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  • 06.20.13

9 Lessons From Phish and Insane Clown Posse For Deep Fan Engagement

Pop culture author extraordinaire Nathan Rabin dove deep into the dual worlds of Phish and Insane Clown Posse over the course of two years. He emerged with a book-length portrait of two deeply misunderstood fan bases, and a rare insight into what binds them to the cultural institutions that they love.

9 Lessons From Phish and Insane Clown Posse For Deep Fan Engagement

In their song, “Miracles,” Insane Clown Posse asked a question that ignited the Internet’s fascination: “Fuckin’ magnets–how do they work?” For a brief moment in 2009, there was suddenly nothing more relevant you could do than make fun of two greasepaint-coated horror-core rappers–a group whom those in the know had been making fun of for decades. Author and confirmed pop culture junkie Nathan Rabin, formerly of The A/V Club, was among those getting an ironic jolt out of the band’s seeming lack of self-awareness. Eventually, however, his fascination with them would lose all traces of irony.

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Nathan Rabin

Perhaps the most insane thing about the Insane Clown Posse is how fiercely devoted a fan base they’ve cultivated over the years. Known far and wide as Juggalos, the group’s followers don’t just listen to ICP, they live and breathe and dress it as well. The skeptical Rabin never thought he’d end up standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Juggalos at their annual Gathering, watching Vanilla Ice perform at 4 a.m., but soon enough he was doing exactly that. At the same time, he also found himself drawn to the equally slagged off, but ecstatically worshipped Phish, whose catalog is said to be entirely comprised of one epic noodly guitar solo. Rabin’s interest in the two much-maligned bands led him to follow them around for two years and, among other objectives, figure out what fuels these fans’ unwavering fervor.

You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me is the result of the author’s long, hazy odyssey into the vortex of two deeply misunderstood bands and the communities surrounding them. By going all in–and acquiring some serious debt along the way–Rabin found out more about obsessive devotion than he’d learned in a lifetime of leaning in to pop culture. The author spoke with Co.Create recently to share his rare insight into the type of fan engagement that drives a person to willingly ingest a 45-minute jam session or don clownface.

01. Give Your Fans an Identity.

Insane Clown Posse fans are not just Insane Clown Posse fans, they’re Juggalos. From a branding perspective, that really marks people as being a part of something. Another part of why ICP is such a cultural force, a musical force, and a business force in 2013 is because of the Hatchetman logo. It’s brilliant. It’s like the Apple apple or the Nike swoosh. They found this appealing iconography that they can attach to all of their albums and experiences and ideas. It makes people want to buy merchandise and simultaneously feel closer to the group. That logo played a big role in making them part of a culture and a state of mind.

02. A Sense of Community.

Hatchet Man

With Phish, a community kind of cropped up around them and also descended from the Grateful Dead. After the Dead ended, people who followed them around were looking for something different, and Phish kind of inherited the culture of the deadheads–only they were more goofy and more playful. At the same time, with Insane Clown Posse, being a Juggalo–the whole look of it–sort of marks you indelibly in a visceral kind of way, and it’s a big part of these people’s lives. Their iconography is so striking, it also helps build the community. You see someone else with a Hatchetman tattoo and there’s an instant bond. Having the Gathering each year fosters that sense of community, too. It creates this situation where for five days, Insane Clown Posse is the most popular band in the world and Juggalos are the best people in the world.

03. Give Fans Ownership Of Your Experience Together.

These bands have built themselves up a lot through the Internet–Phish in particular. There’s this whole online world of music trading Phish has harnessed since the 1990s, and they’ve only grown more savvy about it. Now, every time you go to a Phish show, you get a download of the songs you’ve just heard. That is a brilliant, brilliant marketing tool, and it’s great as a fan. It allows you to preserve this experience in amber. Every time it pops up in your iPod, you’re reminded of this world that you enjoy.

Phish

04. Make Enough of a Spectacle and Fans Will Reflect It.

Insane Clown Posse encourage participation with vamping and theatricality, through their performances, and dressing up like clowns. They put on these shows that are vaudevillian extravaganzas, these hellzapoppin, anything-can-happen type events, in which the crowd is a huge part of it. They’re spraying the crowd with soda; there’s interacting and chanting. It almost feels like a revival show or a crazy kids show. You in the audience have to play along. You’re part of the show. It’s like [group cofounder] Violent J says, “We’re Juggalos. We’re not just the creators of this world; we’re fans.” There’s this sort of reflectivity and a symbiotic relationship where Juggalos are pathologically devoted fans and Insane Clown Posse are fans of their fans, and people like me are fans of them both.

