In a letter addressed to Phish fans that were told not to enter the concert grounds for the bands final shows as part of the Coventry festival, band mananger John Paluska issued the below statement. Holders of unripped tickets will be a entitled to a free download (including the soundcheck) through livephish.com of the entire weekend in either mp3 or FLAC format. In addition, the band will be collaborating with longtime photographer Danny Clinch to create a special photo book. The book will feature Danny’s photos of the band spanning from 1994 to the present, including many unpublished shots. Each copy will be signed by the band. These books are being created specifically for those who missed the Coventry shows and will never be sold or available in any other way.
August 23, 2004
This letter is addressed to all of you who didn’t make it in to the Coventry shows. It’s also addressed to those of you who did attend the shows but experienced great difficulties in the process of doing so. I have spent most of the last few days reading hundreds of emails from heartbroken, angry fans and trying to make sense of how things went the way they did in Coventry. I’ve also printed them out and shared them with the band. My goal with this letter is to set the facts straight. In my fifteen years of managing the band, I’ve never issued any kind of statement directly to fans; but, based on my central role in Coventry’s planning and execution, I feel most qualified to write to you now. Given the huge hardship and disappointment many of you experienced last weekend, you deserve not only an apology but a thorough explanation of what happened.
As I write this letter, I am struck by how ironic this situation is. My mind drifts back to the Clifford Ball and the spirit that brought that weekend to life. Having outgrown nearby Sugarbush, we set about finding a larger space to accommodate a weekend camping festival in or near Vermont. After accidentally stumbling on the Plattsburgh Air Force Base (we had gone there to look at another site), our plans quickly grew more ambitious. What if we created a brand new style of festival, where people were treated with care and respect – one that celebrated not just the band’s music but the creativity of a community of artists and fans? A festival that flew in the face of everything we disliked about “regular” concert venues.
What happened that weekend in Plattsburgh exceeded everyone’s wildest expectations and along the way a blueprint was created. With each festival that followed we tried to raise the bar a notch on every level – our goal was to go out of our way to make it a special experience for fans. And in the process we learned an amazing lesson – that taking this approach provided the band and festival staff with a great sense of fulfillment and satisfaction.
Over the years, the band has often spoken about the importance of intent in music. I’ve always interpreted that as meaning that people will be moved if you play from the heart. On a similar note, we have always “played from the heart” in putting on these festivals. I want each and every one of you to know that our intent has always been pure and remains so. When we wrote “Our intent is all for your delight” on the entry gate to the IT concert venue last year, we meant it.
Fast forward to 2004. When we first visited the site in April 2004, the grounds were just showing signs of spring, with some lingering drifts of snow here and there. We drove around the site and marveled at the stability of the ground – muddy in some spots, but surprisingly well drained given the wetness of the season. We spoke with local farmers who have farmed these lands for many years and they told us they routinely drive large trucks around the cornfields during the August harvest. They told us that mid-August is a very dry part of their summer, and that they never had problems driving on the land that time of year. Our weather research confirmed that typical August rainfall in the Newport area was well within acceptable limits.
However, as July rolled along, it became clear that we were experiencing exceptionally wet weather. Nearby Burlington was nearly 300% above normal rainfall for the month. Though the grounds were soft as we headed into August, we moved forward with confidence that we’d get the drying cycle we needed. The first part of August included a number of good drying days. Work was moving along well and spirits were high. As we headed into the home stretch the grounds continued to improve.
I want to note that we went to great lengths this year to improve the traffic/parking situation from recent fests. We hired two parking companies (we’d always used one in the past) and dramatically increased the number of parking staff. We laid out the entire 600 acre site into painted grids so as to maximize the space we had. We chose to open a full day earlier than in past years in order to allow more time for people to get settled. We acquired additional pieces of neighboring land as a further contingency. By our most conservative estimates (based on data from past festivals) we had significantly more land than we would need under normal conditions. Everything seemed in place. In fact, we felt more thoroughly and conservatively prepared than we had felt before any previous festival.
