The Grateful Dead's Future: Rhino's Resident Deadhead Previews What's Next
After celebrating its 50th anniversary through a series of career-spanning events and releases in 2015, the Grateful Dead turned firmly toward the future, with an array of new partnerships and pacts to bolster its legacy.
Back in 2006, the group had signed what was at the time an unprecedented 10-year exclusive licensing deal with Rhino Entertainment to handle all facets of its intellectual property. With that agreement set to expire on May 31, 2016, the band's team of advisers set out nine months ahead of the deadline to identify the proper channel for those rights.
Spearheading the efforts were Bernie Cahill and his team at ROAR, who had been hired in early 2015 by the Dead's board of directors to manage the band's ongoing business. "We basically had a request for proposal [RFP] process, which is pretty unusual for the music industry, where things are generally more casual," says Cahill. "Theoretically, we could have had three different partners: one for masters, one for the licensing/IP and one for merchandise. Warner/Rhino had a seat at the table, but we also received proposals from all the major players and boutique companies that were best in class in these categories. At the end of the day, Warner was able to win the business again through a combination of the trust they already established and upping their game by adding some team members and refocusing on international." While the deal does not quite extend to a decade, both parties describe the term as "significant."
Rhino president Mark Pinkus was not only instrumental to these results but no doubt breathed a personal sigh of relief at the outcome, for beyond his professional commitments, he is a longtime Deadhead. A 17-year-old Pinkus first saw the band perform on July 13, 1984, in Berkeley, Calif., at the Greek Theatre. Pinkus, who had attended as something of a lark, witnessed the only time the band ever encored with its rare, exploratory composition "Dark Star." "At the end I said, 'I have no idea what that is, but we need to go again tomorrow, and I'm going to listen to this for the rest of my life."
He finally got the chance to work directly with the group in 2010. Up until that point, Pinkus, who joined Rhino in 1992 and was then a vice president (he became president in 2014), had not been working with the Dead catalog, but instead as a consultant (aka Rhino's "resident Deadhead"). However, following a personnel shift, Pinkus was invited to run point, and in his first meeting with the surviving band members he offered to demonstrate his fandom by singing any Dead song they suggested. He met their challenge by delivering the first lines to Bob Weir's "Victim or the Crime." "I was somewhat delighted because it wasn't a big fan favorite," says Weir with a chuckle.
Drummer Mickey Hart sums up the relationship that ensued, affirming, "I know Mark Pinkus truly loves what we did, both socially and musically. The care taken by Mark with each new release is just breathtaking, from the grooves of code or the sweetness of vinyl to the liner notes, the artwork and all the rest. A spectacular package is created that brings back vividly that very night, or nights, so long ago. In return, we feel confident about the passion he brings to the experience of representing our music, which is precious to us."
Pinkus manifested that perspective at dinner the next evening with Grateful Dead archivist David Lemieux, agreeing to greenlight one of Lemieux's passion projects: a box set containing all 22 performances from the Dead's Europe '72 Tour. The sale price was projected at $450 for the 72 discs (while that number made for nice symmetry, the final total was 73), and, says Lemieux, "I had been pitching it for years but it was either shot down or laughed at." By contrast, Pinkus charged Lemieux and himself to assess whether, as longtime fans, they would make such a purchase. Pinkus remembers, "We looked at each other and said, 'Definitely.' " And their fellow Deadheads did just that, crashing the band's website in January 2011 after attempting to order the 7,200 limited-edition sets, which sold out in a week and led Rhino to release a version without the bonus material (which also sold out).
A similar series of events just unfolded in mid-February, when Dead.net began taking preorders for the forthcoming May 1977: Get Shown the Light, an 11-disc set that will feature four consecutive shows (May 5, 7-9). In this case, fans eager to acquire one of the 15,000 available units, priced at $139.98, overloaded the server but purchased all available sets in four days, a new record for the group.
The set also marks a milestone for the band as the first official release of its famed live performance from May 8, 1977, at Cornell University's Barton Hall, which Lemieux calls "the American Beauty of live shows." Amir Bar-Lev, director of the forthcoming Grateful Dead documentary Long Strange Trip, adds, "For as long as I've been a Deadhead, Barton Hall '77 was considered by many to be the greatest show they ever pulled off."
The fact that the band was able to blow out sales of a box set that centers on what may not only be its most beloved show but, due to its stature, also its most circulated recording, says much about the staying power of the Dead's catalog. What's equally significant (and bodes similarly well for the future of the band's sanctioned releases) is that although the performance was added to the Library of Congress' National Recording Registry in 2011, the soundboard tapes were not in its vault until a few months ago. When they arrived, they were part of a collection of 80 shows known as the "Betty Boards."
