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?  

More insights on: Money

Scott McDowell

more posts →
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.
load comments (30)
  • David Card

    These guys were light years ahead of their time. It’s proof that if you stick to your guns, and are willing to take some risks, anything is possible. The fact that they built everything and their community before the internet was a factor is even more impressive.

    A big salute to Jerry and the Boys… you’re sorely missed!

    • studio827

      The path was nat always straight and easy as this article suggests. One point of fact, the Dead did not appreciate taping by fans at the outset yet they came around to the idea when they realized two things: it was impossible to suppress and it added to their fan base.
      I have always maintained that the Dead had a few years of white-hot brilliance followed by decades of slow musical and spiritual decline. Sad but true, yet many fail to see that towards the end (the last two decades) the whole circus was off the rails.

  • jeffstern

    I’ve always admired the business acumen of the Wu Tang Clan – though this is based on hearsay (I believe it was Nick Wild who told me about this back in college), I have no reason not to believe it (but no source to point you to). They looked at the system, saw that it was exploitative, and figured out a way to make it work for them anyway.
    Once the Wu Tang Clan was first signed to a major label, each of the members quietly managed to get signed to different labels for their solo projects. That way, if Method Man’s label started to push their weight around, he could just refuse to put out any more records for them while doing plenty of guest verses on other members’ albums. And while this required a lot of trust among each other, this never seemed to present an issue. On the contrary, they seemed to welcome new members regularly. In this way they inverted the traditional power dynamic between label and artist.
    Further, I think it really helped them musically – requiring that they stay active in a bunch of solo-duo-trio projects in between albums allowed for lots of exploration and creativity.

    • Scott McDowell

      It’s true, Jeff! I like it.

    • Alex

      Right on! That’s totally accurate and there are a few posts about it out there:

    • jaxjhawk84

      I heard they are putting out a one off album and will auction it off. Figures estimate it a 4,000,000.00 I can’t see one person paying $4m for a single album, but you never know.

  • CJS Productions Inc.

    Fantastic Article!!!

  • Danny Stedman

    And of course this writer has a show on WFMU! The best!! Digging into the WFMU archives. NASTY!!!!

    • Scott McDowell

      Cheers, Danny!

  • Aaron Dubois

    Same story from Phish… and arguably even more evolved… but certainly taking cues and influence from the Dead. the way that Phish has guided their brand, music catalogue, merchandising, and innovated/evolved the monetization of the “experience” of being at a show through live webcasts, archival releases, etc. pure brilliance. thank god for these bands.

  • Greg

    I was totally with you until you said “Old-Timey Music.”

  • Rob MacArthur

    Folks that want to go a bit deeper might want to check out: ”
    Everything I Know About Business I Learned from the Grateful Dead: The Ten Most Innovative Lessons from a Long, Strange Trip”
    Just finished reading it myself, definitely would recommended it to musicians that want some business insight without reading a business book (or anyone else that might apply to).

  • Tom Durkin

    Really interesting, thanks for taking the time to write this!

  • Peter Cook

    You will also love “Sex, Leadership and Rock’n’Roll” and “The Music of Business” acclaimed by Tom Peters and Harvey Goldsmith, the man behind Live Aid and Live 8. Available on Amazon and via

  • Oliver

    This is an interesting article. I can’t say that I know enough about any particular bands to talk about their business model… but this screams of the WHY Code ( to me.

    It’s about knowing what you are and why you’re important. Finding others like you and sharing that journey.

    Thanks for wriiting.

  • Minter Dial

    Great stuff, Scott. As Oliver says, plenty of “why” was shared among the members of the band and wider community. It’s easier to have work and life intertwined when talking about music (and arts), as opposed to most other types of businesses that are more mercantile by nature. For example, I have never come across someone who has answered ‘no’ to the question: do you like music?

    In business, the takeaways are plum and well said in your article. Where we need more in business is having leaders wear the “why” on their sleeves and to allow more emotion and creativity into the work space.

    Another great learning from the Dead show could be applied to events management: make sure there is a before and after that contributes to the event… making it more than just a quick fry in the pan. Each show was an experience, unique in its way.

    When I get confused, I still listen to the music play….

  • Suzanne Frazier

    Yeah Jerry Garcia. As a child of the 60’s, I’m living these values too!

  • John Terdich

    Another musician who took a similar route was Frank Zappa, a not to be forgotten innovator and superb guitarist.

  • Guest

    Kate Bush,another artist with huge business acumen. Her own family was also very much part of the home/cottage business, with no direct management, total artistic control and before signing off from EMI she was never bothered by the, they entrusted her to create at her own pace, knowing the results would be better for it. Now she has her own record company, but distribution is still with a major label.

  • BaloniusFunk

    As a deadhead I find you and your bullish*t article offensive. The dead set out to create art and cultivate a setting for likeminded individuals and was considered “counterculture” by douchbag capitalists such as you. The movement itself represented a big giant FU to authority and the mindless sheep who blindly followed. In that vain, mr. coach to managers and leaders, F*ck You! You may want to claim to be a follower and advocate of the “scene” but you are a usurper and a manipulator and do not fool me!

    • Sacramennah

      Wow – an angry hippie.

  • Eliseu Huertas Cos

    Death Don’t Have No Mercy.

  • Sacramennah

    Q: What did the Deadhead say when he got out of drug rehab?
    A; “Dude, this music sucks!”

    Ha ha – no really – I always liked the band. Interesting take, to weave a business 101 story out of the path carved by such iconoclastic non-conformists. I wonder what the surviving members of the band (all but Garcia and Pigpen) would say about this analysis. Far out.

  • Todd Sainsbury

    You all may have seen this, thought I’d add it anyway. Amanda Palmer: The art of asking Interesting stuff:

    • CJS Productions Inc.

      Excellent Video!!!

  • Cr8tiveOne

    I enjoy following Questlove of The Roots, Yasin Bey aka Mos Def and Erykah Badu. These creative individuals are always looking for new ways to improve as artists and as they do you see them involved in more collaborative projects as well as evolve in the sense that they are allowing fans more intimacy into their approach and process.

  • Emily Bristor

    How unbelievably rude you are, to start your article assuming that your readers hate the band and its followers. Hey stupid: Some people saw the name Grateful Dead, and only clicked to the article because that’s what made it appealing!
    You’re beneath contempt. I bet you’re a Nickelback fan.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,151 other followers