The Grateful Dead Organic Journey To Rock IconsThe Grateful Dead built a legacy through authenticity and staying in the moment, creating a legion of loyal fans who became a tribe and followed the band across the country
July 1, 2018
Written by Phil Rossi
For fifty years, the iconic brand of the Grateful Dead has endured and is still going strong. A rich legacy coupled with their legion of diehard fans, affectionately known as ‘Deadheads.’ A fan base revered for their passion and loyalty to the classic rock band and their music.
From 1965 through 1995, the Grateful Dead were music pioneers. They also created an original business model. Beyond cutting-edge, and against the grain. Often in the opposite direction of everyone else practicing industry norms.
In the Dead’s day, the conventional route for rock bands was to record an album, release a single, and promote that album with a tour. For argument sake, these groups would rehearse a 25 to 30 song playlist. Of those songs, each night’s setlist would incorporate around 20. A few extra for encores.
Bands like The Rolling Stones and The Who would mix and rotate the lineup, with at least 15 songs that were staples. Night in, night out. Numbers the audience demanded, and like it or not, the band played and played them to perfection— if they wanted these fans to buy more tickets and records.
As these tours got going and units sold, they’d ease in a few nuggets from that new album. You know, to sell more records. A standard practice still followed by many touring musicians today.
Outside the encore, the Grateful Dead chucked this playbook in the fire. Instead of a studio band promoting albums, the Dead focused on who they were: A live performance act. This philosophy enabled them to remain authentic while grounding themselves and their music — in the moment.
Known for their Spring, Summer, and Fall tours, the Grateful Dead grew to be a jam and road band. They also released studio albums, but the records were never used to market the tour and vice-versa.
Back from the road, the Grateful Dead would break for a few weeks. Then it was back to the grind with rehearsals before hitting the bricks. For thirty years, the Dead followed this rigorous schedule.
During their 2,138 live shows, the Grateful Dead rarely performed from a set list. Most of the time they improvised on the spot. Each show was unique with Bob Dylan, and other covers were thrown in.
They might have played their more popular songs or not. ‘Truckin’, ‘Casey Jones’, and ‘Touch of Grey’ weren’t performed any more or less than the rest. Even obscure numbers from albums past could be played at any moment.
Through it all, non-Dead fans remained mystified by this practice. Most people couldn’t imagine seeing a rock band in concert without hearing their hits, classics, and other favorites. Welcome to Terrapin Station.
Back when it was illegal to record live performances. Everything you see on YouTube from the good ole days was done on the hush.
The bands and record companies were serious. Anyone caught with recording equipment would be fined, prosecuted, and banned from future concerts.
How did the Grateful Dead deal with this? After all, they were a touring band.
No problem — they set up a designated taping area where their fans could bring in their recording equipment.
These fans not only had their own section but were given the privilege of entering the venue early to set up their gear. These fans paid a premium for these seats and the right to record, all sanctioned by the Grateful Dead.
The Deadheads didn’t sell these tapes to bootleggers. Instead, they started a ‘tape sharing’ system with other fans. Commonplace in the scene. These fans were loyal to the band, and would only exchange the music with other Deadheads.
The ‘scene’ was a big part of the experience at Grateful Dead shows. It was very common to see legions following the band cross country. If these fans weren’t allowed to set up sleeping camps in the venue’s parking lots, the Dead would refuse to perform at that arena. Outside the drug use, there was very little trouble and police incidents.
On one of the tours, a Deadhead started making his own tie-dye T-shirts. He’d set up shop and sell them to other concertgoers. The proceeds provided the means to remain on tour and see the shows.
The shirts were top-notch. Just as good and cheaper than the stuff from the band’s official kiosks. When the Grateful Dead found out about this ‘illegal merchant,’ they agreed. This guy’s artwork was impressive.
Instead of a crackdown, arrest, and a lawsuit, the Grateful Dead hired the guy to craft their merchandise. This artist went on for years designing shirts for the band. Not only did the Dead employ a primo artist, but they also reaped the benefit of a brand ambassador.
Throughout their demanding tour schedule, the Dead’s record company always wanted new material for studio albums. The Dead never cared to enter the studio instead of a tour. Besides, whenever they wrote new songs, they preferred to sneak them into a live performance to surprise and treat the Deadheads.
To regain control of the creative process and remain true to themselves and their fanbase, the Grateful Dead formed their own recording label.
That’s how GD Records was born. Not a first, but entirely financed and managed by the band. GD Records were also known for their high production value. The packaging always included artistic covers, extensive liner notes, and thick vinyl.
The Grateful Dead were also one of the first rock bands to develop a mailing list. In the sleeve of a 1971 release, they slipped this placard inside the record album.
DEAD FREAKS UNITE: Who are you? Where are you? How are you?
Send us your name and address and we’ll keep you informed.
Dead Heads, P.O. Box 1065, San Rafael, California 94901.
As the cards floated in, these folks were put on priority lists for concert tickets, record albums, and merchandise. And the Grateful Dead meant it. People on this list got the first crack for upcoming shows at a member-friendly discount.
The Deadheads were and remain a true tribe. One of the most loyal anyone has ever seen or hope to ask for. The Grateful Dead might have been lucky, but most of all, they reciprocated.
To this day, fans continue buying the band’s CD’s, DVD’s, and various lines of merchandise.
The Grateful Dead made money and treated themselves and their staff to perks, like a private jet. But not much else. They didn’t live the rock star lifestyles born for today’s reality TV.
Most of the band’s profits were funneled back into the enterprise: The Grateful Dead. Always upgrading their instruments, sound, and light systems. The Dead wanted the highest quality and production value.
Hauling their equipment was a chore and a significant expense to the band’s bottom line. Convoys of 18-wheelers lugging their gear, and teams of roadies setting up and breaking down the shows. Despite these operational costs, the Grateful Dead refused to cut corners to reap higher profits.
Reflecting on their career, it all seems natural. The identity of the Grateful Dead was spawned by their essence and authenticity. This is who they were, destined to be and remain: A touring band.
By being a rock group before a business, the Grateful Dead built a fortune while creating a timeless legacy. An organic journey, fueled by the band’s core identity.
The Grateful Dead didn’t form a business huddle back in the day with a 30-year roadmap. The Dead’s mission was to optimize profits to keep them on the road. To remain who they were. To keep them playing live, in front of their passionate and loyal fans.
The Dead’s example should be a lesson for us all. Shutting out the market noise to find oneself is a challenging and essential endeavor. But in the long run, it’s worth it.
Through the ups and downs, the Grateful Dead proved the best and only way is to take the stage every night and be who you are.
Also, check out RTN’s weekly series “Lost Tracks,”little-known tunes from well-known artists and groups. To see what we mean, read the story of a Mick Jagger song he wrote while in prison back in the sixties.