Betty Cantor-Jackson was one of the Dead's sound engineers both in the studio and on the road. Due to financial difficulties, she was forced in 1986 to jettison many of her worldly possessions, which included a storage locker with more than 1,000 reel-to-reel tapes of the Dead and other Bay Area acts. The tapes were acquired by three separate parties during a storage auction. In the years that followed, copies of these recordings eventually found their way into personal collections, initially through clandestine swaps and later through online channels. In 2012, Rob Eaton, an engineer who also plays guitar in the Dead tribute band Dark Star Orchestra, endeavored to locate and preserve the tapes, some of which were deteriorating. Through his efforts the stashes were eventually consolidated, and protracted negotiations ensued to return the reels to the vault.
Last May, 30 years after the original auction, a few of those tapes from the band's fabled 1978 run at Red Rocks in Colorado were sourced for July 1978: The Complete Recordings. However, explains Pinkus, that box was "a one-off," good-faith deal. "At that point, it was very up in the air if a deal for all of the Betty Boards would ever happen. The overall deal was closed in late 2016 and tapes were brought straight to Burbank upon signing to begin ... cleaning them up and getting them to Jeffrey Norman to begin the mastering. If the deal would have closed any later, we would have missed the 40th anniversary of Cornell."
The Betty Boards are now integral to the ongoing plans for the catalog. "It's not just that we have 80 shows in the vault that we didn't have before," says Lemieux. "It's also 80 of the best shows the Dead ever did. It gives us a little more variety that we can release at a bigger quality."
One of Pinkus' early decisions was to retire the archival Road Trips series, which issued recordings on an intermittent schedule. He replaced it with Dave's Picks, a quarterly subscription series named in honor of Lemieux, with a nod to longtime Grateful Dead archivist Dick Latvala and his Dick's Picks releases. Production is limited to 16,500 copies, and they have all sold out in advance.
Beyond these new acquisitions, Rhino's plans also extend to the Dead's studio output. The label issued a 50th-anniversary edition of the band's eponymous debut, newly mastered from the original tapes, along with a bonus disc of rare live music from 1966. This will be followed in 2018 by the 50th anniversary of Anthem of the Sun. Beyond that, while Pinkus intends to rerelease the albums in order, "for the sake of my age, we are not going to wait for the 50th anniversary of In the Dark  and Built to Last . We'll shrink the timeline. Through these reissues we will be able to reposition how great this band was in the studio. The 13 studio LPs were every bit as exciting as their live shows."
Outside of the Rhino releases, there is still much more Dead-related output to follow. Amazon Studios acquired Bar-Lev's Long Strange Trip following its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January. In May, the company will release the documentary by the director of such movies as My Kid Could Paint That and The Tillman Story. By all accounts, the film, with Martin Scorsese as executive producer, is a nuanced exploration of the band's internal process and the surrounding cultural context. Cahill says, "It's an incredible film. Fans will love it, and so will the audience with a passive interest in the Dead."
When asked what he might have taken away from viewing the documentary, Weir says he learned "the story is so enormous and multifaceted that it's kind of a fool's errand to try to do that movie in four or five hours. That said, he has done a pretty amazing job."
As to whether there might be an accompanying album, Pinkus says with a laugh, "All I can say is that most great films have great soundtracks."
Cahill carved out a few categories from the Rhino deal, which may well yield some new offerings later this year. "We're going to announce a new and very significant partnership that is going to focus on high-fidelity streaming in the fourth quarter of 2017, if all goes well," he says.
Another area of opportunity is the cannabis industry; Cahill notes, "If we move forward from exploration to execution, it will be major."
In the licensing realm, the Dead maintains a steady commercial presence, with partners including Under Armour, Burton Snowboards, Junk Food Clothing, Levi's, D'Angelico Guitars and Crocs. But the band is far from ubiquitous, calling to mind Garcia's assessment of its popularity: "We're like licorice. Not everybody likes licorice, but the people who like licorice really like licorice."
Above all else, Pinkus underscores that the group's creative output remains vital and resonant. "Do I think Deadheads will ever get enough of the shows being released? Absolutely not," he says. "It's the same reason we go to a Picasso exhibit every time it's at LACMA. What the Dead created was great music, and like Beethoven or Brahms, they will stand the test of time. This band performed 2,300 shows, and through my Deadhead lens I won't rest until I have all 2,300. Then I'll go back and start listening again."