Business Unusual

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

A shopping family, at that. According to Chewy Smith, who monitors sales for SCI Fidelity, "We did about 1,600 total of all of our CDs last week." Now that the band is touring, he says, that number will double or triple.

Husband and wife Brad and Mindy Mastrine, who head up the SCI merchandise machine, report similar smoking sales. Last year the two filled about a hundred orders from SCI fans a month. Today they say they're processing about a hundred orders a week for fans in the U.S., Japan and Canada. The pair sells fifteen different versions of T-shirts, SCI-branded Frisbees, fleece hats and vests and other products that bear the SCI name. They're now marketing a hula hoop that fans can purchase and customize at shows. (The hula hoop has become a symbol for SCI fans and a recurring motif in SCI clothing.) "The music inspires us," Mastrine says, as scented candles burn about the room and illuminate her office in flickering light. "Our goal," Brad says, "is to see the band become huge -- and as a result, all of our companies are going to follow that progression. But the biggest thing is to spread the music." Future items include SCI games and more clothing options. Any plans for a String Cheese Incident cheese? Say, a smoked, string-style Gouda? "Not that we're aware of," Brad chuckles.

For SCI's peers, there's nothing funny about the band's business savvy, which combines practices of the Grateful Dead and other jam bands with new ideas to create a third-generation hybrid business model. "The Dead had a brand-loyal audience for thirty years," says Jeff Pertzborn of the Madison, Wisconsin, booking agency SRO, which books Dead duplicators Dark Star Orchestra and other acts. "But String Cheese, they're brand-thick. With Nike, it's not just shoes -- it's Nike clothes and other things. With String Cheese, it's not just recordings -- it's the shows, the T-shirts, the Web site and taping." Pertzborn says the band's methods have turned heads in the music industry, and he considers the group the high point of DIY operations. "What they've developed is sort of a working-wheel system where all things -- CDs, tickets, travel, publicity -- come back to String Cheese Incident. And why not think of a band as an organization and a commodity and plan all that?"

To some Dead fans, that kind of thinking is enough to unravel one's dreadlocks, a corporate mentality that shatters the '60s-based thinking that permeates jam-band culture. Is this an evil co-opting of the Dead's original, organic approach?

"Co-opting, my ass," says David Gans, a Dead expert of the highest order. He produced the late band's latest boxed set, So Many Roads, and hosts the syndicated Grateful Dead Hour, which airs on ninety radio stations around the country, including 88.5 FM/KGNU in Boulder. "I can't see anything at all wrong with learning from the Grateful Dead's brilliance and mistakes." He says those who think the Dead's operation was some whole-earth, altruistic system are mistaken. "The last seven years of the Grateful Dead's existence," he says, "were plagued by clueless people that came on board because they saw this unsupervised party happening and this unfettered commerce going on in the parking lots. They became parasites on that scene, people who hung around waiting for someone to bestow a free ticket on them, who soaked up resources, broke the law and caused a lot of problems in the meantime. String Cheese is taking great pains to see that its scene doesn't degenerate the way the Grateful Dead's did. String Cheese is very smart, and a lot of Deadheads are happy to be a part of their family."

Jeremy Stein is one of the heads of the SCI family. Formerly a promoter in Telluride, he joined forces with String Cheese's booking agency, Madison House, a Georgia-based outfit run by Nadia Prescher and Mike Luba, in 1996. The three relocated to Boulder that year. Stein, a clean-cut 28-year-old, now helps direct Madison House Management, which also books Galactic, Karl Denison's Tiny Universe and Keller Williams. He attributes his outfit's business achievements to "a lot of great people working with a lot of positive energy." He says his employees (who receive health benefits and perks of travel to SCI shows) are apt to spend twelve hours a day working because they believe in what they're doing.

So how much of the fan boost can be attributed to these efforts and how much to the band's music?

"I'd say it's a half-and-half thing," Stein says. He credits Madison House's progress with fresh thinking that ignores the standard record-company approaches. "People are tired of being spoon-fed a particular type of music by record companies and radio stations," he says. "The way things are being done is absolutely changing, and the record industry is falling apart. And they need to adjust for it, because people like us can do it ourselves now." He says the Internet has become the group's primary tool in gaining ground, since it allows the band to shape its own messages while communicating directly with its fans. "There are still people in their forties and fifties running organizations that don't really understand how to use the Internet," Stein says of his major-label peers. "They think they do, but they don't really get it. We have a lot of people here who grew up using computers, and they know how to use the information. We're influencing people through the Internet." In return, he says, SCI is able to plant "deeper, thicker grassroots that don't exist anywhere else."

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