The next Artist Interview Project installment features Adam Davidoff, the artist behind Outside the Tube Designs. The first part of this post includes a student’s reflective summary. It is followed by the full interview text.
Learn more about the Artist Interview Project course assignment in Dr. Jenkins’ introduction to the series. You can follow the Philosophy School of Phish on Facebook, Twitter (@phishedu), and the course’s public website.
Find more information about Adam Davidoff’s art on the Outside the Tube Designs website.
As part of a philosophy class assignment, I had the great opportunity to interview the creator of Outside the Tube Designs (formerly known as Phish Coins), Adam Davidoff. A devoted artist and Phish phan, Adam designs coins that are a manifestation of his commitment to Phish. My interview with Adam Davidoff was fascinating. He had so many wonderful stories to tell about his history as a Phish phan. I suppose that’s what happens when you see a band 277 times in 23 years!
My interview with Adam set out to accomplish a few key things. First, I wanted to know how he defines art and beauty. Second, I asked what inspired him to create Phish memorabilia. Finally, I wanted to know why Adam was so drawn to the Phish community.
Adam described art and beauty as highly subjective. With regard to his work, he said, “There are more people who don’t like what I am doing than do, but I am defined as an artist by the people who do connect with my visions.” This is an interesting statement, because it shows that Adam understands art as something that is defined by the standards of a particular community. I think philosopher Immanuel Kant would agree with Adam. In his book, The Critique of Judgment, he says, “If we wish to discern whether anything is beautiful or not, we do not refer the representation of it to the object by means of understanding with a view to cognition, but by means of the imagination (acting perhaps in conjunction with understanding) we refer the representation to the subject and its feeling of pleasure or displeasure.” Taste, as aesthetic judgment, is subjective.
Next, I wanted to know what inspired Adam to create Phish memorabilia. His main inspiration was his love for the band itself. The idea for the coin came from the Batman 2 movie with Tommy Lee Jones who played the character of Two-Face. Davidoff said, “He would carry a flipping coin in his pocket to make difficult decisions with, and it reminded me of a tradition that had fallen to the wayside culturally. I thought that Phish phans might like to have a cool coin to flip when life threw a difficult decision at them.” This idea relates well to John Drabinski’s essay, “The Everyday Miracle of the Occasional Community.” In the reading, Drabinski analyzes the community around the Grateful Dead band. He says the Grateful Dead scene has its own style of dress, common social vision, and of course common interests and music taste. This can be compared to the Phish community and many other scenes of music types and more. Davidoff knew that Phish provided people with a community, and Phish Coins were another way to bring people together over Phish.
Lastly, I was very interested in learning why Adam is so drawn to the Phish community after so many years. He said, “I am drawn to Phish music because it is unpredictable, and the possibilities are endless.” One of the things that makes Phish unique is the band’s ability to create completely different shows time after time. Phish phans are always kept guessing and never know what to expect at shows. Adam also said that he is drawn to Phish for the social reasons. When talking about the Phish community, he said, “Humans are very communal and social creatures, and like to be a part of something bigger than the individual. It is rewarding to share something special with others who feel the same way.” He believes that everyone has inner needs that must be fulfilled by something; for him, it is Phish. In a post on the blog Mr. Miner’s Phish Thoughts, entitled “Why We Come Back,” the authors identify the true reason of why phans are so devoted to Phish. They argue it is not for the obvious reasons one might suspect, such as for the music and adventure, to see friends, for the community, etc. It is something more purposeful and spiritual that brings phans back. “The common thread that binds all Phish fans together is a desire for the transcendence of self and a communion with the collective unconscious” (Cohen & Greenberg, 2012). In other words, one’s own sense of importance shrinks as they join a force greater than themselves at a Phish concert.
My interview with Adam Davidoff demonstrates the significance of art and community, which is a core theme in our course readings. Phish Coins is just one of the many ways that the Phish community is brought together by common interests. This interview also showed how art and community come together over Phish. Davidoff did a great job of explaining how Phish music is so powerful and influential that it has inspired a complex community. The length and details of Adam’s answers in the interview are a testament to his passion for Phish. I believe Adam would strongly agree with Nietzsche’s claims about music. For Nietzsche, “music draws all dimensions of life together” (Higgins, 2003). Nietzsche sees music as essential to our experiencing a fulfilling life. The focal point of music to his philosophy illustrates just how important music is to human life.
What inspired you to create Phish memorabilia?
