The Grateful Dead School of Business

Despite what you think of their music (or their fans) the Grateful Dead serve as a role model for living a creative life. Even though the Dead only had one Top 10 album in its career, the group had enough of a following to tour for 30 years and build an army of loyal fans that followed them from show to show. And along the way, they maintained creative freedom and ownership of their career, while holding true to their values.

The Dead’s model was so successful, it’s taught in business schools and codified in books like Marketing Lessons from the Grateful Dead and Everything I Know About Business I Learned from the Grateful Dead.

In Garcia: An American Life, the biography of Jerry Garcia, the Dead’s guitar player, songwriter and figurehead, a clear picture emerges of the tenets Garcia upheld from the very beginning of the band:

  • 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. 

These personal beliefs happened to add up to a worldview that aligned with the values of the hippies and flower children of the ‘60s who intended to reshape the country and the world in their image. It certainly didn’t hurt that the world was ready to “think different” at the moment the Grateful Dead landed.

So how did these tenets manifest themselves in the life of the band? What part of the Grateful Dead’s model can we use for our own creative pursuits?

Build a scene.

These days everyone tells us we need foster a community around your work and ideas. The Grateful Dead pioneered community-building in a lot of ways but mostly by thinking of their fans (“the users”) as part of the band, not separate from it. This ideology guided many of the band’s most innovative (and controversial, at the time) decisions like maximizing the concert experience, communicating directly through a mailing list and fan club, and encouraging the peer-to-peer distribution of bootleg tapes.

Never stand in the way of your fans.

The Dead’s fans wanted to record each show. So, the band let them by freely allowing concerts to be recorded, creating special “taper’s sections” in the audience. They also encouraged peer-to-peer tape exchange by their fans, which attracted a larger base of paying fans, essentially pioneering the “freemium” content model. The Dead were unconcerned about giving away too much for free, since each individual show was a unique experience with its own value, something the band’s fans were happy to pay for.

Control the entire distribution process.

In 1968, most rock and roll bands relied on album sales to make a living, relying on huge record companies. The Grateful Dead focused instead on touring relentlessly, which was a reliable income source that the band could control. In the ‘70s, the band started their own record label to control the production and distribution of their music. They sold tickets directly to fans, bypassing Ticketmaster and the other outlets. Setting all these systems up was harder from the jump, but gave the group unprecedented amount of control and higher profit margins. 

Maintain side projects.

Throughout the history of the Grateful Dead, Garcia played in several bands including New Riders of the Purple Sage, Old and In the Way, and Legion of Mary, and he appeared on albums with David Crosby, Ornette Coleman, Bob Dylan and many others. These side projects allowed Garcia to explore different musical interests and avenues in-depth like bluegrass, old-timey music or jazz. Exchanging ideas with other musicians and working with his musical peers and heroes stoked Garcia’s own creative fires and enthusiasm, which certainly benefitted his main project.

Embrace creative risk.

The Grateful Dead were almost constantly changing. They embraced elements of blues, jazz, country, funk and disco. The band’s line-up expanded, shifted and changed. They tried out new songs on stage throughout the length of their career. Each studio album differed in approach, technology, sound, and songwriting than the one that preceded it. The members of the Grateful Dead were relentless creators, constantly seeking new paths. 

***

Everything the Dead did was to make sure that the group lived the life they wanted to lead, making them beholden only to their creativity and fans — not a bad template for the rest of us.

How about you?

Is there a band or musician that you take creative and business cues from?  

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Scott McDowell

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Scott McDowell is a strategy consultant and a coach to new managers & first-time leaders. He wrote New Manager Handbook to help leaders in transition panic less. He also hosts a radio show called The Long Rally on WFMU.
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