To make themselves feel at home at Madison Square Garden last Saturday (Sept. 28), Michigan funk band Vulfpeck asked its set designer, Tricia Robertson, to drive a roomful of furniture from Ann Arbor and reassemble it on stage. "We recorded a lot in our friend's living room and those were some of our big YouTube videos," says Jack Stratton, bandleader and multi-instrumentalist. "It really created a cool, studio-like atmosphere. One of the guys was on his phone. Just real low-key.”
The band's first-ever arena show, after playing multiple nights at New York clubs such as Terminal 5 and Kings Theatre in recent years, was relaxed for more reasons than the furniture. Vulfpeck was one of the first-ever headliners to sell out MSG without a manager or top record label behind them. That's by design — although Stratton doesn't consider Vulfpeck to be Fugazi-like DIY activists who are "on some crusade," he runs the band as a "real tight operation." The musicians stayed in Airbnbs ("I mean, nice Airbnbs," he says) for the gig and brought in no bus or gear.
"I've always been curious how far you can take it, just trying to use the Internet efficiently," says Stratton, 31, speaking by phone from his Cleveland home. "At the end of the day, I want to get the musicians paid as much as possible. If that's your North Star, a lot of stuff is out of the question — certainly a label, and most likely a manager. That's been the guiding thing."
Formed in 2011 in Ann Arbor, Vulfpeck has a core group of musicians and rotates guests through its recordings and live sets — at MSG, set up in a 3/4s capacity configuration, these included saxophonist Dave Koz, mandolinist Chris Thile and Stratton's mother, who asked the 13,000-plus fans in attendance to meditate. The band has built its following in smart and timely ways, notably posting a 2014 album called Sleepify on Spotify, which was actually multiple tracks of pure silence, designed to build up publicity for maximum royalties. The trick worked, and the band made $20,000 — which it used to fund a tour that was free for fans — before Spotify pulled it down.
One of the band's agents, Jackie Nalpant, calls the manager-and-label-less approach "pretty much an anomaly," but suggests other artists might be able to follow Vulfpeck's lead. "As more and more musicians can just make records in their bedrooms and have more access to their data, there's just more control for musicians and artists than ever before," she says. Peter Shapiro, whose Dayglo Presents co-promoted the show with Bowery Presents, adds that Vulfpeck has never had a hit single, making its sellout more impressive. "Not every band can do that," he says. "Hopefully it'll become an annual thing."
Vulpeck spent nothing on advertising before the MSG gig, announcing the on-sale date to its 265,000 Instagram followers. The band made tickets affordable — $45 to $60 — and the show took two and a half months to sell out. Nalpant and her Paradigm colleague Aaron Pinkus booked MSG after Vulfpeck sold out the 9,500-capacity Red Rocks five months before its May date. "We kind of knew that we were headed in the right direction," Pinkus says.
Over the years, managers have approached Vulfpeck to offer their services. Stratton has talked to a few. "We just kind of lock horns for a second and it's like, 'Ah, boy, this can get bad,'" he says. "I've had fantasies of just letting someone else do everything, but that's not how it works."