Trying To Get To You

Friday, June 06, 2008

Of New Commerce And The Grateful Dead Myth

**This piece was written on Thursday. Fortuitous timing - check out Paul Krugman's column in today's NY Times.

I’m attending the Advertising Age 2.0 conference this week, as part of a new music and advertising venture I’m involved in. It’s my first time attending a non-music conference and it’s interesting to hear new terms, new languages and hear the different discussions going on. And yet…it’s all the same.

The first panel I attended was about how the Internet is transforming the advertising world and how advertising, which used to be a controllable, easily measured, one-way communication has become a fragmented, two-way dialogue between advertisers and consumers that’s difficult to monetize and even harder to gauge the effectiveness of. As I was listening, I said to myself, “Uh, I think I’ve heard this somewhere before.” It’s the exact thing the music business has been going through – except in the case of the music business, it’s been going on for the better part of a decade and the resultant carnage to companies, employees and artists (in terms of record sales) has been far more drastic.

The dinner panel I went to was more music business intensive. A lot of talk was about brands and business models, and then to my surprise, the conversation turned to the Grateful Dead, who apparently are being held up as the model to emulate because “they gave away their music for free,” which as the myth goes, ensured them becoming the stadium (and merchandising) juggernaut they were in from the mid-80’s until Garcia’s death in 1995.

Like most myths, this contains the element of truth but are usually used to justify someone else’s ideas of what good “business models” are. Here are some useful separations of myth vs. what actually happened.

Myth #1 – They gave away their music away for free.

The Dead didn’t give away anything for free (with the exception of an occasional free benefit concert). They just didn’t bust tapers at their shows and they turned a blind eye to their fans exchanging live tapes (unless the tapers and/or traders were trying to make a profit). It wasn’t a business model; it was simply an extension of the band’s anti-authoritarian attitude and aversion of control. All of the band’s studio work and their countless live albums were available for pay only.

“I don’t have any desire to control people as to what they’re doing and what they have. There’s something to be said for being able to record an experience you’ve liked, or being able to obtain a recording of it. Actually, we have all that stuff in our own collection of tapes. My responsibility to the notes is over after I’ve played them. At that point I don’t care where they go.” - Jerry Garcia

Myth #2 – “Giving away their music” was the key to their success.

Certainly, the live shows in circulation that hardcore Deadheads traded help build the devotion between the audience and the band, and it helped hardcore Deadheads spread the word. But it was only one element (and probably a smaller one than others) among many.

The Grateful Dead were a touring as opposed to studio band – despite wanting to make great records, and doing so with 1970’s Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty (which took their following up a level in the early 70’s), they were mainly a failure as a recording act. The live show was their strength. Equally influenced by jazz as they were with rock, their devotion to improvisation ensured that each show would be a unique one, never to be repeated. This stood in stark contrast to most rock bands, who played roughly the same set each night. And so they build an enormous cult audience, many of who traveled the country to follow them band; all of which became a story and curiosity in its own right.

In addition, the Grateful Dead live experience wasn’t simply a concert – it encompassed so much more. There was the bazaar outside the show, a self-sustaining economy with everything from veggie burritos, tie-died t-shirts and LSD. There were the Deadheads themselves, thoroughly anachronistic yet welcoming to just about all who entered. Entering a Grateful Dead show was like stepping out of planet earth and into another dimension – and that experience became a ritual and rite of passage for thousands of young Americans for during the course of the band's career.

And what is also conveniently ignored is that the biggest factor in the Dead’s 80’s explosion was what is now called, in new media circles, an “old school driver;” the hit single, “Touch Of Grey,” which went top 10 in 1987. It brought a huge influx of fans (many of who stuck around) and took them from being a band that could sell out arenas, to a stadium band, earning the enormously high grossing touring numbers (and merchandising) they enjoyed in the last years of their career.

Myth #3 – “The Grateful Dead are a great business model to emulate”

Again, this contains an element of truth, but the real story is that the Dead were in serious financial trouble at various points in their career. In the mid to late 70’s and early 80’s, the band may have allowed tape trading, but there was no huge merchandising set up for the band. That all came later, after their late 80’s renaissance. In truth, the band skirted financial difficult for years.

The Grateful Dead were one of the great American bands, but in a climate where everyone is worried about how they are going to get paid for their content, people are confusing the methods of their success for the reasons they were successful. The Grateful Dead became who they were because at their best, the provided an experience of the soul and spirit. Drummer Mickey Hart once said, "The Grateful Dead aren't in the music business. They're in the transportation business," and he was right. They provided a singular experience. Artists and businessmen would do well to concentrate more on the quality of their creation and the singularity of its experience and a little less with the means with which they sell their product.

*This piece from CBS from 1985, just as the Dead scene was getting larger, addresses their appeal from various vantage points. Note that no one says anything about tape trading or getting the music for free.


Brian said...

So glad you pointed out how great those two 70s albums were. I've never been a deadhead or even close, but those two records are always on my ipod, as is the first garcia/grisman album. he was a truly great writer/singer/player and those three albums really showcase it.

boyhowdy said...

When I saw the subject of today's post I was SO sure you were going to mention the passage (on June 1) of Alton Kelley, the guy who designed (with R. Mouse) the classic poster from which the Dead took their infamous Skull-with-roses iconography...especially after you mentioned the two albums which he did the cover art. These are two guys who were part of the business model for better or worse from the beginning; both based their careers on the design they did for the Dead and others, and both did it, originally, as a kind of ground-up work. But though when it was first done, the art was designed to look like it came from the community...these were, in the end, professionals, who turned their work into a career in design and image.

I wrote a bit about this, and the way the Dead capitalized off public domain songs, just this morning, at Cover Lay Down.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like a bunch of Ad people trying to spin something they haven't fully researched. Why does this not surprise me??

and don't forget Europe '72, arguably one of rock's finest live albums.

Eve Siegel said...

An excellent and thoughtful piece. All music biz people realize just how rare and unique the Dead were. Since the 1970s, thousands of bands and scenes have tried to emulate them, copying their business practices. No band was able to successfully copy their business-creative model, until perhaps Phish (on a smaller scale).

1970's American Beauty and Workingman's Dead are great records because the songs are so well-crafted. I am *not* a deadhead, but I respect that these 2 albums have better songs than any album by CS&N, Jackson Browne, the Allmans,Joni Mitchell, or any other 1970's singer-songwriter.