Arts & Entertainment | December 27, 2019 7:31 am

Inside the Professional Networking Underground of Phish Fandom

How superfans of the band built a private — and far more valuable — version of LinkedIn

Phish and professional business networking could also go hand in hand.
Phish and professional business networking could also go hand in hand.
Mike Burdick

In August 2018, Ryan Stanley attended a business networking event held by a friend at North Bowl, a popular bowling alley, café and bar in Philadelphia. At the time, the New Jersey resident wasn’t necessarily looking for any specific career boost, since he was already juggling several irons in the fire. In addition to his day job as a professional life coach, he was writing a book and running a side hustle called SetListTees, a boutique operation that designs and prints custom shirts adorned with the set lists of favorite concerts. 

Although the North Bowl turnout was small, Stanley wasn’t deterred. “I’m like, ‘Okay, I don’t know anybody. I’m here to network. Let me just start networking.’” He struck up a conversation with the first person he saw — a man named John Prugh, who just so happened to manage several area Barnes & Noble locations. “I said, ‘Wow, I’m writing a book right now,’” Stanley recalls. “And he said, ‘Great. Once you get it done and completed, if you want to set up an event or something at one of my stores, you can do that.’”

Prugh kept his word. Stanley reconnected with him after finishing the book, Be Patient, Be Present, Be Joyful — A First Aid Kit for the Emotional Bumps, Scrapes, and Bruises of Life, in summer 2019, and ended up having a signing and speaking event at a Barnes & Noble in Edison, New Jersey, in late September. The event went so well that Stanley is already plotting a second in-store for a Princeton Barnes & Noble in the new year.

That the two men hit it off so quickly was no surprise: both are Phish fans, and the North Bowl networking event actually doubled as a pre-show gathering for people heading to the nearby BB&T Pavilion in Camden, New Jersey, to see the band. In fact, the meetup was the second official gathering sponsored by Peak Builders, a formalized pre-concert business networking series founded by Steven “The Vic” Vickner, a die-hard Phish fan with a background in healthcare technology and knack for connecting people in authentic ways.

Robust fan communities have long sprung up around beloved musicians. However, you’d be hard-pressed to find a band with more social — and passionate — fans than Phish, which has a sold-out, four-night stand at Madison Square Garden starting on December 28. Formed in Vermont back in the ’80s, the group has amassed a massive, dedicated fanbase fond of trading live shows, dissecting setlists and discussing the merits of various songs played at various concerts. (This enthusiasm is also infectious: chances are good you’ll leave a conversation with a Phish fan immediately wanting to listen to the band’s music.) In turn, Phish is good at giving fans what they want: detailed set-list archives, professionally shot web streams of concerts and a dedicated website, LivePhish.com, that sells high-quality downloads of live soundboard recordings of concerts dating back to 2002.

“So much about Phish is this collective experience [fans] share together: trading tapes (back in the old days), sharing memories, hanging out before shows, touring with each other, knowing the ‘secret language’ of the band,” says Marcus Gilmer, an editor and reporter at Mashable. “You see the same fans and friends over and over on the tour, and you form a special bond.”

It’s perhaps no surprise that Vickner recognized that Phish and professional business networking could also go hand in hand. His Peak Builders is transparent about its goals — for example, the Facebook event for the Philadelphia meetup instructed attendees to “bring your business cards, grab a drink and extend your professional network by connecting with other fans who know how to get business done before getting down to the business of Phish!” — although unlike other business networking events, these don’t exude elitism or stuffiness. Peak Builders gatherings take place in casual bars and venues, might feature entertainment and have a philanthropic component, such as a raffle to raise money for charity. 

And although these meetups have to date predominantly taken place before concerts by Phish (or side projects Vida Blue and Ghosts of the Forest), events have also preceded shows from kindred improvisational spirits Umphrey’s McGee and Pigeons Playing Ping Pong — which illustrates Peak Builders’ universal concept. “The musical event is what is bringing the people together,” Vickner says. “I don’t really need to figure out a way to get them together. I’m trying to figure out a way to provide them with more value when they actually do get together — or give them now a legitimate business reason to be at something that they’re going to have fun at afterwards.”

Peak Builders meetups are rooted in Vickner’s deep love of live music, and his belief that it unites people, no matter their political, ideological or personality differences. Jake Beckman, a former journalist who now owns his own consulting business, notes that such inclusivity is a major hallmark of Phish fandom. “Everyone feels at home in the Phish community who likes Phish,” he says. “But it’s so interesting because we’re not all the same. There are lots of different people who feel at home in this environment — and that is a very big part of it, the fact that it’s so welcoming of so many different types [of people]. It’s easy to feel like you belong at a Phish show, because everyone belongs at a Phish show. You just have to show up.”

Because of this dedication and welcoming nature, Phish fans tend to find instant common ground with each other, which also makes professional networking a much easier (and less awkward) experience. “You go to these events and you start off talking about business,” Stanley says. “But if there’s no commonality in business — or that conversation gets a little bit stale — you can always go right into something that you love and you know the person’s automatically going to love. As a Phish nerd, I would love to sit and talk about Phish with anybody — I could do it all day long.” Adds Vickner: “If I wear a Dead hat or a Phish hat or something, I guarantee I can have a full-blown conversation in a grocery store, in a laundromat, in a mall. I can talk to that person as if I’ve known them for 20 years.”

