The Grateful Dead weren't musical geniuses. They were marketing geniuses.
Updated: Aug 1, 2021
When I was about 13, my mom and dad took us all to Colorado on a ski trip. Growing up in Houston, I had never seen snow or mountains before and they both blew my mind. To this day, whenever it snows, I’m reminded of that ski trip. Just the sound of crusty snow crunching beneath my boots takes me right back to Colorado.
My sister and I picked it up quickly and after a day or two of ski school we were ready to hit the slopes. We started on the greens and moved up to the blues. We were too chicken to try the black diamond slopes much less the insanely scary sounding double diamond. We just assumed you had to be in the Olympics or something to go down one of those things.
Personally, the part that scared me most were the ski lifts. You had to be quick and get your butt out there just right so the lift could swoop you up and carry you away. I caused a few disasters getting the hang of it but eventually I was comfortable enough to do it on my own.
Which is how I ended up getting paired on the lift with some random ski-dude and hearing the Grateful Dead for the first time.
I was taught that when you were by yourself at the ski lift you had to yell out, “Single!” And then some other single would come and partner up with you for the ride on the lift. And that’s how I got paired up with random ski-dude.
He was right out of central casting for a cliché 1980’s ski movie. Which made sense because this would have been around 1983, so at the time I guess you could say he was very current.
He would have played the lovable stoner. Perpetually blazed. Far too laid back. And according to most scripts, usually the first one to get bullied by the obligatory 1980’s ski movie villain—the rich kid—who would ultimately receive his comeuppance in the final act of the film.
Once we got settled safely on the lift, the first thing random ski dude did was pull out a joint and light it up. He offered me a hit but I was unwise in the ways of these things at the time. I just thought it was a cigarette and told him that I didn’t smoke.
With that, he took out his Sony Walkman and popped in a cassette. After a while he turns to me and asks, “You listen to the Dead?”
I had no idea what he was talking about. Do I listen to the dead? What the fuck does he mean? Do people listen to the dead out here? I got nervous that he was some kind of Colorado ski dude cult member and listening to the dead was some sort of sinister ritual that he wanted to subject me to.
Random ski dude could tell I was confused so he handed me his headphones and he put on the song, “Casey Jones”.
And just like with the mountains and the snow, my mind was instantly blown.
Four years later, in 1987, The Grateful Dead would release the album In the Dark featuring the song “Touch of Grey”. The video ran hourly on MTV which sold large swaths of young Gen-Xers on a band that played its first gig before any of us were even born.
I went to my first Dead show that year and would see a dozen more over the next decade— including Jerry Garcia’s last show which happened to be at Soldier Field in Chicago about two months after I moved there for my first job in advertising.
The legendary concert promoter, Bill Graham, has a famous quote about the Grateful Dead. “They’re not the best at what they do, they’re just the only ones who do what they do.”
And if you know the music of the Grateful Dead then you know what he means. It’s hard for a true fan to say it, but musically, they’re easily out-mastered by any number of other bands. Jerry Garcia is not in the pantheon of rock’s greatest guitar players and as a lead singer/frontman he’s a long way from Mick Jagger.
And yet, the band not only stood the test of time but is still one of the most successful touring acts in rock ‘n roll. Even without Jerry Garcia, The Dead continues to sell out concerts far in advance. They also continues to possess and grow the most rabidly loyal fan-base any musical act has ever acquired.
Yes, the Beatles had Beatlemania. But at the end of the day those screaming teenagers went home. Deadheads are different. Some of them haven’t been home for decades. For them, the band is home.
Music is a product. Bands themselves are a product. And at the end of the day the success or failure of that product is going to rely on how it’s marketed and what the brand stands for. Record companies have known this for years and have used a very reliable playbook to sell product and grow their bands into brands.
First you sign the band. Then you record an album and promote it on the radio. And finally, you hit the road and sell as many tickets as possible.
The Grateful Dead did not follow that playbook. They were, by their own admission, a lack-luster band in the studio and the records they made weren’t particularly radio friendly. Plus, the style of music they played was highly improvisational. They never played the same song the same way. Studio albums simply weren’t their forte.
How do you market that?
The answer is that close to 50 years ago, a ragtag band of misfit hippy drug addicts figured out a marketing strategy that modern brands are just now learning to deploy effectively today.
Just like any good marketing campaign, it began with an insight. The Grateful Dead knew early on that their appeal wasn’t merely the music, it was the experience.
They grew their brand almost entirely through touring which allowed them to always be interacting with their audience. They allowed fans to record their live shows—even dedicating a special section for the taping, so the sound quality would be as good as possible. This was unheard of but it was these live recordings that became the treasured possessions of brand ambassadors all over the world. I had a roommate in college who had over 500 tapes. All neatly catalogued and lovingly displayed. I think that kid is a radiologist now.
The secret to their success was that they allowed the audience to own the brand and shape it for them. They allowed a thriving community to use their shows as a communal gathering to do with as they pleased. They allowed independent producers to create their own merchandise. The Grateful Dead did everything they possibly could to allow people to participate as much as possible.
The music served as a backdrop. It was the audience that put on the real show. The scene in the parking lot was as entertaining as the one on stage and allowed fans to immerse themselves as much as they wanted for as long as the wanted. A Grateful Dead show wasn’t a concert. It was a hub for the brand with the fan (consumer) placed squarely in the center.
When you see lists of the world’s most beloved brands it’s filled with names like Apple, Nike and Netflix. And while there are Apple fanatics, Nike die-hards and Netflix devotees not many of their customers take a year or five off to drop out and follow them around the country in a VW bus.
The Grateful Dead were an experience before experiential ever existed. They were tribal long before social media. And because they didn’t want their fans to get screwed on ticket prices, they sold direct to the customer decades before the world of e-commerce was even possible.
Clients do brand health tracker studies all the time. And then they task their ad agencies with moving its scores from like to love. We bury ourselves in data studying the likes of Google, Red Bull and Coca Cola—searching for clues as to how brands succeed in the battle for hearts, minds and dollars.
But the Grateful Dead cracked the code long ago. The band allowed the audience to be at the center of the show, so the music never stopped and the love just kept on going. As marketers, we’d do ourselves well to take what we can from the formula. I think the magic word is generosity. Brands need to give of themselves as much as possible to form lasting relationships that go well beyond the mere functional benefits of the product.
More importantly though, the lesson is about creativity, whenever possible throwing out old playbooks and carving out your own space. Because just like Bill Graham said, you don’t have to be the best at what you do when you’re the only one who does what you do.