Success Lessons from The Grateful Dead

Think the Grateful Dead were just a bunch of stoned-out hippie musicians?  You’d be Dead wrong. 

I can almost hear you groaning: “Coach — the GRATEFUL DEAD??? What the heck do THEY have to do with success?” The answer is plenty, including longevity. Two decades have passed since their legendary lead guitarist Jerry Garcia died, yet the remaining four original band members (Phil Lesh, Bob Weir, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart) still go on tour, both collectively and with solo projects. Their latest incarnation, Dead & Company, is kicking off a summer tour to continue their long, strange trip.

I went to over fifty Grateful Dead concerts since I got on the bus with them in the 70’s. Now I know fifty shows sounds like a lot, but for those who attended hundreds, I’m a relative lightweight among Dead Heads, as their fans are affectionately known or disdained, depending on your point of view. And I declare I learned a lot by following them. To quote a line from their song Scarlet Begonias, “Once in a while you get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right.” So let me break it down for you:

• Passion We’ve all heard the saying, “Do what you love and the money will follow.” The Grateful Dead are all about the love of sharing music with their legion of rabid followers. In the early years they could have cared less about money, going deep into debt as they went on the road again and again, constantly touring over the years. Formed in 1965, it took into the mid-80’s before the band began to see its cash flow swell. Would you be willing to pursue your passion for 20 years without having much financial success to show for it?

• Work as play The Dead’s founders played over 2,300 concerts between 1965 and 1995. Most lasted three-plus hours, twice as long as your typical rock show. And no two of their performances were identical, as compared with the majority of bands that play the same songs in the same order every night. The group’s members claimed it was the variety of their set lists that kept them energized rather than bored with each other over the years. So one could ask, was this really “work” for them, or were they just playing in the band? This spirited attitude kept their fans coming back tour after tour to experience a singular musical miracle each night – there was simply nothing like a Grateful Dead concert. Isn’t it a worthy ideal to turn our work into play?

• Persistence  Even though their success might appear matter-of-fact today, all successful people know the many hardships they went through before they made it to the promised land of prosperity. The Grateful Dead had more than their fair share of adversity, from being continually harassed for their parking lot scene by the local gendarmes in every city they visited, to being panned by rock critics as being a “psychedelic-relic greatest hits band,” to having their entire bankroll embezzled in 1970 by their manager (incredibly, the father of one of their drummers), to the death of not one, not two, but THREE keyboardists in 30 years. Not to mention they failed at running their own concert hall and record company, and had zero number one radio hits. But they just kept truckin’ on and on. Do you have that kind of resilience?

• Improvisation The granddaddy of all jam bands, the Grateful Dead were known for unrehearsed sonic explorations. Their second-set jams often clocked in at over 20 minutes, and no one (not even the band!) knew where they were going. This unique approach kept the faithful fully engaged with lengthy improvised rambles on such tunes as Dark Star, never played the same way twice. These musical trips into the unknown were risky, occasionally falling short of the mark. (Trust me — once in a while a jam would just plain suck.) But when it clicked, it was pure magic — no one else came close to the never-to-be-repeated sound they collectively created on the spot. When the need arises, are you creative (and gutsy enough) to risk improvising solutions in your line of work? 

• Technological savvy  The Grateful Dead were often well ahead of the technological curve. They spent huge wads of cash on equipment to get the best musical fidelity possible, including their infamous mid-70’s Wall of Sound — a gargantuan amplifier set-up that literally dwarfed the band members. They refined the art of the light show, set up their own ticketing agency to keep scalping to a minimum and, in recent times, pioneered direct-to-consumer digital audio recording sales of their live concerts, much to the dismay of music industry middlemen. How are you keeping up with changing technology? (Speaking of technology: If you can’t make it to the Santa Clara or Chicago shows, you can stream them live in the comfort of your own home. We love them for that!)

• Marketing mavens Quick — when you see a tie-dye t-shirt, who comes to mind?  Fifty years after the band’s inception, “Brand Dead” is still going strong: The Grateful Dead Store is profitably hawking everything from vintage ’60’s concert posters to logo baby wear.  They’ve got the kind of marketing staying power that rivals other rock and roll icons like Elvis and the Beatles. I suspect you even have Steal Your Face t-shirt tucked away in a drawer or a Jerry Garcia tie in your closet. Is your marketing effort helping you stand out from the crowd over time?

• Giving back Nobody played more benefit concerts in their time than the Grateful Dead. The Rex Foundation, a not-for-profit organization they formed in 1984, has given away millions of dollars over the years to support worthy philanthropic programs. This has spawned hundreds of other socially conscious rock and roll fundraising efforts. The band seemed to intuitively know that generosity breeds prosperity. What I want to know is, are you kind enough to give?

• Giving it away Warner Bros., their initial record company, was clueless about how to push sales of Grateful Dead studio records. And to the horror of the Warner Bros. executives, the band allowed audience members to tape their live concerts, then share these recordings — free, of course — with other Dead Heads around the world. The Dead didn’t really have a clue that this unprecedented generous gesture was a forerunner of today’s viral marketing – they just wanted to let people experience their live shows if they couldn’t personally attend. Their giving mentality created perhaps the most devoted fan base of any rock band ever. What can you give away that will help you develop that kind of following?

• Fun factor One Dead song captures the spirit of living in the moment: “We may be going to hell in a bucket, but at least I’m enjoying the ride.” The members of the band eschewed pretentious rock star stereotypes, preferring to be low key, humble and especially playful when interacting with their fans and the media. They never took themselves seriously, preferring to let their music speak for itself. And you gotta love a band who got a standing ovation for coming out on stage and tuning up for 10 minutes before the start their first number. Are you having fun yet?

• The bottom line Famed rock concert promoter Bill Graham once said of the Grateful Dead, “They’re not the best at what they do. They are the only ones that do what they do.” This was truly a band beyond description, and it ultimately paid off handsomely for the musicians. Hard as it may be to believe for some, the Grateful Dead were one of the highest grossing touring acts in the entire entertainment business during the ten-year period between 1985 and 1995, outdrawing (and out earning) the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Madonna and Michael Jackson. How have your last ten years been?

Evidently my fellow Dead Heads’ love for the band and their music will not fade away, demonstrating the band’s amazing staying power. For those of us who have been along for the ride over the past five decades, there will be more than a touch of grey in the audience at these upcoming shows as we let our freak flag fly just one more time.

Goes to show you don’t ever know — if you follow the success lessons of the Grateful Dead, you can have a sunshine daydream of a life. After all these years I’m still dead set on success – care to join me on the bus? (You might as well …)

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