“[Skrillex] was a little nervous earlier that this would be a Grateful Dead quiz,” joked Paradigm Agency’s Jonathan Levine, the moderator of the Billboard Touring Conference’s keynote case study “The Golden Road: Lessons Learned From the Dead." “He said, ‘I don't know what they opened with for their second set at Barton Hall on May 8, 1977.’ But everyone knows it was 'Scarlett Begonias'…. “
Thankfully, the Keynote Case Study did not involve a Deadology trivia contest covering the band’s 30-year career (1965-1995) and over 2,300 shows. Instead, the lively panel focused on the music business trails the band blazed that in large measure have become standard industry operating procedure.
Deadologists: The Grateful Dead in 1979 (l-r) Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Brent Mydland, Bill Kreutzmann, Mickey Hart.
Decades before social media or the digital revolution, the Grateful Dead and their fervent Deadhead fan base created a unique and sustainable business model. This included a vibrant social network, turning touring into a major revenue stream, emphasizing one-of-a-kind live experiences and improvisation, embracing state of the art audio technology, encouraging bootlegging and music sharing, designing a powerful visual iconography and more.
Part of the keynote's appeal was the quality of the panelists who spanned generations and genres: Rock Scully managed the Grateful Dead from 1965-1985 and is author of “Living with the Dead: Twenty Years on the Bus with Garcia and the Grateful Dead;” Bay-area promoter Gregg Perloff worked with Bill Graham for 33 years (“or more”) and is CEO of Another Planet (Outside Lands, Treasure Island); Skrillex, at the tender age of 25, is an EDM sensation, Grammy winner and label co-owner; virtuoso guitarist Warren Haynes plays in Gov’t Mule and the Allman Brothers Band; Lee Anderson is an agent at dance music agency AM Only; and Sam Hunt is a rep at the indie-centric Windish Agency.
Levine, a Deadhead who saw his first of “hundreds” of Dead shows at age 14, cited Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh who said freeing their content, was the “greatest decision they never made." Eventually, that decision became deliberate as the band set aside special taping sections for bootleggers.
The Dead’s taping community, Hunt said, is similar to the after-movies contemporary EDM performers post on YouTube after events like Holy Ship! or Electric Daisy Carnival. Anderson noted the video recaps, much like the Dead’s bootlegs, help create a “sense of urgency” that compel consumers to attend future performances. Similar, but not mentioned here, are the free dance mixes uploaded to SoundCloud that in many ways resemble the live Dead bootlegs.
Uncle Jon's Band: (From Left) Lee Anderson, Warren Haynes, Sam Hunt, Jonathan Levine, Gregg Perloff, Rock Scully and Skrillex. (Photo: A Turner Archives)
Haynes credited the Dead’s healthy bootlegging scene with inspiring Gov’t Mule's “Mule Tracks,” a service that provides high quality live recordings for a fee to fans. “It has our best nights out there next to our worst,” Haynes said, “but the service has become a good source of income and it doesn’t hurt album sales.” The guitarist also spoke at length on the Grateful Dead’s devotion to improvisation and how it inspired the Allman Brothers Band to stop repeating sets and embrace jamming. He said the change motivated fans to see multiple shows while making the performance aspect “more enjoyable for the band.”
While Skrillex might seem an unlikely panelist (offstage he explained he grew up in San Francisco and that his parents were Dead fans), the young DJ said he too regularly employs the Dead’s improvisational ethos. “I don’t just hit play on the space bar and let it play the whole set,” he said, “I mix every song--and I do mess up. I’m changing my set every night and producing new records on the tour bus to test out -- so it is very much in the moment.”
Former Dead manager Scully explained that Owsley [Owsley Stanley, the band's soundman/"chemist" often associated with high-grade LSD) originally prompted the band to embrace new audio technologies. He insisted the Dead have proper monitors (the first band Scully said to do so) and perform in stereo. The band’s continual pursuit of state of the art sound came to include the band’s famed and massive “wall of sound” soundsystem (not the same as the Spector production ethos) which required significant investment on the band's part.
The Dead's in-house ticketing, according to Perlof, also helped foster community. “There was no Internet, no cell phones, no easy way to buy anything,” he said, “we would get envelopes with the most intricate artwork on them.” Scully added that the band kept a list of fans from the very beginning which helped drive their mail order business and which helped selll roughly half their concert tickets.
“Experiments in public assemblage,” was how Perloff described the Dead’s live innovations. He recalled the Dead’s 1978 Winterland gig in San Francisco with the Blues Brothers on New Year's Eve, which included breakfast served at dawn (and was the venue's last show). Much in the same way Anderson said in the last few years he helped create gigs that included a “rotating stage on a rooftop on a parking garage in downtown Los Angeles” and another where they “blindfolded fans and brought them to an unknown location for a party.”
Hunt credited the precipitous rise of EDM largely by word of mouth and the Internet without the benefit of traditional mainstream mechanisms (major labels, media, touring) as analogous to the Grateful Dead's development. As Levine noted, the Grateful Dead were one of the last big San Francisco bands of their time to sign a record deal emphasizing again how the group did most things on their own terms.
Though the event touched on many aspects of the band's music business legacy, Levine realized the session couldn't possibly cover the entirety of the Grateful Dead’s long and winding career and recommended further reading: “Everything I Know About Business I Learned from the Grateful Dead” and “Marketing Lessons from the Grateful Dead.”