Business Unusual

The String Cheese Incident's sunny music has earned it fans all over the world. Its six companies have earned millions.

When the String Cheese Incident began six years ago in Telluride, it was a band with a plan.

"From the very beginning," says SCI bassist Keith Moseley, "we've looked at this as a long-term project, something we wanted to be doing ten or fifteen years down the road. And we realized that to do that, we had to push ourselves creatively, and we also had to make some smart business decisions."

These days, the now-Boulder-based String Cheese Incident is enjoying the rewards of its musical and commercial actions. Last week the band's extended forays into jazz, rock and patchouli-grass landed them headlining shows at Red Rocks and back-to-back nights at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. The last outfit to do a double-header in Telluride's square was the world's most notorious jam-band, the Grateful Dead, which did tag-team shows there in 1987. Meanwhile, SCI's latest release, Carnival 99,has sold an impressive 27,000 units since its release on June 10. But greater, vivid-as-tie-dye proof of SCI's growing appeal can be found in a more astounding number: 3.5 million. That's the number of dollars the String Cheese Incident expects to gross this year, nearly three times their annual revenues in 1999. Not bad for a band that four years ago was treading the low-budget local scene.

"We've taken our creative vision," says SCI mandolinist and violinist Michael Kang, "and aligned it with business so that we can fulfill our creative dream. In life in general, if you can do that, it will hopefully lead to some happiness."

That it has. Today the String Cheese Incident has stretched into a multimillion-dollar enterprise that could make Boulder's gold-rushing Internet startups green with envy. The SCI empire now includes the band, its own management company, a record label and in-house gear and merchandise division. There's also an SCI-run ticketing service and travel agency, set up to accommodate the band's swelling will-travel fans, a group that has followed the band to shows in Mexico, Costa Rica and cities across the United States. SCI also employs a full-time tape archivist who documents and maintains the group's 48-track and DAT recordings from each of its shows. Soon, SCI will open its own publicity wing. All told, the String Cheese enterprise has twenty full-time employees and a handful of interns, all eager to spread the Cheese across the U.S. and around the globe. And you thought your band was doing well?

On a recent morning, two dozen staffers buzz about the SCI offices in the basement level of a Boulder office building. (The upper level hosts What Are Records? -- an imprint that handles artists based in Colorado and around the country.) SCI's recently feng-shuied setting bristles with activity from a largely under-thirty, blue-jean-clad crew. A handful of canines crash or ramble around the offices, evidence of a biweekly "bring your dog to work" office policy. Music and laughter seep out of many of the rooms, but the loose, party-time vibe is balanced by an obvious sense of business purpose and commitment to commerce. And a near-religious zeal for the product at hand.

"You can go to four different shows and hear four different set lists," says staffer Reis Baron, "and fans crave the participatory experience of it. It's not the band shoving this music onto the crowd. It's musical communication and a collective recycling of the crowd's energy and the music that spawns it." Carrie Lombardi, the band's publicist, agrees. "What the String Cheese Incident does so well," she says, "is open themselves to a higher energy. So that the musician becomes a vessel, and the music that they're playing -- they don't own it. They're just delivering it." To those who can't connect with SCI's brand of sound, such talk may seem inspired by sources other than music. But the sentiments come across as testimonials from satisfied employees, not tripping, dreamy fans. "I've witnessed it many times, and that's just the way it is," Baron says of the power of Cheese. "And more people are understanding how huge a concept that is, and that's why we have so many people coming on board."

Baron has a good understanding of just how many people are jumping aboard the SCI ship. He oversees the SCI Web site (stringcheeseincident.com), which has registered more than 2.5 million hits in some months. The site also receives thousands of testimonials from fans so enraptured with the band that they've volunteered as "Pirates" to help push shows in their hometowns. In exchange for free tickets and occasional free merchandise, Pirates get a pack of thirty posters and one hundred handbills to distribute. The volunteer list now includes over 4,000 gratis promoters. "If I can't help, I understand," writes one hopeful Pirate signee via e-mail, "but if I could, I'd love to." Another Pirate writes, "The creations that come from the String Cheese Incident take me to realms beyond. I think I have what it takes to sail the high seas, even if I have to walk the plank." Far out. "We're getting these at a rate of about 200 a week," Baron notes. "It's like an army of positivity."

These volunteers also request SCI songs to their local radio stations and lobby stores to carry SCI CDs. Kevin Morris, an attorney who heads up the SCI Fidelity label and handles legal issues for the band, equates SCI's fan support with that of another group of Cheeseheads. "We're like the Green Bay Packers," says Morris, a youthful man in a Superman T-shirt. "We've given our fans ownership in the band. We involve our fans and give them a sense of responsibility in getting involved. They feel like a part of the family."

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