At the risk of drawing the ire of the many fans of the Dave Matthews Band, I have a confession to make: I have never fully understood DMB’s mass appeal.
That’s not to say I have no respect for Dave Matthews or his crew. I’ve heard their music, and I’ve seen them play live, and they are consummate musicians. The music is intelligent and complex, and the band certainly knows how to set up a jam. I guess I’m just one of those people who has never gotten the vibe. I’ve never heard a Dave Matthews song that I keep singing in my head after the song stops playing. No hooks—at least any that I can remember. I’ve tried to be a fan, honest—I’m just not.
And yet, say what I might, you can’t argue with the fact that DMB continues to sell plenty of records and play sold-out shows year after year. Just two days after the release of their latest effort Away From the World, the new record is currently the top downloaded album on iTunes. Obviously, this band is speaking to someone, if not directly to me. I have to respect that.
At the same time, it’s also obvious that DMB’s popularity with fans isn’t coming through the typical channels. After all, this is the Age of the Single, and most bands and artists nowadays are using singles to grow their fan base and get people to buy their records. By contrast, while DMB tops album downloads on iTunes, you currently have to scroll down to Number 82 on the iTunes singles charts to find a Dave Matthews song. Obviously, DMB is an album band, not a single band. So their appeal has to be coming from other avenues.
That being said, it’s apparent that while not following the beaten path, Dave Matthews Band has done some things right in building up a solid fan base—some things that we music industry enthusiasts could learn from. In my view, here are just a few ideas of what has contributed to DMB’s unlikely appeal.
- They play to their own strengths. Some bands translate better in the recording studio, while some are better live. DMB is definitely the latter, and they seem to be aware of this. So they’ve taken great care to make their live shows the centerpiece of their public presence. A “true” fan of Dave Matthews Band has seen them play live, hopefully more than once, because this is where you get the full experience of their extended jams and outstanding musicianship. The records are almost secondary.
- They have connected to their fans. Perhaps partly as a result of accentuating their live shows, DMB have managed to create more than a fan base—they’ve created a “tribe,” as Seth Godin would put it. The DMB fan base is a community that not only loves the music but shares its values.
- They have encouraged the sharing of their music. This, to me, is a gutsy move. In stark contrast to the artists who carefully guard their music and are offended by actions perceived as “stealing,” DMB actually encourages bootlegging and the sharing of recordings of their live shows—as long as the recordings aren’t sold for profit. This caused a groundswell of interest in the band, especially in their early days, and allowed a lot more people to hear the band in some of their finer moments. In the long run, they’ve sold a lot more music than they would have had they held their music more tightly.
If nothing else, Dave Matthews Band has proven that you don’t have to forge success by following the path trodden by every other successful band or artist. The best thing DMB has done over the years is simply to be who they are, and find and connect with the particular audience that relates to what they are doing. I am not part of that “tribe,” but I can see what DMB has done right—and for that reason, I respect the mass appeal of Dave Matthews Band.
Even if their music doesn’t particularly appeal to me.