What Would The Grateful Dead Do?

Grateful Dead

Photo by noquarterCreative Commons License Some Rights Reserved

If only more artists were fans of The Grateful Dead.

Of course, it might be hard to imagine not using a soundtrack of the Dead for many of life’s dramas and celebrations. But, it is even more startling how many artists ignore the business lessons of The Grateful Dead.

Before Facebook, they knew how to generate a community of fans.
Before YouTube, they knew how to capitalize on user-generated recordings of their shows.
Before Twitter, they knew how to create a social network.

Too often artists and their organizations, especially outside of music, turn to their marketing departments to purchase services from web developers and turn to the interns to figure how best to communicate their “message” through online social networks. Ugh.

How did The Dead succeed where so many continue to waste money and fail?

The artists who made The Grateful Dead were intimately involved in the business of The Grateful Dead. Their goal was to drive fans to the live event.

The Grateful Dead probably played more free concerts than any other band in the history of rock ‘n roll.

The band made sure each performance was a one-of-a-kind — not only changing set lists, but never playing the same song the same way.

Perhaps most importantly, The Grateful Dead encouraged fans not only to record their shows, but to disseminate the recordings for free. They even set up a dedicated taping section so that all the individual microphones did not interfere with the band’s PA system. Often they would allow those who were recording to tap right into the sound system for a better recording.

That’s how to play smart.

Of their 2,340 live performances, apparently around 2,200 were taped by members of the audience. This user generated content created one of the most determined fan bases in the history of the arts — one that not only bought tickets, but also Dead merchandise. (The Grateful Dead did keep control of that kind of copyright and license.)

Last March, Joshua Green of The Atlantic wrote about the academic study of The Dead’s business model. Green also spoke to the former Dead lyricist, John Perry Barlow, who went on to become not only a rancher but a critical thinker about the internet, including his position with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Two examples of Barlow’s words of wisdom to propel your art: “The best way to raise demand for your product is to give it away”; and, “Familiarity has more value than security.”

If you lead an arts group or band and you think business and social networks are for the managers and the interns, then you should probably get out of the business of the arts.

It’s not about the latest social network. It’s not about the latest graduate student research into how the arts use the web. It’s not about the latest intern who has so many friends, followers, and FourSquare badges. It’s about driving audiences to the live event. It’s about the business lessons from The Grateful Dead.

Sometimes, the light’s all shining on me.
Other times, I can barely see.
Lately, it occurs to me – what a long, strange trip it’s been.

Just keep truckin’ on.

- Bill Reichblum

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3 Responses to “What Would The Grateful Dead Do?”

  1. KadmusArts Culture News » Blog Archive » Celebrate Grateful Dead’s Last Show
    July 11th, 2010 00:11
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    [...] Billboard What Would the Grateful Dead Do? [...]

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    November 6th, 2011 00:11
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    [...] Huffington Post What Would the Grateful Dead Do? [...]

  3. KadmusArts – where culture speaks » Blog Archive » Occupy The Grateful Dead
    November 7th, 2011 06:22
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    [...] we looked at The Dead’s business approach to understand how to drive audiences to live events: “What Would The Grateful Dead Do?” Barnes takes The Dead model further to explore how businesses can succeed through customer [...]

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