The Grateful Dead just performed their final concert in Chicago two weeks ago (though there are rumors of more dates on the East Coast) so I thought this would be a fine time to reprise an earlier post I wrote about them.
Having briefly lived and partied with Dead in their early days I can personally attest to their inspired ingenuity and lunacy. Some band members were relative novices on their instruments at the time, but their emerging genius and crazy spirit were unmistakable.
Seeing the impact of the Dead many decades later I'm not shocked that they've been one the most influential rock & roll business teams in pop history.
How, you say?
First, the Dead were continually and surprisingly inventive in their music. Different bands channel their originality in different ways of course. Some bands (particularly the Beatles) wrote exceptionally innovative material. But with the Dead it was live performance that spotlighted their creativity. They refused to play a song the way it was previously done, instead using it as a launching pad for extended—and eclectic—improvisation. (Heraclitus, who believed you couldn't step twice into the same river, would have approved.) In the process the Dead pioneered a new musical entity: the jam band. As a result, their repeat customers got a different product every night!
Secondly, the Dead made the performance a communal event, by deliberately allowing the audience members—many of them dancing like dervishes in tie-died hippie splendor—to play a key role in the overall show. The "spectators" were included in the spectacle. In a wonderfully reinforcing feedback loop, the customers became an integral part of the product that the Dead were delivering to their customers.
Finally, the Dead introduced a "give-it-away-free" business model to the world of rock. They were one of the first major bands to regularly perform free concerts, but just as importantly they allowed free taping of their live shows. They actively encouraged "tapers" (who could be any audience members) to record their performances, directly from the band's audio mixing board at times. And—as long as no one was profiting from the sale of these bootleg tapes, records, or DVDs—the Dead encouraged the distribution of them. The now-common practice of free mp3 file-sharing had its genesis with this band decades ago.
The band I knew then was not taken seriously as a force to be reckoned with. Yet five decades later, in commercial and artistic impact the Grateful Dead have had few competitors. Yes, I still wear my Jerry Garcia ties.
(Check out a later post I did on the band here that connects the dots between their business model and the ethos of the net.)