"Abraham and Isaac sitting on a fence, you’d get right to work if you had any sense. You know the one thing we need is a left-hand monkey wrench."
–Robert Hunter, 1971.
Friday night past, a friend e-mailed me dozens of links to live recordings of Grateful Dead shows. The interesting thing about these live recordings wasn’t their sound quality (amazing) or their effect on my evening. No. What’s cool about these recordings is the story behind them. The recordings were made by people called "tapers" — fans who record concerts and share them with others. The phenomenon of recording music and distributing it outside traditional avenues did not begin with Shawn Fanning (the "Napster" dude). It didn’t even begin with the Grateful Dead.
But the Dead changed the game.
While I spent the weekend revisiting some of the greatest concert moments of my life, I flashed forward and realized the Grateful Dead brand is one of the greatest stories ever told.
Playing in the Band
Go beyond the tie-dye. The legendary concerts. The "Electric Kool-Aid."
Go beyond what the Grateful Dead means to people now.
Start at the beginning and follow their path to the top of the world stage, a path marked by the breadcrumbs of die-hard customers who embody a lifestyle based on the brand’s culture.
Before they called themselves the Grateful Dead, they were the Warlocks, and even then were contemplating doing something that would transform them into a phenomenon — THE phenomenon — that sold out more concerts, toured more dates, and sold more merchandise than any other band.
Think about their popularity for a moment. This is a band from the ’60s that doesn’t exist anymore. And in some ways, they’re more loved today than they were in their heyday.
The question is: How did they build their brand?
From the start, the Dead allowed their fans to record live concerts despite severe objections from their record label. As the band grew in popularity and pressure from the record label to sell more albums increased, the Dead continued to support the recording of live concerts.
Of course, the rest of the music industry frowned on this. Instead of relying on the basic tenets of brand-building — record sales, Billboard rankings, radio rotation, high-priced swag — this weird, forward-thinking band chose to give away its most prized possession: its musical content.
To support its fans’ desires, the Dead would section off areas behind the soundboard specifically for tapers to record, thereby ensuring quality audio. Then the music was disseminated worldwide. For free.
In theory (the theory of the record labels and the music industry, that is), the Dead would never make a single dime from this.
But progressive cats are born to blow theories to hell.
The Grateful Dead — as a brand — flourished.
Perhaps it was based on some communal connection to their customers (otherwise known as fans). Or the idea that a band would sacrifice monetary rewards to the idea that music can change the world. Or just the maudlin notion that love can change the world.
Whatever the actual working mission statement of the Grateful Dead was, the band did the only thing it could do to further this notion — the only thing that made sense.
It unshackled its intellectual content — its music — and set it free.
Today, Brand Dead lives on through licensed artwork, clothing and other memorabilia, all sought after by loyal fans, young and old alike. From the baby boomers who were there for the last show at the Fillmore West to adolescent kids who were born on the evening Jerry breathed his final breath.
It’s a testament to brand.
Today, the real estate industry is a collective of company marquees and individual neon brands flashing on Main Street. They look and sound exactly alike.
Few really live and breathe their mission statement. Few really back up the claims presented to the consumer through advertising.
Few really execute on their "all about the consumer" rhetoric.
As a result, they are like dire wolves going down the road feeling bad, bad, bad, singing some "Deep Elem Blues." Hence, their own personal broken-down palaces.
Look, I’m aware that my attempt to draw some kind of parallel between a hippie band’s plan to allow free dissemination of copyrighted content against the wishes of the entire music industry and the vast potential for someone in our industry to rage against traditional philosophies regarding distribution of listing information, sold information, and all the others is a bit of a stretch. Nebulous, to boot.
But the message here, quite simply, is about the value of branding. The Grateful Dead lived, breathed and (yes) inhaled its brand. The band believed in something. For our purposes, let’s surmise that the belief was this: Music is love, and love can change the world. And love should be free.
From that notion, every single decision was made with the customer’s first and best interest in mind. From venue selection to sound amplification to ticket pricing, swag design and pricing to their set lists. Every touch-point was consistent with the band’s ideal. And the fans have felt it for 40 years.
This is the story of an "American Beauty." Will it be yours?
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