Memorializing the Dead

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.)

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  1. An insightful article John. Though never a Dead Head I loved American Beauty Rose and still enjoy listening to it.They were unique and appreciated their fans.

  2. I couldn't stand their music, but I did go to some of their concerts just for the "atmosphere". Regardless, I feel that their technical achievements were of supreme importance, not the least of which, The Wall of Sound, inspired my entire sound engineering career.

    The Dead, themselves, didn't care that much for the large system, and it was a money-loser for them being ridiculously cumbersome and labor intensive to move, but the fans certainly appreciated the quality of sound in some of the most acoustically difficult arenas in the nation. To this day, I've never heard a more dynamic, present, and effortless clarity of sound anywhere at any distance from the stage. I even constructed my own mini-wall to use with my band that I toured with for several years in the 80s, but had to give it up because of the expense.

    Every qualified engineer I've ever run into has made note of the breakthrough methods used in the "Wall", and all modern "linear array" venue systems are based on the simple physics involved.

  3. If I could have 1/10 the fans who were 1/10 as loyal as Dead Heads, I'd be flying.

    Let a community form around you by inspiring them, and the community will ensure your, if not immortality, at least continued existence.

    1. As interesting and as crazy as that band was when they started out NOBODY could have guessed they'd be a phenomenon like this decades later. Back then they were overshadowed by the Jefferson Airplane in their home town.

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