July 15, 2004
by BOB DORAN
IT'S NOT LIKELY THAT THOSE WHO EXPERIENCED THE first String Cheese Incident performances (aka "incidents"), back in the winter of '03, would have thought of the band as ambitious. At the time they were rag tag ski bums playing mutant bluegrass in Colorado ski lodges to make enough money to pay for the next day's rope-tow fees.
"We were never a bluegrass band in the strict sense," said SCI bass player Keith Moseley, calling from his home near band headquarters in Boulder. "From the beginning we had drums and an electric bass. We played some bluegrass, some originals that Billy [Nershi] had written, and we played whatever cover tunes we could come up with, from the Neville Brothers to the Grateful Dead to David Grisman, whatever we were fans of. Of course, it's evolved quite a bit since then."
SCI has evolved in more ways than one; in fact, the band has built a small but ambitious empire: SCI's parent company, Madison House Inc., handles booking and management services for String Cheese and other bands. Then there's the record label, SCI Fidelity, plus SCI Gear with merch for SCI and "Friends of the Cheese." Madison House Publicity deals with the requisite PR, while Madison House Design produces poster and album art. Madison House Travel arranges airline tickets and accommodations for those following the band on international "incidents" or even a show like the one Friday night at Benbow Lake. SCI Ticketing offers concert tickets, and not just for String Cheese shows, but also for Spearhead, Steve Kimock Band, Keller Williams, Ozomatli and others.
In part because SCI charges lower service fees, the ticket sales operation put the band at odds with the largest ticketing operation in the world, Ticketmaster, which had an exclusive agreement with Clear Channel, the behemoth that controls most venues in the United States. When Ticketmaster invoked that exclusivity to cut SCI Ticketing out of the business, the band filed suit -- and won.
"We have reached an agreement, and we are happy to announce that we are selling tickets again," said Moseley. "[Our] agreement allows us to sell a good amount of tickets to all of our shows, and once again at a better price than what they were offering and providing better service."
While it would appear SCI has achieved a high level of success, Moseley contends, "It's all relative. We're still way below the radar as far as the big scale is concerned."
In fact, the jam scene is moving toward larger scale concerts. SCI was one of the bands playing the recent jam rock summit, Bonnaroo, where attendance was over 100,000. And until recently, the band was preparing for a summer of large shows headlining Perry Farrell's alternative music fest, Lollapalooza, alongside Wilco, Sonic Youth and the Flaming Lips. Unfortunately the tour was canceled abruptly, just before it was set to begin.
"It's just too bad that it didn't work out, but the promoters and booking agents decided to pull the plug based on soft ticket sales," said Moseley. "We'll have a great summer anyway. We've already played to huge crowds at Bonnaroo and at our sold-out festival at Horning's Hideout, and we're looking at a sold-out weekend at Red Rocks with the Allman Brothers.
"It's funny, we were scheduled to be the headliner for Lollapalooza: Day 2, closing the show, and I'd read about it in Rolling Stone or Entertainment Weekly, and they'd say `Day 2, headlined by the Flaming Lips, Gomez, Polyphonic Spree -- and also String Cheese Incident.' So to a lot of mainstream press we're still a big question mark."
In part that's because, by choice, the band has chosen a track to success that bypasses major labels, radio and TV.
"We've been outside the normal paradigm of things for about 10 years now, since the beginning," said Moseley. "We're not an MTV band and we probably won't get much radio play. We decided long ago that we were going to establish our fan base via touring, to take it to the people, and try to establish a relationship with our fans based on getting in front of them over and over again."
When it came time to record, once again the band chose to sidestep the mainstream. "Back in '96 and '97, when we started touring nationally, we were playing a lot of festivals. We spent a lot of time talking with various bands about their record deals -- what was working for them, what wasn't working, about what it was like to be on a major label. About 90 percent of them were unhappy with the deals they had, with the situations they were in.
"So we decided way back then, `Let's try to do it a little differently. Let's start our own label.' That way we retain artistic control of what we do and decide how and when we tour. We didn't want to work for someone who has a marketing angle on how to promote our band. We wanted the choices left up to us."
And again, the choice has proved ambitious. The SCI Fidelity label does far more than release SCI's studio recordings. They handle records by Keller Williams, Karl Denson and other jam bands and recently released the latest by rock icon Stevie Winwood, a veteran who has worked for a number of majors. "He was interested in doing something a bit more organic," said Moseley, "and we were proud and thrilled to have him as part of SCI Fidelity."
The band also encourages the ever-burgeoning tape trading scene -- and for those who don't have the means to get into it, they conceived SCI On the Road, a sub-label that offers complete recordings of every SCI show since spring 2002, more than 130 recording so far, either as triple-disc CDs, or as Web downloads.
"We've tried to develop a relationship with the audience -- making the music readily available is part of that -- and I think it's paid off in terms of a loyal, committed fan base," Moseley said. "We hope to see some of them when we come out to California this week."
String Cheese Incident performs Friday, July 16, at Benbow Lake State Park, in a benefit for the Humboldt Green Genes' initiative banning genetically engineered crops. Tickets $35, $30 in advance. Gates at 5 p.m. with local rockers N*P*K and DJ Andreas opening at 5:30; SCI hits the stage at 8 and plays 'til 11 p.m. For concert info, call People Productions: 923-4599. For more on SCI, see www.stringcheeseincident.com. For initiative details: www.growgmofree.org.
© Copyright 2003, North Coast Journal, Inc.