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A Guide to Recognizing Your Fans

03/31/2010

As I strolled through the exhibit last week, (see previous post Into the City), it became increasingly clear to me what was going on. This exhibit isn’t just for the amusement of old Deadheads or curious youth that missed out on the party. What’s happening is the Grateful Dead are finally being recognized as pioneers. Musical pioneers? Of course, but we all knew that. How about, business, social, and cultural pioneers? You could say that again.

It’s no accident that the Grateful Dead connected to their audience on a spiritual level. The dedication to their music certainly helped, but they went beyond even that call of duty. When it came time to following the Dead on tour, fans would call an automated hotline (set up by the Dead) for all details on upcoming shows and how to get tickets. Fans would then send in personal, handwritten letters requesting tickets, (often in decorated envelopes). Using this system gave the Dead much more control over ticket sales and costs while communicating directly with their audience. You could buy tickets to the Dead, from the Dead. If there are examples of this practice today, please share.

Today, musicians fight tooth and nail against free (or even cheap) music recording or downloading. In Joshua Green’s article, Management Secrets of the Grateful Dead, he points out that the Dead understood the value of giving away a product. He writes,

“They famously permitted fans to tape their shows, ceding a major revenue source in potential record sales. According to Barnes, the decision was not entirely selfless: it reflected a shrewd assessment that tape sharing would widen their audience, a ban would be unenforceable, and anyone inclined to tape a show would probably spend money elsewhere, such as on merchandise or tickets. The Dead became one of the most profitable bands of all time.”

One window of the exhibit highlighted this unprecedented practice illustrated by the “Taper’s Section”. This was a section of the venue that was reserved specifically for Deadheads who wanted to tape the performance live. The “tapers” weren’t crew hired to record a show for the band. These were everyday, diehard fans. And look how that turned out. So much of Grateful Dead culture, especially today, is centered around the archiving, comparing, and sharing of live recorded performances.

Artwork and merchandise became another bond between the Dead and their audience. The Dead controlled the business of their merchandise and when they saw counterfeiters, they defended their business. However, they were also smart enough to take it as compliment and recognize the source: the fans. In turn, they encouraged fans to send their original artwork and merchandise directly to the Dead thus giving them back control while respecting and appeasing their loyal fans. From that we were given an incredible and diverse archive of original Dead art. Encourage the inspired and you’ll see the return.

You really have to see it for yourself. You have to be in the room surrounded by memorabilia made from pure love and admiration while reading a letter from a young Chinese girl who fought immigration to get to the Grateful Dead concert she had awaited all year. It’s truly amazing. I don’t think you can find anything like it today and if you can, you can thank the Grateful Dead for that.

Thank you to all the Deadheads, scholars, musicians, sponsors, etc., who have recognized the need to archive and share the history, culture, and business of the Dead.

Read more about this topic in Joshua Green’s Management Secrets of the Grateful Dead by clicking here.


“This is an invitation across the nation the chance for folks to meet
There’ll be swinging, swaying, music playing and dancing in the street”

Dancin’ in the Streets

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