Quite simply, it was my love for the band and its music that inspired me, but there is more to the story. It all actually started in early 2000 when I was watching the Batman 2 movie with Tommy Lee Jones playing the character of Two-Face. He would carry a flipping coin in his pocket to make difficult decisions with, and it reminded me of a tradition that had fallen to the wayside culturally. I thought that Phish phans might like to have a cool coin to flip when life threw a difficult decision at them. Thus was born my original coin, the Maze/Bowie Coin. This coin was intended to symbolize the state of limbo in a live concert setting when the band was clearly going into one of these two Phish songs. They both start out with an ambient vibe that works its way into either Maze or David Bowie, but it isn’t clear until the bassist starts the bass line (Maze) or the drummer starts hitting the high hats (David Bowie).
This was the beginning of what would over the next decade become a run of over 20+ items. The Maze/Bowie Coin to this day has been the most popular coin of mine, and I have sold over 1,500 of them. But what started in 2000 as a concept got placed on the back burners because Phish took a 1.5-year hiatus in October of 2000 before I had a chance to make the coin. When they came back for the 2002-2003 NYE Run, I had actually forgotten about the idea until a friend asked me about it. I debuted the coin in Las Vegas in April of 2004, unfortunately just weeks before Phish announced that they were quitting for good at the end of the Summer Tour of 2004. Bad timing for me I guess…
How and where do you make the coins?
I design my coins often at first with a simple concept sketch, and then begin to work on the computer. I actually don’t just use Photoshop. I also use “Paintbrush” and even the Apple image preview tool as each program has small features that I like. I then save my designs as a .png file and go from there. I do not make the coins myself, it would be too labor intensive for the $20 price tag that they have, and people simply won’t pay too much for memorabilia so the $20 price point has stuck since 2004 and I still sell the coins for $20 today. No inflation! I use a company in California called Emblematics that takes my designs and then has them rendered in 3-D onto a casted mold that then gets shrunk down to coin size and pressed in Die Struck Brass with a zinc alloy plating on top. I think one of my favorite aspects to the design phase of a coin or other item is the fact that the entire time I am making a memorabilia piece for a special run of shows, I am ANTICIPATING that run and looking forward to it. It gets me even more excited for it, and when I hit lots at shows with my items, it is a chance for me to legitimize my design and feel the love so to speak when people tell me how much they love my design. This is largely an ego game for me. It feels good to make something that other people love!
Is this a business you work on alone?
It is a business of sorts, but it is a one-man show (me). It is just my designs, and the people at Emblematics involved. When I get the coins delivered, my email goes out to my list of over 1200 people who have bought coins in the past, and off the coins go! This is the online side of my business, but I also sell a lot of coins on the lot at the many shows that I go to. I like to hit 10-20 shows a year, but as a husband and father of two, I can’t hit as many shows as I did in my 20’s, so it is a struggle to keep myself out there spreading the coin love! I used to call myself simply Phish Coins, but in 2013 Phish started minting coins themselves for shows (stealing my good idea) so I have started to try to think “Outside the Tube” to create new unique types of memorabilia that other people don’t think of. Poker Chips, super balls, wooden nickels, stickers, etc. The name Outside the Tube is a play on the phrase to think “Outside the Box” but with a reference to the original music memorabilia of concert posters (which go in a tube to protect them).
Since Phish is likely to do coins for any given run, it has been a tough path in the last couple of years, because I have gotten a bit gun shy regarding making a coin because if Phish makes a coin for a run of shows and I do to, it would be disastrous for my sales. Competing with official merchandise is a losing battle. I wish that Phish had asked me to design their official coins for them, but they use some of their existing poster artists for coin designing, which hurts a bit, but they don’t owe me anything. When Phish returned to the stage in 2009 after their 2004 breakup, I was ready to go again, but this time I started to choose one hot run each tour to make a commemorative coin for. This was always the obviously high demand run of the tour. 2009 Hampton Reunion, 2009 Summer 4 night run at Red Rocks, etc. But always one coin a tour. Now that Phish is in the coin game, I have shifted back to making song themed coins like the original Maze/Bowie Coin. This is something that I do not see Phish doing.
What is your favorite coin you have created and why?
The Maze/Bowie Coin, because it is a blend of Phishiness, and real world life. It is one of the few coins that has a story behind it that goes beyond the songs themselves, and it is highly symbolic. Symbolism and history are a big part of my designs, which is why I think they appeal to the more hardcore phans.
When did you start Phish Coins?
While I now call myself “Outside the Tube Designs” the idea of the Phish Coins began in early 2000, but officially began in April of 2004 on the Las Vegas Run, just months before the band called it quits for good (until they reunited in 2009 at Hampton Coliseum in Virginia).
How many Phish shows have you been to?