Going into Thursday and Friday, the forecast called for possible showers each day. Throughout the summer we’ve been experiencing isolated bands of intense showers – sometimes the forecast will call for rain and it will miss us completely, other times the forecast will be a 20% chance of showers and we’ll get hit with a couple inches of rain in an hour. As it turned out, on Thursday and Friday we received nearly three inches of rain, much of it in the form of torrential downpours. Roads were washed out and we were suddenly faced with losing a good portion of our camping terrain. Huge areas that had been solid enough for camping a day earlier were now saturated with water. We struggled to move cars in, often abandoning large sections of land soon after we started parking them and seeking drier ground. Our main access road from the tollbooths required regular maintenance and this slowed the flow of traffic into the campground.
We soon realized that we had two big problems. The first was that we weren’t bringing cars in at a fast enough rate. The second was that it was almost irrelevant how fast they were coming in because we had lost so much parkable terrain. We did everything in our power to improve the flow of cars into the campground. We mobilized a large team of local farmers and their tractors to assist cars into their spaces and pull out stuck cars. We brought in numerous truckloads of gravel and built new roads and shored up existing ones. None of these actions improved the flow in any significant way. At our best we were processing 500 cars per hour, less than half of our normal average from past events.
Late Thursday, the decision was made to ask those of you who hadn’t already headed to Coventry to delay your trip until Saturday morning. We already had considerable traffic backed up and it was flowing in at a slow pace. We knew anyone arriving at the back of the line of traffic on Interstate 91 would wait until Saturday to get to the site anyway, so we were simply trying to save you the trouble of waiting in your car for that whole time. We knew that Saturday’s weather would be better and bring with it the possibility of regaining camping terrain. When we made that announcement, we did so with the hope and intention that it would save those of you who hadn’t yet left considerable frustration and that it would ultimately allow us to park the campground more effectively.
We started exploring satellite parking scenarios with the State Police. All the neighboring fields were in similar shape, so we focused on the few solid options we had. We visited a nearby gravel pit but it was too small. We explored the possibility of closing down sections of road (rt. 191 in Newport, for instance) and “stadium parking” cars, but none of the options we looked at could possibly accommodate the volume of cars still left to be parked.
We realized that we had run out of options as the rain continued to pour down. At 4 am Saturday morning festival co-producer Dave Werlin and I met with Vermont’s Commissioner of Public Safety to discuss the situation. The Commissioner told us that, given the condition of the grounds and the pace we were bringing cars in, the backup on I-91 was quickly becoming a crisis situation. He told us we were faced with two choices – either cancel the concert completely or start turning cars around. Dave and I told him that we felt confident that we could park the cars that had exited I-91 by first light Saturday morning, but couldn’t guarantee anything beyond that. We were also closely watching Hurricane Charley as it moved up the coast. Several models pointed to the possibility of heavy wind and rains on Sunday and the Commissioner and the State Police all expressed strong fears about the impact that possible weather event could have on things (in keeping with the unpredictable weather, the storm luckily ended up missing us). Nonetheless, we all agreed that canceling the concert at that point wasn’t the right decision. We had nearly 30,000 people on site who had endured considerable hardship already, many of whose cars were stuck in the mud.
So the Commissioner notified the commanding officers that they should formulate a plan to start turning cars around immediately. I convened a meeting with the band to apprise them of the situation. Mike volunteered to meet Sgt. Melendy from the VT State Police at the radio station to record the announcement. I felt horrible standing in the radio station as the announcements aired for the first time. I want to emphasize to you that once the situation was deemed a matter of public safety we needed to abide by the decisions made by public authorities and the State Police. This is a crucial point. I’m not in any way trying to paint them in a negative light, for nothing could be further from the truth. Throughout this whole ordeal they were calm, focused and clearly understood the emotional gravity of the situation. But in the end, their decisions were based on what they felt was in the best interest of public safety, and we respected their need to make the decisions they did.
