The Grateful Dead: the greatest brand ever

Last weekend I took part in the Music Industry Conference in Syracuse. The two-day conference included panels, guest speakers and a series of great performances. I sat through lecture after lecture about how to get a record deal, the importance of branding and marketing, and what a musician must do to make it big. I left the conference with one thought: I’m glad I’m not a musician.

On Friday night – after the conference had convened for the day – I meandered over to the War Memorial to see two of the living members of the Grateful Dead with the band Furthur.

Bob Weir and Phil Lesh, two guys pushing 70, filled the auditorium with fans from every walk of life. Silver beards grooved alongside soccer moms, drug fiends and clean cut hipsters. There was no base demographic – just Deadheads.

Many people braved the wintry mix all day, spending the morning tailgating in the wind and snow. Some came from hours away without tickets to the sold out show, hoping they could score a deal and see the band.

As I looked at the massive fanbase Furthur had amassed, I couldn’t help but think of the messages of the conference that morning.Grateful Dead Marketing

“Bands don’t just magically gain followers,” said Armand Petri, a music industry professor at SUNY Fredonia. “You’ve got to be out there 24/7. You’ve got to create your brand. You’ve got to market yourselves.”

“It helps to be good looking,” said Larry Luttinger, executive director of CNY Jazz Central. “Good looking people make it in this business.”

“Don’t put out records that aren’t your best stuff and aren’t well-produced,” said Matt Ramone of Phil Ramone Music Management.

The Grateful Dead didn’t have Facebook and YouTube with which to create their brand. They allowed tapes of varying quality and content to circulate throughout San Francisco. And they sure as hell weren’t winning any beauty contests.

They grew beards, dropped acid and made up their shows as they went. Most important, they made great music. And they are the most successful touring act in history.

You could argue the band branded and marketed themselves better than anyone in history. But their strategy wasn’t an active one. It was organic. The fans created a community, which eventually became the Grateful Dead brand. Artwork and traditions arose from a group of dedicated Deadheads who followed the band around the country. Do you really think they had a marketing rep standing outside shows handing out grilled cheese sandwiches?

Granted, the Dead spoke to a different generation and existed in a different world than the one we live in today. But with a never-ending supply of bands posting material on the internet and producing CDs at almost no cost, if the Dead were up and coming today, would they have been lost today in a sea of mediocrity?

Musicians today need to be part artist and part salesman. They have to distinguish themselves. They have to network. And they need to get lucky. The lazy-stoner-genius model just isn’t as relevant as it once was.

So what would Jerry Garcia be doing if he had been born 40 years later? Would we see Dead videos popping up on YouTube? Would he be soliciting fans to “like” his page on Facebook. Worse yet – would he be tweeting?

I guess I’m grateful the Dead existed when they did. Who knows if they would have made it today.

Who knows if they would have wanted to.