” (Bassnectar 2019). For example, Be Interactive has coordinated food/coat drives at their events; they have organized massive trash clean-ups; they’ve nurtured partnerships with similarly active organizations (HeadCount, To Write Love On Her Arms, Conscious Alliance, etc.); and they award grants to detailed projects that speak to social themes chosen quarterly by the team (environment, immigration, gun violence, etc.). Grants are multi-faceted, adaptive, impactful, innovative and collaborative (Bassnectar 2019), (Holland 2019).

Bassnectar’s genuine and far-reaching impact is tied to a belief in the importance of human-to-human connection (Holland 2019). By asking fans to identify issues and needs in their local communities, there is a powerful incitement to ownership. The Bassnectar subculture is making a noticeable and sustainable difference in society on various levels through Be Interactive, which provides an excellent model for other organizations that strive to successfully harness the potential of a unique subculture.

The Potential of Phish Fans

Trey, Mike, Page, and Fish have, from the start, been masters of third space creation and delivery. They have successfully cultivated a multi-faceted, transcendental experience that has changed – and continues to change – the lives of countless individuals. I know this from firsthand experience. Since my first show nearly twenty-six years ago, I have evolved with a larger community that has helped shape my identity, my choices, and my relationships. Like other fans, Phish has become part of my family and their music is the soundtrack of my life. My present connection may be rooted in the past, but it is also much more profound, likely due to my becoming older, wiser, and increasingly introspective. Becoming a mature adult, a professional, a parent, and a woman secure in my identity has altered my current third space perspective and therefore my relationship with Phish.

Likewise, the space and culture of Phish itself has undergone transformation. Trey, Mike, Page and Fish, now in their mid-fifties, have experienced personal and collective growth since their days playing local gigs in Burlington. Each has become a husband and parent; each has dealt with life, love, and loss; each has battled his own demons, found his own voice, and been an integral part of something bigger than himself. Together, they have created a space in which the exchange of energy between themselves and their fans is at the heart of the experience. Their positive individual and collective evolution has increasingly affected that of the culture around it, as evidenced by the thriving Phish community. It is also evident in their creative process.

Trey, for example, has undergone a significant transformation which coincides with his sobriety. This is apparent in his increasing willingness to connect honestly with the community through his intimate side projects and solo performances, candid interviews, and powerful lyrics. Trey’s creative process seems to have been particularly impacted: For example, the songs “More,” “Rise/Come Together,” and “Everything’s Right” evoke a spirit of action. There’s no telling which lyrics are a deliberate call to arms, but the considerable capacity to create and disseminate ideas and messages is irrefutable. Therefore, Phish, by tapping into their loyal subculture, wields undeniable potential to incite meaningful change.

Phish and its fans represent a phenomenal alliance of love and energy, and with that union comes power and responsibility. Our current reality begs the third space experience more than ever. Considering the relative unpredictability of our first and second spaces, the third space – in this case, Phish – counters the first two by providing semblance in what can be a frightening and sometimes negative daily existence. Because of this platform we can coexist in an alternate reality, or third space. With the sheer number of individuals continually returning to this space to cultivate and maintain a connection so powerful, it is imperative that fans seek ways to engage, collaborate, and make a genuine difference in the world.

Social and Philanthropic Endeavors

Philanthropy and social activism, while they don’t dominate the core of Phish’s philosophy, are an inherent part of the community’s spirit. Phish’s philanthropic endeavors are rooted primarily in the band’s charitable arm, the WaterWheel Foundation, which reflects the collective efforts of Phish and their fans to raise money for non-profits within the communities that host Phish on tour. Their goal is to give back to local communities through net proceeds raised at each show through fan donations, WaterWheel merchandise, and band-autographed items. Some organizational recipients of funding speak to social services, environmental conservation, and education (Phish 2019). Another organization, the Mockingbird Foundation, is a non-profit founded and run by fans. Mockingbird is dedicated to improving access to music education for America’s youth through grant awards (Mockingbird 2019). Both organizations have been highly successful over the past two decades and continue to make a positive difference.