I have seen 277 shows, and began seeing the band on 12/1/92 in my hometown of Granville, OH at Denison University. My stated goal for years now has been to see 365 shows before they call it quits. I have not missed a show in any of the years since then that they have played shows. My biggest year was 1998 when I saw 31 shows in a single year, but I know people who have seen well over 300-400 shows, and there is one phan called “Antelope Greg” who has allegedly seen the band over 700 times! He’s always on the rail right between Trey ands Page, and when I say always, I mean always…
What is your role in the Phish community as an artist?
My role is best described as an obsessive phan who puts out one item each tour that is sought after by several people, many of who have been on board digging my designs since near the beginning. I am always trying to bring more people into my “web” as I call it. It is all about exposure. I need to be at as many shows as I can get to, so that people encounter my work on the lot. People buy a coin and show it to their friends, and they might want it too. I am just one of many lot artists who create unique items honoring certain shows, or the music itself. But like I said, I am one of many. Most seem to be doing pins, some do shirts, others make posters, but I am kind of lucky because I seem to have my own little niche. Two other phans have minted coins over the years, but mine are more popular, and I am the original coin guy. There is another phan who rode my coat tails on the Poker Chip idea, but his designs are far inferior to mine, and he only actually made my items look more appealing.
When Phish started minting commemorative coins, I must’ve gotten over 50 texts within minutes when they tweeted their debut coin, which was for the Bangor, ME show in 2013. People were asking me if it was my design, but most knew that Phish had jacked my great idea and made it their own. So I have a pretty solid niche, and enjoy that I tend to have it to myself (for the most part). I also participate in art shows that are held in conjunction with hot multi-night runs during a tour. It is a great chance to be seen by many people who may not know about me, but over a decade of exposure has me pretty well known out there.
How do you define art? Beauty?
I have always felt that art is a highly subjective thing. One person might love something that another does not. It is all about making connections with the audience, this goes for all artists, be they musicians, sculptors, painters, writers, etc. If your work does not strike a chord with anybody, I wouldn’t say that it isn’t art, but it is a bit of a dead end. I don’t want this to sound like it is all about the money, because it is not, but there is a very real truth in my mind about art: If people are willing to spend their hard-earned money on something, it proves that it is succeeding in making a strong connection with them. This doesn’t mean that an artist who makes paintings that nobody buys isn’t a real artist, but it does mean that they have failed to find an audience to appreciate their works. I feel strongly that if an artist connects with an audience that wants to buy their works, they are legitimized as an artist. I hope that makes sense!
Beauty certainly is in the eyes of the beholder, but moving people to a feeling that they have to have your art says something. There are more people who don’t like what I am doing than do, but I am defined as an artist by the people who do connect with my visions. They see beauty in my designs, and they appreciate the extent to which I incorporate band and venue history into my designs. As a history teacher by trade (High School level) I love that the coins, etc provide me with an opportunity to bring these elements to life.
Can coins be beautiful? If so, how? Are they judged differently than music?
I believe that some of my work is beautiful. But not everyone is looking for beauty, which in and of itself is hard to define anyway because it is so subjective. It cannot be overstated that the music is the driving force behind this crazy subculture that we are all a part of. Some choose to become a larger part of that scene, others like to sit on the sidelines and observe the circus as a bystander. I think this falls at some level on the force of ego in people. People like me who create art relating to Phish are on some psychological level trying to become a bigger player in the scene rather than just a bystander. Some feel that people like me are leeches just trying to make money off of the band, but this is not the case. Most of us do what we do because of our love for everything that Phish represents. Sure, it helps to make some money and hitting lots of Phish shows is expensive, so as a “responsible” adult I am able to hit more shows a year because I make enough money selling my coins, etc. to basically pay for my flights, hotels, tickets, etc. It is a great gig.
Why do you think you are drawn to Phish’s music?
I am drawn to Phish music because it is unpredictable, and the possibilities are endless. Every show is totally different, making it an amazing adventure. I know that there are Bruce Springsteen and Rolling Stones fans who have seen hundreds of shows, and I get their passion, but I could never see these artists more than once in a tour because you are going to see virtually the same set every night. Phish hits the road with hundreds of songs at their fingertips, and it keeps them (and us phans) on our toes. You truly never know what to expect.
There are also strong social forces at play. Humans are very communal and social creatures, and like to be a part of something bigger than the individual. It is rewarding to share something special with others who feel the same way. Whether it is a hobby club, or religion, or going to concerts, there is a very real inner need that is being fulfilled by being a part of a community. Phish provides all of these things and even more. Humans are also drawn to the spiritual side of things, and I firmly believe that music in the strongest channel to spiritual experiences. Why else do almost all religions incorporate music elements into their services? The Phish community truly is a big family of sorts that is also a bit of a circus. It is a big party, a reunion of friends at times, and a chance to leave the real world behind if only for a few hours or days. People need this type of an escape from time to time.