February 7, 2023

“I always thought it would be fun to have a T-shirt that said, ‘T-shirt watching is a sport,’” says Ryan Stanley, the founder of SetListTees. While he has yet to produce such an item, since 2010 his company has designed more than 100 unique shirts commemorating individual performances by Phish, the Grateful Dead and over 30 other bands. Each “wearable work of art” contains a show date on the front—often accompanied by an original image—and the corresponding setlist on the back.
Stanley founded SetListTees a year after he became a certified professional life coach. He initially focused his practice on musicians, which was a logical extension of his role as a band manager, which began in 2006—when he started working with Phish lyricist Tom Marshall’s group Amfibian. In 2019, he wrote Be Patient, Be Present, Be Joyful: A First-Aid Kit for the Emotional Bumps, Scrapes, and Bruises of Life, a book that distills some personal growth concepts into a self-study guide.
A lifelong entrepreneur, Stanley continues to explore new projects and recently launched myfiVe—an app that helps individuals who share similar interests connect after answering questions around pop culture topics and a few additional subjects.
All told, Stanley reveals, “Whether it be Phish or the live-music community in general, I love that all of my projects as a creative entrepreneur are somehow connected. I’m inspired on a daily basis, not only by the music that I listen to but by the people who listen to that music and by the people who I meet through that music. We’re all looking to be the best versions of ourselves and to have fun along the way.”
What were your formative experiences as a music fan?
I grew up in Western New Jersey. I was a teenager in the early ‘90s, and I saw my first Phish and Dead shows in ‘93. Before that, it was classic rock— Zeppelin, The Beatles, Pink Floyd. My dad had a record player, and I would go through all his old records and listen to stuff all the time. Then, my CD collection began to grow as well.
The first concert I ever bought my own ticket to was Primus opening for Rush in the spring of ‘92. But Phish kind of took things to the next level for me personally.
How did you come to manage Amfibian?
I’ve always been a bit of an entrepreneur. I was probably about 25-26 years old when I began working with Amfibian. Up until that point, I owned a daycare center with my dad. We eventually sold that, and I started working with my brother who owned a title agency that did title searches for cell towers. He started it with a partner, but I was there on day one, helping him with his finances and from an organizational standpoint.
I met Tom around 2006 on MySpace, as funny as that sounds today. It turned out that he was recording the Skip the Goodbyes album right up the road from me—15 minutes or less. I had become friends with somebody who was an engineer there and he called me to let me know they would be there.
So I went down to the studio for the night and got to connect with those guys. Then, I started hanging out there, and we became friends. It all continued from there and, at one point, I took Tom aside and asked him if they could use a manager. I told him: “I haven’t worked specifically in this industry before, but I love business, I love music, I love being around you guys. Let’s see if we can get it to work.”
One of my most memorable moments from the Amfibian gig was being a background singer on a song called “Teresa” that appears on the Skip the Goodbyes album. As a young entrepreneur, it was super awesome to get into this space with a Phish connection during a time when Phish was still broken up. Frankly, to be part of a musical collaboration of any sort was really cool.
What was an important lesson that you took away from your initial experiences as a manager?
My biggest lesson—and what led me to become a coach—was that I loved connecting with people. There were aspects of artist management I loved and aspects that I didn’t love. I’m not so left-brained and I’m not always able to be a not nice guy, which sometimes is important and necessary. So I noticed that not all my strengths were valuable in artist management but I did love connecting with and empowering people, especially younger people who were coming up as musicians. I started working with other bands as well, like the group Karmic Juggernaut—they were more proggy than jammy.
A lot of the time, I’d connect with these younger people and I’d have conversations with them that they’d never had before. I’d let them know that it was OK to decide who you wanted to be and to do something about it. It was OK to dream big. You’ve got to take action and you’ve got to work on it every single day. It doesn’t matter what anybody else thinks. It’s up to you to decide who you want to be and do something about it.
So the more I started having these different types of conversations with artists, the more I started to really see that my strength was connecting and empowering people to be the best versions of themselves.
Shortly thereafter, Tom decided it wasn’t ideal to keep touring so I ended up focusing more on coaching. Then, in 2009, I went and got certified as a coach, which was a big catalyst for change in a lot of areas in my life. Once we remove emotion from a past experience, it becomes wisdom, and if I’m being completely honest, I think that being a manager wasn’t my calling in the end. So that’s why I decided to shift gears and focus more on serving and empowering. At first, I was only coaching musicians because I have that background in artist management, I love music and I wanted to help.
What led you to launch SetListTees?
It goes back a Grateful Dead show in 1994 or ‘95 at Giants Stadium. I was there with a buddy, and he was writing down a setlist on his jeans. I didn’t have an immediate reaction but in hindsight, I think the whole concept came out of that, although SetListTees wasn’t founded until the summer of 2010. That was when I finally decided to do something.
