Lessons from the Success of the Dead


On the Facebook page of Bluebarn, a member – Nadeem Khan – had asked me to write on why the Grateful Dead retained their popularity over three decades (till their talisman, Jerry Garcia, died in 1995) and beyond. I am a rock aficionado and while Grateful Dead are not in my top 10 (and many Deadheads rib me about that), there is no denying that Grateful Dead had, possibly, the most RABID set of followers of any band.

For those of you NOT aware of the Grateful Dead, the band was formed in 1965 in the San Francisco Bay Area. It is very difficult to classify the band’s music – it was a fusion of different genres of music and evolved over the thirty years of its existence. Why were they so successful? My take on the reasons for their longevity; marketers can learn something from these:

  1. OBVIOUSLY, A GREAT PRODUCT. Their music was like no other, blending different genres into a sound that was uniquely Grateful Dead. More importantly, their live performances were brilliant, based on a great deal of improvisation.
  2. DIE HARD FANS. Their live acts were elaborate parties. Initially, they played in Ken Kesey (author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) and his Acid Tests where people listened to their music while dropping acid. The fans actively participated in the live shows and these shows became a uniquely collective experience. Grateful Dead made sure that they had full control of the sale of their concert tickets and ensured that their die-hard fans got the best seats. Overtime, the dedicated fans came to be called Deadheads.
  3. BOOTLEG MUSIC. Unlike most other bands, Grateful Dead encouraged fans to record their live performances; this led to a flourishing bootleg business where fans would share their Dead music with others. The fan base grew.
  4. MERCHANDISING MILLIONS. Hal Kart, their principal lawyer and general counsel, also called the ‘Czar’, ensured that the band retained its intellectual property and merchandising rights. He also ensured that, unlike other bands, the Grateful Dead retained ownership of music masters and publishing rights. They made millions on these. The merchandising was unique and became collectibles.

In short, a great product and experience, a set of rabid consumers and some smart control and marketing created an almost mystical band that endured. There is a lot that one can learn from iconic brands like the Grateful Dead, Harley Davidson and others.

There are two books on the business lessons that one can learn from the success of the Grateful Dead – Marketing Lessons from the Grateful Dead by David Meerman Scott and Brian Halligan and Everything I Know About Business I Learned from the Grateful Dead: The Ten Most Innovative Lessons from a Long, Strange Trip by Barry Barnes and John Perry Barlow. I haven’t read either of the books; however, they have received good reviews and if you are a marketing guy and a Deadhead, you must surely go through these books. But even if the Grateful Dead is alien to you, you could certainly learn some valuable lessons from the band’s success and longevity.

Visual courtesy : https://www.flickr.com/photos/wickenden/

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This article was written by Joy

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