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."

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."

The same could be said of the SCI machine. "No one's getting rich here," says Brooks Elliott, SCI's tape cataloguer who supplements his pay by doing maintenance work in the SCI offices. "But I don't really care at this point, because I'm so dialed into this job that it's not a concern for me." His goal is to fill the holes in the String Cheese tape catalogue. "It's become a mission for me; I want to complete the puzzle," he says. "I'm possessed." A few doors away, two smiling staffers are fielding calls from String Cheese fans looking for accommodations for their next Incident. (Madison House Travel also books travel arrangements for Leftover Salmon, Leo Kottke, Chuck Morris Presents and others.) In another room, a staffer is cheerfully taking ticket orders. Down the hall, David Hamilton is angling for radio time for String Cheese, trying to place SCI songs and taped interviews on non-commercial specialty shows around the country. "It's a cool family atmosphere here," Hamilton says. "And I like the sense of keeping the machine rolling, away from The Man and Ticketmaster and things like that."

"We could have been a great band that nobody ever heard of," says Kang of his band's approach, "but we took an active role in finding the right people to help us promote ourselves and avoid that. But the heart of all of it is still the music and what we create as musicians. The business helps us create our destiny and do what we want to do, but ultimately, it depends on us being vital creatively."

"It's been a big commitment, our touring and reinvesting and sacrifice," says Moseley. "But now, here we are six and half years down the line, and we're starting to enjoy some of the fruits of our labor. We're not getting rich, but we're playing some nice venues, selling some nice records and feeling like we're pretty established at this point."

That assessment is sure to sound like severe understatement to working musicians and struggling businesspeople. But if Moseley and his bandmates are downplaying SCI's successes, the band's staffers aren't. Prior to the Telluride gigs, Jesse Aratow spent his days dealing with law-enforcement agencies and city leaders there, troubleshooting to make sure the two sold-out shows went smoothly. He convinced the National Forest Service to open up a closed campground outside the town so that fans would have an "all String Cheese campground" to camp in between shows. The site, Aratow notes, is the same spot where one of the band's members once lived in a van while earning cash playing Telluride sidewalks and small bars. Cheeseheads looking for space there this time around will have to buy a site through the band's travel service. It's an irony that's not lost on Aratow, who once crashed in that same spot with his current employers.

"I know where all this is going. It's going like this," Aratow says, arching his hand straight into the air. "We're on a rocket ship."

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