A Long Strange Trip to Social Media
By Tom Ryan
Unconventional in many ways over its 30-year span, the Grateful Dead are now
frequently praised for its business smarts. Some claim their success as America’s
most lucrative touring act was partly because they embraced social networking
long before the internet arrived.
The Dead first reached out to fans on the cover of its 1971 album (Skull & Roses),
asking, "Dead Freaks United: Who are you? Where are you? How are you? Send
us your name and address and we’ll keep you informed." A mailing
address for "Dead Heads" was provided.
"That was the beginning of their mailing list, which by the mid-90s had
a half-a-million people on it," Nina Nazionale, curator at the New York
Historical Society, which recently opened an exhibit on the Dead, told CBS
The newsletters provided news, gossip, occasional giveaways, and always solicited
feedback from fans. An even more innovative way the band developed its followers
was by eventually selling their own tickets. A telephone hotline alerted fans
of the band’s touring schedule before any public announcements. In this way,
some of the best seats were reserved for its most rabid fans. Moreover, a fan
living in New York could get tickets to shows in other cities to follow the
band across the country.
Barry Barnes, a business professor Nova Southeastern University in Florida,
said this helped bond fans and build the band’s counterculture community across
The other radical strategy was to let fans tape shows. While losing potential
record sales, tape-sharing among devotees significantly widened its fan base.
Speaking to Atlantic Magazine, John Barlow, one of the band’s lyricists
and long-time internet proponent, said businesses today are just recognizing
the correlation between familiarity and value.
"Adam Smith taught that the scarcer you make something, the more valuable
it becomes. In the physical world, that works beautifully," said Mr. Barlow. "But
we couldn’t regulate [taping at] our shows, and you can’t online.
The internet doesn’t behave that way. But here’s the thing: if I
give my song away to 20 people, and they give it to 20 people, pretty soon
everybody knows me, and my value as a creator is dramatically enhanced. That
was the value proposition with the Dead."
Product is also credited for the band’s success. The three-hour shows with
a focus on improvisation promised a different show every night. Obviously,
making a business case becomes complicated considering the Dead’s ties to the
But Prof. Barnes, an admitted "deadhead," references the Dead in his
classes to illustrate "strategic improvisation" and creating passion
around a brand.
"If you really want to engage your employees, and you really want to be
creative and innovative and respond in the moment to the situation at hand, then
strategic improvisation and the Grateful Dead have important lessons for the
21st century," he told CBS News.
Discussion Question: What lessons
can be learned from the success of the Grateful Dead around social media and
driving customer loyalty?
- Studying the Grateful Dead – in Biz School – CBS News
- Management Secrets of the Grateful Dead – Atlantic Magazine
- 3 Lessons on Social Media from The Grateful Dead – hightalk.net
- Jerry Garcia – Father of Open Source – churbuck.com