What the Grateful Dead knew about social media 50 years ago

The Grateful Dead recently wrapped up a 50-year career, and is one of history’s most successful bands—all without following one rule from the music industry.

The Grateful Dead recently wrapped up a 50-year career, and is one of history’s most successful bands—all without following one rule from the music industry.

OK, before I’m accused of any sort of sacrilege, I offer my full disclosure: I am NOT a deadhead. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy these impresarios of improvisation once in a while. I’m a musician, and I think the band and its various members throughout its 50-year history were pretty damn talented.

And as it turns out, the Dead were uniquely skilled in another aspect, too. They were naturally gifted (and unintentional) self-marketers that, by today’s standards, seem eerily ahead of their time.

I was thinking about that a few weeks back, as I watched the news coverage of the band wrapping up its Fare Thee Well tour at Soldier Field in Chicago. The tears and the tie-dye flowed as tens of thousands of fans, now from multiple generations, enjoyed the last of the Dead, live. Apparently, the current line-up of Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann, Mickey Hart, and Bob Weir (the “core four”); along with Bruce Hornsby, Jeff Chimenti, and Trey Anastasio; gave it their all until the last chord.

As a self-proclaimed music junkie, I’m always on the hunt for new sounds… and I’m fortunate enough to have many musical friends, a son in college, and another in high school, to keep my musical appetite well fed. Much of music today, especially some of the more innovative work, is passed around by word of mouth via friends and social media, recommendations on Spotify, poking around on YouTube, and more.

Indeed, many musicians—frustrated with the music industry “machine”—have taken to self-promotion. They put on their own concerts to connect with fans, strive to create superior-quality work, sell their music through non-conventional methods, give away their product, and encourage people to share what they’ve created. Ultimately, many artists build a niche audience, devoted to the music they make, buying whatever they produce and enjoying them in person every chance they get.

Sound familiar? It should, because the Dead were using this model decades before the words “social” and “media” were forever wed in marketing matrimony. What the Dead did, by nature and by sheer generosity, reads today like the most cutting-edge social media marketing playbook:

  • They created a product that resonated, deeply, with a very niche audience. In the Dead’s case, it was a musical gumbo made with ingredients ranging from jazz and psychedelia to bluegrass and folk. Known for their extensive jam sessions and monster improvisation skills, no two Dead concerts were ever the same.

As a marketer, you always have to take a hard look at your wares and ask yourself: Does this really cut it for my customers? Can I make it better somehow? Think of your products and services as works in progress.

  • It really was about the fan experience. The Dead were famous for pioneering sound innovations in concerts. For them, it was quality of music first, and giving people an unforgettable musical encounter. The Dead’s sound team invented the Wall of Sound—a massive system designed to blow minds and ears.

What kind of customer experience are you creating for your customers? Have you been on autopilot lately? Have you asked them?

  • They encouraged piracy and sharing. The band told their fans to bring microphones and tape recorders to shows—they even set up special “recording” sections of arenas so people would get the best sound! The only rule for tapers: Don’t sell the music. Fans could share and give the tapes to others. As a result, love and devotion grew for the Dead over the years. (Much of Dead’s heydays were analog—where tapes were shared in person or by snail mail, making its viral nature all the more impressive.) Even today, most of the Dead’s concert recordings are available online for free listening.

Talk about content marketing at its finest! Do the materials you produce have inherent value to people, or are they thinly disguised self-promotion? Ultimately, you want people to see your name on something and think, “Yes, their stuff is worth my time.”

  • They smoked the record industry model. The record industry was built on selling hit records, with the goal to go gold or platinum. Concerts were seen as a necessary evil, just to sell more records. The Dead flipped that entire notion, making concerts their primary means of connecting with fans—performing more than 2,300 in their careers (a lot of them for free). Record sales were a secondary focus. The tactic paid off for Dead. I’ve read articles that claim the group made more than $280 million in the 1990s alone from their concerts, second only to the Rolling Stones. Record sales did well, too, topping more than 35 million across the globe. Insane.

Every industry has it selling norms. How can you be wonderfully, creatively disruptive in yours?

  • They created a fiercely devoted, lifelong community of fans. Yes, the infamous “Deadheads.” They’ve been caricatured in everything from sitcoms to comic strips, but some of the Dead’s fans have been with them from the beginning. Among the most devoted enthusiasts, the more concerts you have attended, the bigger the badge of honor you wear.

The Holy Grail for any marketer is the “evangelist” customer. That usually comes about naturally, after a relationship has been cultivated and nurtured properly. Never rest on your laurels.

Today, a lot of these “tactics” are commonplace among artists trying to gain a following and build success. Diplo, the DJ and producer who has gained a worldwide fan base, started his explosive career by giving free concerts and sharing remixes via social media. Diplo is a master of social media marketing, too, whether it’s Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or Snapchat. He keeps conversation and awareness alive, and he shares cool stuff all the time. But a lot of what he does has roots in what the Dead pioneered, years ago.

It’s easy to look back and retrofit today’s marketing best practices to the Dead’s impromptu approach to music. The thing is, the Dead did what they did out of love. They delighted in making music, sharing it with fans, and creating awesome concert experiences. And, perhaps as an initial byproduct of the free-lovin’ 1960s, people responded to that generosity and authenticity. There was a healthy amount of idealism and sincerity, mixed with a helping of counter-culturalism, that made the Dead what they were.

In short, it was good stuff, shared openly. And in time, a forever-faithful fandom gave back to this small group of musicians from Palo Alto, California—probably more than any of them could have ever imagined.

– Andy Badalamenti is the creative director for CI-Group

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