Billboard Touring Conference: How ‘Fare Thee Well’ Achieved ‘Super Bowl’ Numbers for The Dead, and Helped Phish Find New Fans
The behind-the-scenes work it took to pull off the Grateful Dead "Fare Thee Well" shows formed the basis of a panel at the Billboard Touring Conference in New York City Nov. 19.
The road may have come to an end (for now) for the Grateful Dead, but the legendary band’s historic 50th anniversary Fare Thee Well shows this summer — two at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara in June and three final shows over Fourth of July weekend at Chicago’s Soldier Field — still cast a wide ripple. And the behind-the-scenes work it took to pull them off formed the basis of a panel at the second day of the Billboard Touring Conference in New York City Nov. 19.
Moderated by Billboard news director Shirley Halperin, the panel discussion included Barry Drinkwater, CEO of Global Merchandising Services; attorney Eric Greenspan, partner at Myman Greenspan Fineman Fox Rosenberg & Light LLP; Tim LeFevour, general manager of Soldier Field; Mike Luba, a partner at Madison House Presents; Cole Marley, director of ticketing at Ticketstoday; and Peter Shapiro, founder of DayGlo Ventures who has been credited as the driving force in putting the shows together. Billed as a breakdown on the biggest concert event in history, the panel dove into the particular challenges of pulling off the largest live event by a single band in the world.
The scale of the shows is well-known now; 362,000 attendees, a $52 million gross, more than 175,000 paid live streams to computers, phones, PPV cable boxes, movie theaters and venues around the world, and a merchandise and concessions take that LeFevour described as “Super Bowl numbers.” But the biggest initial obstacle was getting the four surviving members, their four individual managers and four individual teams, to agree on anything at all, something that Luba compared to “herding cats.” “It came together because Pete has a very personal relationship with the guys and was able to have conversations with them that managers and agents couldn’t have,” he said.
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Once the organizers jumped that hurdle, they had to navigate the logistics of catering to such a dedicated and particular fan base, one which demands the freedom to party and hang out outside and nearby the venue. LeFevour and Shapiro described repeated conversations with local authorities, including the mayor and police, to allow for those freedoms, while the city of Chicago played host to as many as 50 related but unaffiliated events around the city, with the Dead logo appearing on pizza boxes and at restaurants and themed parties popping up left and right. “With winter coming to Chicago, we believe the last Deadhead has left the lakefront,” LeFevour joked at one point, before telling a story about helping a man leading a goat find his way back to Michigan Avenue. It’s safe to say that goat herders in need of directions aren’t part of the usual package when putting together concert tours.
One of the biggest takeaways was the effect that the shows had on Phish, a dedicated touring entity in and of itself, whose guitarist Trey Anastasio filled in for Jerry Garcia at each show. “Part of the magic of this thing is that Phish is a giant band in their own right and had such a giant community around them already,” Luba said. “I think Trey was so ego-less about it and he learned a lot, which will make Phish better.” Shapiro said that Phish’s subsequent tour benefited from the shows as well, as Deadheads who had previously shunned the band came out in numbers after Anastasio’s performance filling in on Fare Thee Well.
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With an eye geared more towards vibe than profit — though there was plenty of that in the end — the organizers declined all corporate sponsorships save for one deal with a florist to provide 50,000 roses for fans each night, paying tribute to a key piece of Dead imagery. But there’s only so much planning that can happen when putting together an event on such a large scale. “It got so big in the end, you couldn’t control it,” Shapiro said. “This one we had to put it in the hands of our team, and you just pray that it goes well. And it went well.”