mnmlist: Career Advice For Musicians From The Grateful Dead

The Grateful Dead are one of the most successful rock bands of all time. More than forty years after they emerged from the San Francisco psychedelic scene, they remain one of the most profitable bands in history, all without any significant chart hits. Here’s some careers advice for bands who want to be as popular as The Dead.

Seventeen years after their founder Jerry Garcia died of a heart attack, San Francisco psych-rock pioneers The Grateful Dead remain one of the highest-grossing bands of all time; all despite never having a major hit on the Billboard charts. Since their inception in the mid-sixties, the hippy innovators cultivated a fiercely loyal following, regularly selling out shows in excess of 70,000 in minutes without any marketing at all.

But why have The Grateful Dead been so successful? For a band that no longer exists, they’re in the enviable position of earning more than $60 million a year in record sales and licensing. Unlike their San Francisco contemporaries The Jefferson Airplane and Moby Grape, The Dead remain one of the most popular bands in US rock history. When what would have been Garcia’s 70th birthday passed last week, the music industry was unanimous in its celebration of a band that never sold out.

Years ahead of their time, The Grateful Dead employed the kind of marketing ideas that would serve today’s bands well in the wake of the digital revolution. Here’s some careers advice from the greatest acid-rock band of all time.

Who Wouldn’t Want To Be A Pirate?

Think The Grateful Dead would sue someone for downloading their albums? I doubt it. In fact, I wouldn’t bet against the surviving members being the biggest Grateful Dead filesharers themselves. At their live shows the band readily embraced the bootleggers, setting up professional equipment so their concerts could be illegally recorded in the highest quality. Today’s bands should take note. Piracy, it seems, is here to stay. Why fight it? There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that it can have a positive impact on record sales. The only artists who should be worried are those whose product isn’t worth buying after its been heard for free.

It’s All About The Fans, Man

For The Grateful Dead, their followers meant everything. Borne out of the LSD-fuelled Haight-Ashbury hippy movement, the band cultivated a sense of community that went way beyond the typical artist-fan relationship. Years before the Internet and social media reinvented the way musicians interacted with their followers, The Dead were setting up dedicated phone lines so that fans could call in for the latest concert news. By forging togetherness between themselves and their followers, The Dead found themselves a diehard fanbase who’d pack out their gigs for years.

Never Sell Out

Unlike many of their contemporaries, The Grateful Dead never compromised their lysergic rock vision for a chart hit. The former Acid Test house band, who rose to prominence with twenty-minute avant garde wig-outs, remained true to the tenets of psychedelic rock for their entire career. While many of their contemporaries tried to reinvent themselves in a bid to reignite flagging record sales (Starship, anyone?), The Dead continued to deliver the same jam-fuelled space-rock that had catapulted them to the forefront of the San Francisco scene. And their fanbase never wavered.

What do you think? Can The Grateful Dead’s career model be successful in the digital age?

Toby Rogers

Tyneside-based performance analyst & writer helping stakeholders make smarter business decisions; Head of Support at www.mypebble.co.uk

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