This level of foundational trust also informs the next phase of Vickner’s Peak Builders: Peak Builders Network, an online, grassroots membership directory aimed at helping Phish (and live music) fans connect to vetted service providers, small businesses and other licensed professionals. Think of it like an Angie’s List or Yellow Pages — only curated for and by fans who love Phish and live music.

In practice, Vickner envisions Peak Builders Network as being useful for someone relocating for work, who might be looking for recommendations of neighborhoods where to live, a pediatrician, chiropractor and yoga studio. “Whatever the case is, I would reach out to my network,” he says. “And the problem is, everybody’s network is fragmented because there’s 80 different Facebook groups, and Reddit, Twitter, Instagram, text messages, and people that you call up on the phone. And what I’m trying to do is join those people together and say, ‘Hey, we have a member here. They’re moving. Does anybody have any recommendations?’”

The concept of Peak Builders Network works so well because Phish loyalists aren’t a monolith. “When you say you’re a Phish fan, people immediately think that they know what that means,” Beckman says. “They think that you’re a certain kind of person. And the interesting thing is — it’s just not true. There are so many different kinds of Phish fans, and there are so many Phish fans in highly regarded and esteemed positions in tons of industries.”

As has been well-reported over the years, however, there is an abundance of Phish fans working in the media industry, and references to the band have cropped up in commentary on CNBC, among other places. There’s even an underground gathering place for Phish fans who work in the media: a private email list about the band that’s been active since the early ’10s. The list started in no small part thanks to the meteoric rise of social media, specifically Twitter: as the platform rose in popularity with journalists, Phish loyalists working in media organically discovered their mutual affection for the band, and naturally gravitated toward one another.

List members include TV, print, and digital journalists — many of whom have high-profile jobs — who need to use discretion on social media, or have employers who might frown upon Phish chatter. Although conversation certainly encompasses ticket transactions, the depth of conversation and fan-geared atmosphere are also invaluable. As one list member puts it, “from a legit-improved-my-life perspective, there’s a member who posts full HD audio of every show the morning after Phish plays it, and that’s just a real blessing.”

Phish nitrous business
Peak Builders Network is an online, grassroots membership directory aimed at helping Phish fans connect (Mike Burdick for InsideHook)

“It’s completely invigorating to fall down those little rabbit holes with your smart friends about this band you love and share and are intimately familiar with,” says a journalist in Philadelphia who’s been on the list since 2014. “It’s nice to know that there are successful, likeminded professional journalists out there who nerd out about Phish the same way I do.” Adds a Cleveland-based writer who’s been a list member since 2012: “I love my work as a journalist, but having my email account buzz off and on with the latest perspectives on the band that I love is immensely helpful in powering through an afternoon.”

Although members of this Phish list will meet up before shows a la Peak Builders, the group wasn’t formed explicitly to be a hub for media networking. “It’s not a professional network,” says a list member who wished to remain anonymous. “That’s not the idea. Nobody went into this being like, ‘It would be a really great way to like find a job if we all liked Phish.’ We just wanted a place where we could talk about Phish.” Still, due to the friendships that have evolved from this musical camaraderie, career assists have occasionally followed. “I’ve done a lot of different networking things — and no network has yielded more success for my career,” says the anonymous list member, who noted they once got a job at a major media outlet because their eventual boss was a friend and fellow list member. (LinkedIn hasn’t yielded anything useful, they add.) 

Other benefits are more indirect. The Cleveland-based journalist noted the connections they’ve made there “have opened doors for me in terms of pitching editors in New York who might otherwise not take the time to read an email from some guy” living in Ohio. “There’s a kinship here, and while we rarely talk about journalism on the listserv, we’ve got an eye out for one another in this very strange, often difficult industry.” The Philadelphia journalist, meanwhile, gave insights into a former workplace to a list member, which helped with a job interview, and notes they’ve seen freelance opportunities or employment leads pop up on the list over the years. 

“I think any working journalist in 2019 has worried about what-if in terms of their job, and what would come next,” they said, while adding that they consider the email list “a network I would turn to if/when there comes a time when I could use a network to help find a job.”

For the Phish email list, as with Peak Builders, that sincerity and inclusivity is key: business networking can often seem cold and impersonal, if not mercenary — but this kind of networking is much more genuine and organic, and therefore deeper. “It’s not just like, ‘Let’s go to happy hour and talk about my job responsibilities and how much I would love, love, love to talk to you about what you do,’” says the anonymous email list member. “It’s not about that. We connect on a human level. 

“To me, that’s what it is: it adds the human element back into networking,” they add. “We vibrate on a similar frequency because we like the band Phish. And because of that, there’s a deeper connection than just we both write words for a living. I’m more inclined — and other people are more inclined — to help you because you like the band, because it tells me something about who you are as a person.”

With the online Peak Builders Network, Vickner envisions this generosity translating offline as well. For example, in recent times he connected via Twitter with a Phish fan who had just moved from California to his hometown of New Hope, Pennsylvania, and offered help if she ever needed anything. Five hours later, she texted Vickner with news of a roof leak — and within 15 minutes, she had three roofer recommendations (and a warning of who to avoid) via his network.

What it comes down to is forging real connections with people, based around a shared passion — and embracing the possibilities that might come next. “That’s where it all comes down to. When you have something that you love in common with somebody else, you can now have a conversation,” Vickner says. “And if you can have a conversation, then who knows what else can happen.”