I grew up in Marin County, California just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco (OK – I lived at the Northern end of the county in Novato – but work with me here). Growing up in Marin, the Grateful Dead were always around. Whether it was their music, their iconagraphy or just seeing Jerry Garcia driving down the Highway 101 in his BMW, they were just always around.
When many people think of the Grateful Dead, they think “hippies,” “potheads,” “deadheads,” and many other things. The two things that I think should come to mind are great music and even better business.
The Grateful Dead were amazing businessmen and continue to make serious amounts of money more than 40 years after their first live show. For one thing, they retained ownership of their master recordings, which means they still own their music and make the majority of the profit from its sale. The bigger part is I think they got this whole social media thing way before anyone else. On most concert tickets there is a note in all caps that says “No cameras or recording devices allowed.” Almost from the beginning the Dead have had a section in the front of all of their shows called “the Tapers Section,” set aside for fans who want to record their music. Their thought was that if people are going to record their music, they might as well get as good of a recording as possible. The ones who recorded the shows and then traded the tapes with others were the true fans. They spent money on the band, they bought tickets to the concerts and told everyone they knew about how great the Dead were. If you’ve ever been on a roadtrip with a DeadHead you’ll understand.
The band made a lot of money, and toured consistently for thirty years to huge crowds. Did the crowds diminish and were record sales hurt because someone could listen to a tape from the the show at the Ventura County Fairgrounds in 1982? I don’t think so. I think the Dead figured out something that the rest of the record industry and much of the media industry is still trying to grab onto 40 years later. Make great music, treat your fans like friends, and everything will work out just fine.
When I mentioned this thought about the Grateful Dead and sharing and social media today a friend sent me the link to the upcoming Churchill Club meeting on “The Free Economy: How Companies Make Money From Giving Things Away.” The moderator is Chris Anderson of Wired who recently wrote “Free: The Future of a Radical Price,” and the panel includes folks from Ning, Pandora, Pinger and YouSendIt. Maybe they should see if they can get someone to connect them with Jerry Garcia, I’m sure he could add a whole lot to the discussion since he’d already been doing this for thirty years when he passed away in 1995.