A large number of you chose to ignore their requests to turn around and instead parked your cars on I-91 or secondary roads and walked to the site. The police realized that from a public safety viewpoint it would not be advisable to try and turn around those of you coming in on foot. From our point of view, we wanted as many of you as possible to see the concert, and certainly weren’t going to turn around people holding tickets. We were in a maddening bind. While we would have liked to alert those of you who turned around or hadn’t approached the Newport area yet that people were parking their cars on the side of the roads and walking to the site, our hands were tied by legitimate public safety concerns.
A frustration expressed in many of your emails is that those of you who followed instructions every step of the way ended up with the short end of the stick, while those who didn’t heed our requests ended up getting in to see the show. And that on top of that, the band expressed their appreciation to those of you who parked your cars on the road and walked in. I can completely understand how many of you who turned around (or never left your houses) are angry about this, and I’m deeply sorry that things went the way they did. I’ve tried to explain our intent and the underlying circumstances the best I can. We never stopped wanting all of you to make it to the site, but once it became a matter of public safety it was out of our hands.
Another common frustration expressed in your emails regards our decision to sell some tickets at the gate after announcing in advance that we wouldn’t be doing so. We had to reposition so many security and parking personnel due to the extraordinary weather situation that we realized we didn’t have the resources to efficiently turn away ticketless fans, particularly those in cars where some passengers had tickets. Turning cars around is a time-consuming and tedious process and we made a spot decision that the flow of cars into the campground was the priority. In the end, it was a good decision. We only sold approximately 1000 tickets at the gate in total, and the vast majority of those were to people in cars where some already had tickets.
The symbiotic relationship between the band and all of you has always been at the heart of what makes the Phish experience so special. These festivals came into being out of the band’s respect and gratitude toward their fans. It’s been the same core group of people producing every Phish festival since the Clifford Ball, and we’ve always tried to embody the band’s gratitude toward all of you in our work. The last thing any of us wanted in the band’s final hour was to leave some of our most dedicated fans feeling angry and disillusioned. The fact that Coventry was the band’s last show only intensified all of these feelings.
In the end, after reviewing all the events of Coventry in my mind, I don’t second guess any of the key decisions that were made. We were dealt some extreme conditions by Mother Nature and we made the best of a very difficult situation. All of you were incredibly patient and considerate in the face of these trying circumstances. The locals are still talking about how courteous and friendly the fans were to them. People worked together. Our staff worked long hours on little sleep and under immense pressure, yet never wavered from the task at hand. I wish things had turned out differently, but I’m proud of the job we all did.
Any of you still holding unripped tickets are entitled to a full refund. Please visit the Phish web site for more details on the refund process. We will also be offering each person holding an unripped ticket a free download (including the soundcheck) through livephish.com of the entire weekend in either mp3 or FLAC format. We’ll be announcing full details regarding the free downloads this week. In addition, the band will be collaborating with longtime photographer Danny Clinch to create a special photo book. The book will feature Danny’s photos of the band spanning from 1994 to the present, including many unpublished shots. Each copy will be signed by the band. These books are being created specifically for those of you who missed the Coventry shows and will never be sold or available in any other way. It will take a number of weeks to get these books printed, signed and shipped, but we will get them to you as quickly as we can.
Many of your emails used the term “bittersweet” to describe your experience. This certainly applies just as well to myself, the band members, and the other festival planners. In the end, despite the weather, the festival took place and Phish played their final show. That many fans were so terribly inconvenienced and unable to attend Coventry is heartbreaking to me, the band, and everyone else involved in producing this event. Please understand that we did the best we could in the face of unpredictable and extraordinary circumstances.
Please note that event co-producer Dave Werlin has also issued a statement, posted at www.greatnortheast.com.