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05. Be Transparent; Acknowledge the Artifice.

Violent J is a very savvy businessman insofar as he’s controlled this world for a long time and realizes it would be impossible to maintain the “outlaw transgressive” pose for too long. You kind of just look ridiculous after a while. The idea that this band would be scary psychotic clowns, you give that up after a while. There’s the element of “We are entertainers, and we are performers.” They come from this world of wrestling and Dungeons & Dragons and theatricality. This is a world of make-believe and illusion, and we can all have fun here, but this is a fake world and not reality. It’s a form of escapism that at the same time sort of acknowledges a lot of elements of reality that other forms of escapism do not. It’s a form of escapism that celebrates poverty as opposed to disappearing into this world of incredible wealth–which is something most Juggalos would not only find impossible but kind of offensive.


06. The Irresistible Hook of a Central Mythology.

Gamehenge is just a cool thing to know about Phish. [Ed. note: Gamehenge is a mythic song cycle Phish frontman Anastasio composed as his senior thesis that shows up in several songs in the band’s catalog.) If you go to enough shows, you sort of learn where the pieces of it fit together. With Insane Clown Posse, though, the idea of the Dark Carnival (Ed. note: the fictional world the band operates within) and the Jokers Cards (Ed. note: an overarching statement comprised of the band’s first six albums) was a big part of it from the beginning. Here’s something for the fans that their parents won’t understand.

07. Speak to Fans In Their Own Language.

The funny thing is that as much as Insane Clown Posse is known for sex and drugs and spraying soda on people, there’s also this spiritual thing in the message of the Jokers Cards. It’s appealing to people’s highest ideals, but doing so in a weird grungy way. It’s a matter of speaking to consumers in their own language. It’s like Hell House, we’re going to use the tools of the devil and a sideshow to scare these moral transgressors.

08. There’s Fruit at the Bottom of the Cultural Hierarchy

Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Louie, and Arrested Development are kind of the Whole Foods of the cultural worlds and then at the very bottom of the hierarchy, we have Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, which I think is an interesting thing. I see Insane Clown Posse being kind of similar in how it presents a window into this specific kind of poverty. Honey Boo Boo presents this world of beauty pageants and a redneck girl who’s super sassy, but at the same time is completely owning that. There’s a strange sort of dignity to it, but at the same time Honey Boo Boo has become shorthand for “white trash” or “rednecks.” And oftentimes people form this opinion without watching the show, and they say, That poor child, she’s being abused. Her parents are terrible. Then you watch the show and see this girl’s parents adore her–it’s a very loving household. Yes, she drinks Red Bull and talks a lot, but that doesn’t mean she’s an unhappy person. People who watch the show realize this and root for her even more.


There’s a sort of glamour to being misunderstood and persecuted. Phish are the same way; they’re culturally reviled, but they simultaneously have a certain level of respectability among people who have good taste in music. Trey Anastasio is a technically gifted guitarist and one of the most talented musicians in the world. People sort of respect Phish on some level, even if they’re scoffed at a lot by most people.

9. Niche Acts Invite Continual Discovery From New Fans Over Time.

Both bands have become cultural institutions without ever really breaking the mainstream. Lots of people, if they hear about Phish and ICP, they’re sort of like “I don’t know who these people are.” Priming them to discover their music is a bit difficult. Neither of them have ever had hit singles. At the same time, there’s this idea of ICP, you’re not gonna want to listen to the music from their show because they’re supposed to be terrible and their fans are supposed to be violent, illiterate, and uneducated. And with Phish, you’re not gonna want to go to the shows, because everyone’s going to be playing hackey sack and wearing tie-dye. And they’re going to be playing a three-and-a-half-hour-long jam that’s interminable, and they have to be on incredible amounts of drugs to get anything out of it.

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So there are all these reasons not to go. But there are also all these other reasons to see them live, and that act of indoctrination helps convert new fans. Someone has to get you into these bands and make it their mission to do so. Even Phish’s biggest fans will say that you don’t get the Phish experience from buying the studio albums. You have to go to their shows; you have to listen to them live. They’ve been around forever, but the world isn’t exactly knocking at your door saying, Phish is great! You have to know some crazy person who’s excited to do that for you.

[Image: AP Photo | Joseph Cultice | Flickr user Heather Katsoulis, and Nic Redhead | ICP Fan Photo by Daniel Cronin]

About the author

Joe Berkowitz is a writer and staff editor at Fast Company. His next book, Away with Words, is available June 13th from Harper Perennial.

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