The Grateful Dead Was Successful Because They Thought Like Millennials

There was a meeting in there early seventies. If this was any other group there wouldn’t have even been a meeting. But here they were. Six guys putting their heads together to figure out what to do.

In August 2019, former Grateful Head drummer, Mickey Hart shared the details of this meeting. The issue they were racking their heads around was how do they handle fans bootlegging their concerts? Any other band would have said “screw ‘em, this is how we make a living.” But, The Grateful Dead wasn’t any other band.

Dead heads were loyal fans to the group that didn’t fit perfectly into any single category. Attending their concert was far more than just seeing the band live. It was a full-on experience that was impossible to understand unless you were there. So it’s no wonder that the Grateful Dead thought twice before kicking out anyone seen with a recorder.

The problem wasn’t limited to just potential lost sales. There were plenty of attendees with recording equipment that had hoped to make some extra cash on the side. Unfortunately, the recording equipment at the time was fairly bulky and could end up blocking someone else’s view of the stage. This reason alone would completely justify the band in eliminating all recording devices from the crowd. But, the band wanted to make sure they didn’t tarnish the experience for anyone.

According to Hart, they “had the choice of either taking their machines away from them, putting them somewhere and giving them a ticket to reclaim them afterwards,” but, that became a real hassle. Not only that, it would be diametrically opposed to what the band stood for. In that same meeting they decided they didn’t want to be cops. The consensus of the group was “let them come in, let them tape.”

But, the band didn’t stop there. They were the Grateful Dead! As Hart puts it, “we’re the Grateful Dead, you know? We can’t stop them from doing anything, as long as they’re not hurting anybody.” And with that, they decided to make a section just for those recording their shows.

The results of this one decision were unexpected and extraordinary. The Grateful Dead are now known as one of the most, if not THE most, successful touring bands of all time. Don’t get me wrong, they were unique, innovative, and the template for jam bands to come, so they were amazing in their own right. But, the decision to not shun those with recording equipment catapulted them from a band with a cult following to a nationwide sensation.

Why is that, though? How did embracing the fans with recording equipment set them apart from other tours at the the time. It’s not just a “zig when they zag” mentality. No, it’s a mentality that puts the fans first even when it may mean losing money.

Here’s what would happen. Billy, a faithful Dead Head, would invite his friends to join him as he traveled a hundred miles to see his favorite band live. Not being too familiar with the Dead, other than knowing a song here or there, they would all decline. Billy, undeterred by having no one to go with, would bring his trusty recorder along.

Billy has traveled quite a bit in one day. It’s the early seventies so a hundred mile trek is a little bit more strenuous than it is now. He makes sure to get there early enough that traffic nor any other unforeseen incident will keep him from seeing the Dead take the stage. Frustrated that none of his friends wanted to join him, he makes sure that he brought a tape recorder to show them just what they missed.

The gate attendant, a glorified mall cop who thinks they have authority and the mandate to police the venue, finds Billy’s recorder. The attendant tells Billy to come with them. There’s a moment of fear as Billy thinks he has just messed up his chance to see the Dead live. To his relief, the rent-a-cop places him right behind the audio engineer.

Billy is stunned. His body feels like Jell-O as every muscle relaxes from the tense few minutes of wondering what was about to happen to him. As he calms he starts to notice those right beside him all have recorders. Beginning with some small chitchat with those around him, he learns that the Dead are completely ok with their concerts recorded. As Jerry Garcia leads the band on stage Billy hits the record button and completely forgets about the device in is hands as he mouths the words to every song along with the band.

Now it’s Monday, and Billy made a few copies of his recording to share with his closest friends. He tell them the story of not getting kicked out of the venue when his recorder’s discovered. He tells them that the Dead are even better live. And, just incase they don’t believe him, he gives them each a cassette with the Grateful Dead live.

Now, here’s where it gets interesting from a marketing standpoint. Some of Billy’s friends think it’s pretty good. One or two may just not care as they prefer the harder sounds of Led Zeppelin and The Doors. But, there is one friend who is blown away by the full concert he hears coming out of his speakers.

Billy’s friend plays the concert over and over again but there is a problem. He notices a few audio issues here and there. The biggest issue he has is the sound is somewhat distorted. He gets that there is only so much you can expect from personal recording equipment but, he wants more. He wants the best quality he can get coming from his home stereo system. That’s when he decides to just pick up his own copy of the Grateful Dead. A pristine recording that’s masterly mixed for optimal sound.

A couple of years later, Billy and his friend are hanging out and they hear on the radio that the Grateful Dead will be performing just thirty minutes away. Billy looks at his friend and instantly knows that they’re thinking the same thing. This time, Billy won’t be seeing the Grateful Dead alone.

This is a great example of how the Dead reached more fans and grew a huge following. But, very few in the music industry actually grasped what happened here. And overlooking this basic lesson will lead to millions in lost revenue.

In the late nineties, there was an awesome (or terrible, depending on who you are) service called Napster. We had the ability to download songs for free. That may not seem that special in an age where ten dollars a month will give you access to all the music you could dream but, before the age of streaming services like Spotify, it was liberating.

The nineties had a lot of great music, especially if you were into grunge and alternative rock. It was also the first time we had PORTABLE digital music players. Listening to a CD on the go seemed pretty awesome at the time. But, it had plenty of challenges like hoping that the slightest movement wouldn’t cause it to skip. Before long, we were blown away by the iPod, or the Diamond Rio Player if you didn’t have an iMac. With Napster providing an unlimited array of MP3’s we consumed music in a completely different way.

This is where history is forgotten. The music industry, lead by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), became concerned about the revenue lost to pirated music. Lead by an army of lawyers the RIAA was out for blood. How can teens even think about playing a single song without paying the companies that produced and marketed the albums they produced? To show the industry’s resolve, they even took a few kids to court.

But, what did they overlook? First, the RIAA focused on the potential revenue lost. They even recruited a few bands, Metallica being one, to plead fans to not pirate their music. So, it’s no surprise that the industry as a whole missed the point of free music. Remember, the bootleggers at Grateful Dead concerts was FREE grassroots marketing for the Dead.

The other misstep was forgetting what the generally accepted business model was. See, each band had their top hits that everyone wanted and the producers knew how to maximize profits. They would make sure to put each hit on separate albums, with lesser songs as filler, so that they were essentially selling a single song at a huge premium.

Ultimately, the industry overlooked the dollars bootlegging could bring them to protect the nickels they might lose. To prove this point, we just need to look at the industry’s solution to pirated digital music. Their mission to prevent unauthorized downloads of songs lead to their greatest dip in profits.

A company that had barely escaped bankruptcy claimed to have the solution to all of the RIAA’s woes. Their new device was a proprietary piece of hardware that would only work with a proprietary piece of software. That’s how Apple was able to convince the music industry that it was the solution to combat piracy. With Digital Rights Management (DRM), the industry could rest assured that every download produced a fraction of revenue.

What’s ironic is that pirated music actually increased revenue for the industry as a whole. But, the labels and producers didn’t just cut off a source of free advertising. Implementing DRM with Apple came with one trade off. Instead of purchasing albums, listeners now had the option to buy individual songs. This meant that you were no longer forced to buy a whole album to have access to the hits. The result was massive loss in revenue for the music industry.

The Grateful Dead didn’t worry about how much revenue was lost with each bootlegged tape. Ultimately, they wanted to play music and make sure that their fans enjoyed the experience. Millennials don’t care about money (after basic needs are met) and this seems alien to older generations. What we know as a generation is that there are things more important than money. We focus on authenticity and generosity which leads to self-worth. That may not always mean an increase in money or profits but, it does mean an increase in value.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store