I love T-shirt watching. I love walking around the lot and reading all the shirts. That’s been true since the early ‘90s. So I wanted to celebrate shirts and I also knew how passionate people were about their shows, particularly their first and favorite shows. It immediately becomes an icebreaker, where someone might say, “What’s with the date on the front of the shirt?” Then, you can nerd out about your favorite band and talk about what happened at the show.
The whole concept of creating something that starts a conversation through a ticket stub you can wear just made sense to me. So I called a buddy of mine who was an artist and told him about this idea. We sat down at a bar, hashed it out and started making a couple of shirts. It turned out he wasn’t as entrepreneurially driven as I was, so I ended up doing it on my own.
One of my favorite things about the shirts has been the community aspect. When I see someone wearing a shirt, I’ll ask, “What do you love about that show?” There’s always a story that lead them to wanting that shirt. Maybe that’s where someone met their wife or where a bunch of buddies went to a show during their freshman year of college.
Another thing is that when I would sell shirts in a lot, I’d have a contest where if you guessed the show’s opener, you could win a free T-shirt. Certainly that was a way for me to gain email addresses but I would also see a lot of the same people at different shows and different tours. I’ve really enjoyed that community aspect.
What were your first few shirts?
We started with three—Cornell ‘77 [Grateful Dead, 5/8/77], Gamehendge at Mansfield, Mass. [Phish, 7/8/94] and Phish on July 2, 1994 at the PNC Banks Arts Center [then called the Garden State Arts Center] in Holmdel, N.J. We picked the third one because that was where I ran into the guy who started the company with me, so we thought that was super cool. Then, we started adding additional shirts, like the Bomb Factory [Phish, 5/7/94]. We also did the “Guyutica” show [Phish, 10/20/10]. For that one, we put a picture of Guyute wearing a shirt with a date on it, which was actually kind of a meta shirt within a shirt type of a thing.
At what point did you begin to move beyond Phish and the Dead?
That happened pretty quickly because, right off the bat, we wanted people to be able to choose whatever they wanted. So we had a request section on the site. I actually couldn’t keep up with it for the longest time. I’m not much of a graphic designer myself, so I hired a bunch of designers to handle that piece of it whenever different stuff came in. These days, we have 30-40 different bands. Our top five most requested outside of Phish and the Dead are probably Widespread Panic, DMB, My Morning Jacket, the Disco Biscuits and The Avett Brothers.
Has your approach changed over the years due to technological developments with the printing process?
Absolutely. Our best sellers now are what we call “Just the date.” That’s all it has in the front—it’s just the date of the show. Then, on the back, is the setlist. The site is set up so you can come on there and order a shirt with the date of whatever show. You can pick any concert, as long as we can find the setlist. As part of the ordering process, we ask you to include a link to where we can locate the setlist.
That way, it’s easier for people to get exactly what they want and it’s much easier on me because I can order shirts without going to a screen printer. That was a terrible business model because, back then, I’d have to order a minimum of 10 shirts per order. So if you ordered a small Bomb Factory shirt, I’d need to order five smalls and five mediums. Then, the next day, if somebody ordered a large Bomb Factory shirt, I’d have to order 10 more. So then I’d have printed 18 shirts for two sales. That happened more often than I would like to admit. [Laughs.]
What are some of your favorites over the years?
There’s a Red Rocks ‘93 Phish shirt with an iguana on the front that I really love. Another one of my favorites—and one of our best sellers—is the Big Cypress shirt, which has a giant clock on it. The Camp Oswego shirt [Phish, 7/18/99] is super cool. It was so hot that day and it features a giant blazing sun with airplanes flying out of it. The Walnut Creek summer of ‘97 shirt [Phish, 7/2/97] is super trippy. There was a giant lightning storm going on during the show, so the front of it has a fractal lightning design. We did a lot of Baker’s Dozen shirts, and I really like the way they came out. Then, just to go back to the original designs, for that 7/8/94 Great Woods Gamehendge shirt, we were like, “How do we incorporate the venue?” So we put woods behind the date, which was fun to do.
What has been the most surprising or enjoyable place that you’ve seen one of your shirts?
I went to a Philly show at the Mann where I ran across 16 people wearing SetListTees. I literally got out of my car and the person next to me was wearing one. Then, I saw people in the lot and in the show throughout the day. I couldn’t believe it. That was probably the highlight of my SetListTees viewing experience.
I love walking around parking lots and seeing people wearing SetListTees. I enjoy making a connection and hearing people’s stories. I always say hello and I always thank them, not only for their support, but also for being part of the community. That’s a really important part of this for me. It’s about community.
Please enjoy this full-length feature from Relix Magazine. Not a subscriber? Show your support for only $2/month
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