Philanthropy in this sphere isn’t limited to Mockingbird and WaterWheel; they are highlighted because of their visibility and impact. However, a more thorough investigation into these and other successful organizations, their structural framework, and their evolution alongside the community would be worthwhile. With the relative change in demographics of the Phish community – age, income levels, economic and sociocultural factors – these organizations have undoubtedly been forced to adapt. It would be useful to see how these entities are engaging with other cohorts, such as younger fans, and whether they feel compelled to participate. It would also be interesting to gauge how and to what degree the older, more established fans are connecting philanthropically. Graphic data demonstrating relative demographic trends would provide useful information for future studies and would better inform creative campaigns for social activism.

However, despite the dearth of empirical data, multiple social organizations have emerged in response to the perceived need for connection and altruism. Peak Builders Network is an innovative consortium of Phish fans established to help members connect to vetted service providers, small businesses and other licensed professionals (Zaleski 2019), (PEAK 2019). Meet-ups are common and members certainly stand to benefit professionally, but the sense of community derived from the third space is the spark in this equation. GrooveSafe, an organization launched by fans to cultivate awareness surrounding unwanted touching and sexual assault at concerts, is foremost in this community; they engage with and disseminate information about the importance of consent (GrooveSafe 2019). The Rescue Squad was born from fans identifying a pressing need to involve fans in the cleanup efforts following shows (RescueSquad 2020). The Phellowship was created to support sober and recovering people at shows by offering information, goods, and camaraderie (Phellowship 2019). Each of these grassroots organizations has arisen from a perceived social need, has been spearheaded by fans, and is sustained organically within this subculture. Additional altruistic endeavors among the scene are referenced at the conclusion of this paper.

Lingering Questions, Concluding Thoughts, and Recommendations

As evidenced by both Phish and Bassnectar, the potential for social impact of certain subcultures appears to be magnified in the third space experience. It is therefore imperative that such organizations focus more deliberately on cultivating the human connection, tapping into the collective empathic spirit, and empowering people to participate. Individual perspectives and collective knowledge can and should be leveraged to incite passion in the Phish third space.

Further sociological research within this cohort is warranted to determine potential for positive change. Despite a lack of empirical evidence to measure such success, tangible outcomes may be assessed through the design and implementation of ethnographic or experimental interventions. For example, (1) qualitative research (surveys) online and at shows could indicate amount and types of charitable involvement among fans; (2) a litmus test for the successful dissemination of knowledge/information within the community could be a research study assessing basic public health practices, such as the importance of handwashing at Phish shows; (3) facilitation of civil discourse relating to a divisive issues such as LGBTQ+ rights or immigration could be professionally moderated with interactions tracked by analytics; or (4) collective development of moral aptitude, while impossible to measure, could be gauged by specific interventions illustrating fan response to hypothetical ethical scenarios.

The value of change may be immeasurable, but the impact is significant. Fans are a unique and powerful component of the Phish experience, and perhaps the key to catalyzing multifaceted positive transformation. Several important questions linger as we question the potential of this subculture: With such a commanding platform for good in this dynamic third space, what more can and should be done? What is the potential for spiritual change and emotional healing, especially in a world torn and frayed by political divisiveness, fear, and hatred? What is our philanthropic potential? What is our moral obligation?

While it may be ambitious to expect fans to resolve social issues while occupying third space, it is reasonable to beseech Phish as an organization to challenge fans to be more actively altruistic. Phish should adapt Bassnectar’s model to create an overarching entity under which the current altruistic social organizations may function independently. This umbrella entity will serve as a collective vehicle for Phish fans to cultivate creativity, charity, and action. It should implore fans to identify needs and issues in the community, engage and mobilize individuals and groups to participate, and celebrate the collective success as a more significant part of the scene. Such leadership, support and cohesion would improve the community at large and make a tangible difference in the world.

A Few Notable Social Organizations

  • Be Interactive (Bassnectar 2019)
  • Clean Vibes (CleanVibes 2019)
  • GrooveSafe (GrooveSafe 2019)
  • Mimi Fishman Foundation (MimiFishman 2019)
  • Mockingbird Foundation (Mockingbird 2019)
  • Peak Builders Network (PEAK 2019)
  • PhanArt (Mason 2019)
  • Phans for Racial Equity (PHRE 2019)
  • Phellowship (Phellowship 2019)
  • The Rescue Squad (RescueSquad 2020)
  • REVERB (REVERB 2019)
  • WaterWheel Foundation (Phish 2019)


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    Wood, Lindsay M


    Lindsay Martin Wood, 2020

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