What I Learned from the Grateful Dead

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Photo credit: Public Domain

Photo credit: Public Domain


I have been listening to the Grateful Dead for over 25 years now and have attended at least 10 shows when they were actively touring as a full band. I have seen them in places such as Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, Denver, Orange County and San Francisco. Every show was unique. Every show was special.

Their business model over the years was so interesting and ahead of its time.

Back in the 70’s, they actually encouraged people to tape their shows and distribute them. Sometimes the sound crew would allow the tapers to connect directly to the soundboard, which created exceptional concert recordings.

By the 80’s, taping was widespread and people would trade tapes like crazy. I personally own more than 50 live albums from shows as early as 1968 (Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles) to as late 1995 (Seattle, one of Jerry’s last). Of the approximately 2,350 shows the Grateful Dead has played, almost 2,200 were taped, and most of these are available digitally.

In the book Marketing Lessons from the Grateful Dead: What Every Business Can Learn From the Most Iconic Band in History, David Meerman Scott and Brian Halligan identify the taper as one of the more the crucial elements that increased their fan base and thus furthered their success.

The concept of encouraged taping was later adopted by many other bands (Phish, Dave Matthews, moe, Medeski, Martin & Wood, Rusted Root, String Cheese Incident, etc.) who viewed touring as a way to continuously communicate with and interact with their fan base, as well as grow their product.

This unusual idea at the time has now become an excellent growth strategy for many bands not only getting started, but also looking to exponentially increase their user base. At the time however, the Dead viewed it now as a business strategy, but simply an idea born out of their own personal philosophies around spreading the word and giving back to their loyal community.

Adam Dachis of Lifehacker wrote an interesting blog about this in 2014:

“While following in the footsteps of the successful doesn’t guarantee success, it provides a pretty good outline when forming your own strategies. The biography of the late Jerry Garcia points to such an outline of how the Grateful Dead approached their work that might serve useful in yours.

  • The most important thing is playing and creating. Everything else is secondary.
  • Work is a family affair. It’s important to shelter, support and share with a larger community.
  • Money is second fiddle to living the kind of life you want to live. You can build your own economy.
  • There are pitfalls to being a renegade but they come with the territory. Accept the hazards and finger-pointing as a small hindrance of living differently.
  • Push the envelope whenever possible.

Just because these principles were geared towards a music career doesn’t mean you can’t apply them to the work you do. “

To this day, not many bands adopt a model as unique as the Dead’s but the ones that do benefit greatly from ideas first espoused by the most successful touring band from the rock and roll era.

Doing this difference can lead to great things, but it must be part of your core belief system and not just a way to simply make money.

Matthew Achak

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