The Music Business Wants to Reach Superfans. Jam Bands Already Know How

The Music Business Wants to Reach Superfans. Jam Bands Already Know How

In 1995, Peter Shapiro purchased the New York club Wetlands. “That was the home of the jam band, Grateful Dead scene in New York,” he recalls. At the time, though, “it wasn’t cool to be a Deadhead. And Wetlands wasn’t necessarily the cool play.”


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But styles that were frowned upon by one generation are often taken up by the next. While many artists — and the mainstream music business — ignored jam bands for years, this has started to change. Intrigued by the scene’s genre-hopping open-mindedness and the unwavering devotion of its followers at a time when “superfan” is the industry buzzword of choice, the rest of the music business has started to take an interest in a space it long kept at arm’s length.

“If you’re a pop artist, and you see a bunch of bearded weirdo hippies able to do whatever they want on their own terms, that’s an appealing path to think about,” says Mike Luba, longtime manager of the String Cheese Incident.

At festivals, “you’re seeing jam bands pop up on lineups that are traditionally more indie rock or haven’t really touched the jam thing in the past,” explains Dave DiCianni, who co-manages Goose along with other jam bands like Eggy and Pigeons Playing Ping Pong. “It’s cool to see it permeating into general pop culture,” he adds.

The Big Bang for jam bands, according to Shapiro, was the death of the Dead’s Jerry Garcia in 1995. “Everyone saw the Dead; they were the number one touring band in the 1990s,” Shapiro continues. “Garcia dies, and that audience of live music, improvisation-loving people splinters. That creates the jam band scene. Phish lifts up” — the band first cracked Pollstar‘s highest grossing U.S. tours list at the end of 1994 — “along with String Cheese Incident, Disco Biscuits, Medeski Martin and Wood,” and more.

Over the years, groups associated with the scene “will pop in and out of mainstream pop culture,” Luba says, pointing to Rusted Root and the Spin Doctors. But many of the acts in this space were overlooked, if not dismissed outright, by the mainstream music industry, in part because they didn’t generate chart hits or millions of streams, even as they moved lots of tickets. Nick Stern, whose management client Karina Rykman is “jam adjacent,” contends that the jam scene is “the most looked down-upon genre in the music business.” 

For some artists, that gives it an inherent underdog appeal: “I’m interested in things that are unfashionable,” Vampire Weekend lead singer Ezra Koenig told The New York Times Magazine in 2020. He also noted that he finds Phish “more inspiring, forward-thinking, exciting and talented than a lot of what was higher up in the cool hierarchy;” Vampire Weekend recently hopped on stage with Goose, the new arena-filling stars of the jam scene. 

Jam acts may also be benefitting from the catholic tastes fostered in the streaming era — as DiCianni puts it, listeners’ interests are now “less compartmentalized.” And artists and managers in the jam band scene posit that its emphasis on being present, in the moment, with a like-minded community for an ever-changing live experience offers an increasingly potent antidote to the distracted, frenetic, nichified, social media-driven world. 

But there’s another reason why the mainstream music industry is increasingly interested in jam acts. “People outside the jam band space are coming to me almost in awe of the fandom in this scene,” says Ben Baruch, Goose’s other co-manager. 


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In interviews over the last six months, many of the most powerful executives in music have talked up the importance of cultivating “superfans.” Despite music’s popularity, it is poorly monetized compared to spaces like gaming. This is partially because the music streaming model currently offers artists few ways to foster meaningful connections with followers. Jam bands have been doing this for decades — perhaps because they didn’t get much support from the traditional industry, and have never depended on record sales or streaming. 

Jam band devotees are impressively diligent about attending shows, buying merchandise, and streaming live performances, which change nightly. “They almost treat their favorite bands like a sports team, where they’re following along with what happens in every moment in every show,” says Ethan Berlin, who is co-agent for Goose, Pigeons and Rykman, among others. “They’re so invested — for years.” 

And these fans have long had “ears that are a mile wide,” according to Rykman. At a time when the walls between the jam world and the rest of the music industry appear more porous, jam enthusiasts have flexed their muscles to help propel some artists from adjacent worlds to greater heights. 

Take Billy Strings: The versatile guitarist and songwriter, now signed to Warner’s Reprise Records, has picked up Grammy nominations for Best American Roots Performance and Best Country Duo/Group Performance; he won the award for Best Bluegrass Album in 2021. At the same time, Strings has played with Bill Kreutzmann (a founding member of the Dead), String Cheese Incident and Goose, among others. He saw “there’s another whole world where traditional bluegrass can actually cross over and be accepted,” Luba says. Strings’ current tour includes multiple arenas. 

Berlin is also the agent for Khruangbin, a trio whose dreamy instrumental grooves now attract 10,000 to 25,000 tickets per market; Berlin describes them as “not quite jam, maybe not even jam-adjacent, but definitely jam-friendly.” Notably, “they were embraced by that scene early in their career, ” he continues. “One of the first looks they had outside of Houston, where they’re from, was when they were invited to play Lockn’ Festival [one of the leading jam gatherings] in 2016.” 

For Rykman, whose 2023 debut album featured guitar from Phish co-founder Trey Anastasio, this is one of “the beautiful things about the jam space.” “Myself, Khruangbin, Vulfpeck, we’re not jam bands with capital J’s — none of us play two sets, we still play three-minute songs,” she continues. “But jam band fans were early” to signal appreciation. 

Similarly minded artists — what Rykman calls “singular groovy organisms” — might also want to court this community — music-loving superfans hiding in plain sight who can help them build the sort of formidable live business that ensures a long career. Another one of Baruch’s management clients is the Disco Biscuits; in the past 18 months, he says “they’re growing more than they have in 20 years.” 

“What musician wouldn’t want that level of diehard fan?” Berlin asks.