A Long Strange Trip to Social Media

Apr 09, 2010
Tom Ryan

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 country.

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
drug counterculture.

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?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.

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7 Comments on "A Long Strange Trip to Social Media"

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Max Goldberg
11 years 1 month ago

The Dead ignored many of the current practices of the music industry and did things their way. And it worked. They had an ongoing dialogue with their fans. They consistently delivered a new and exciting product. And they were willing to seed the market by making an essential part of their product free. The music industry scoffed at these practices. I would venture to say that the Dead are in far better shape financially than the big music companies.

Joan Treistman
11 years 1 month ago
Does anyone else remember the flourish of activity among beer distributors trying to replicate Corona’s success story…the ability of Word of Mouth to create brand engagement? Some things just happen. Now I’m not saying that there was no business acumen behind the marketing success of The Grateful Dead. But the stars had to align. The Grateful Dead engaged their audience…with their music, their lifestyle and the aura (scent?) of their performances and the ability to embrace their audience by making them feel wanted and a part of their performance and being. You can label that Social Media, an excellent business model, Showmanship, Entrepreneurship, etc. But as far as I know it evolved. Phish fashions itself similarly…each performance is different than the one before it. They improvise (maybe not as much as the Dead), their audience (Phish Heads) follows them from venue to venue and so it goes. Now could the Jonas Brothers do that? I don’t think so. The image they have and wish to perpetuate is not consistent with the Dead or Phish imagery… Read more »
Mark Baum
Mark Baum
11 years 1 month ago

Jerry is laughing his ass off (in his grave) listening to all of us pontificate and posit theories about The Dead’s prescient understanding of social media! …”A Band Beyond Description”….

Doron Levy
Doron Levy
11 years 1 month ago

I wonder if any of this was done with purpose. I mean I’m riding that train’ with Casey Jones and Cherry Garcia is the best Ben & Jerry’s flavor. I think The Dead were just a bunch of semi-talented guys that had some messages to deliver. At the time it spoke to a whole generation. These guys just happen to be a band that has a lot of staying power. Nobody’s asking Cats Can Fly how they market themselves….

M. Jericho Banks PhD
M. Jericho Banks PhD
11 years 1 month ago
The Dead were designed for Rolling Stone, not for Tiger Beat. For pre-Grungers, not for Hullabaloo devotees. For outsiders, not for cliquers. And therein lies their counterculture appeal. The Dead sold and still sells an attitude, but not necessarily music. Some of their tunes are iconic, but only in a counterculture way. Moderately talented musicians, vocalists, and writers, they rode the wave of the San Francisco, Airplane, Bill Graham/Fillmore, cannabis-influenced, pre-Seattle “message movement.” (Ever hear a band covering a Dead tune?) A great deal of their appeal to the disenfranchised was their overt yet laid-back illicitness. Softly rebellious, they still appeal to their original fans today – many of them retired and with grandchildren. This long-term loyalty is, I believe, more about bootleg, cult-like, word-of-mouth image than any sort of formal networking. In Topeka during summers home from college I worked in a liquor store. We sold many, many cases of Coors beer to travelers driving east. Coors wasn’t available east of Kansas back then, but the brand enjoyed a tremendous reputation in the East… Read more »
Kai Clarke
11 years 1 month ago

Word of mouth advertising and direct promotion are NOT social media, and certainly are not a precursor to today’s social networking sites. The Dead did what many other bands and smart promoters have done over the years–established a brand and cultivated it. Mailing lists have been used and grown by everyone from Procter and Gamble to the Wall Street Journal. Rewarding loyalty and loyalty programs were already underway with automobiles, brokerage houses (who reward their best clients with the first choice of an IPO) and airlines. This is nothing new or out of the ordinary. Add to this concert and movie promotions and you create the same kind of promotional positioning of a brand that successful companies have done for years.

Ralph Jacobson
11 years 1 month ago

It’s all about connecting with the audience. Past or present. Great examples with tons of products over the decades, be they artists, consumer products, or stores. Apple, Kettle Foods, and others. There are things that can be transferred to our retail world from what The Dead did, like providing a forum for their fans, etc. Today, with so many companies vying for attention, a real strategy is required, however the opportunities to gain a loyal following are still there.


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