The Impact of the Grateful Dead

//David Hirsch//

I wasn’t able to make the Grateful Dead’s 50 anniversary concert this past week but as I browsed through my Facebook feed this week, so many friends and colleagues with ages ranging from their early 20s to early 50s made the journey to see one of my favorite bands perform one last time.

Reflecting back on their impact on music, distribution and society over the years made me think about the role the Grateful Dead has played in my life and pop culture. I’ve thought about this for a while but last month as I was sitting with Josh Wolfe from Lux Capital, it really hit me just how influential and ahead of their time the Grateful Dead were.

I don’t claim to be a “dead head” (although I went to a whole bunch of shows and they hold a special place in my heart for many of the reasons below as well as the fact that I went to school in Maryland during much of their prominence and we were the Terrapins) but in many ways the culture and content that followed the Grateful Dead helped pave the way for many of the Internet trends we all know so well today:

1)    Social Sharing

Most people from my generation were petrified of sharing our personal interests and information. The following around the Grateful Dead was comprised of so many people that were happy to share their interests and be open about who they were. When you went to a Grateful Dead show fans had no problem getting a ride from people they didn’t know or spending the weekend with them. Many Grateful Dead fans would plan to go to a show while figuring out their plans on the go (think Airbnb, RelayRides, etc. before they all existed). We used to travel to the show without a ticket either. The expression was “I need a miracle” and we’d figure it out because the experience was so unique. The dead was the first open API used for social sharing before Facebook.

It didn’t stop there either. As the music industry as a whole was closed and non-transparent, the Grateful Dead led with openness and transparency by giving their music away for free. They also allowed people to share tapes of their shows as long as they weren’t sold for profit. It didn’t effect them at all and in fact had a positive effect on their following. At the end of the day the only thing that stays viral is good product

2)   Personalization

Every Grateful Dead show was built around unique content and experience based on the audience. Touring was a big part of their act. So the tour took on a local presence from the band’s set selection/ Even the same songs would be different depending on the unique zip code. They exemplified real-time personalization.

Certain songs /stories resonated to different audiences and the dead would write songs about their travels. The experience was personal yet transferred a feeling that a larger audience could share too.

As we know, personalization has always been the promise of the Internet and we can learn a bit from the Grateful Dead :)

3)    Experience

Music has become a much more open industry over the course of the past decade (it still has a ways to go, but it’s getting there). The old guard model was one where the record label owned the artist much like a mortgage, but at the end of the mortgage the label owned the house. This broken model allowed revolutionary managers like Troy Carter and Scooter Braun to emerge and bring the artist back front and center. These types of managers helped launch massive brands for their artists including live music and merchandise to increase monetization and build a cultural experience around the artist.

No matter where you attended a Grateful Dead show, you knew the parking lot scene would be the same and the people would all have a level of camaraderie and friendliness. It was like Disney on Ice or any Google office around the world, you knew exactly what you were getting when you went to a Grateful Dead show. Today’s millennials value experiences over just about anything else—this was exactly what the Grateful Dead was all about.

The Grateful Dead was really one of the first bands to understand this. Their touring and the experiential nature of their concerts, not to mention signature merchandise like tie-dye tees and concert shirts made the Grateful Dead into a cult-like community and brand that so many empathized with.

4)    Maker Movement and Community

This also helped created an ancillary community where people sold their own merchandise using the Grateful Dead dancing bear or tie-dye coloring, creating a maker movement of their own. People resonated with the Grateful Dead brand and it led to a whole host of hand made products that supported it (perhaps the original Etsy). So many Grateful Dead fans became micro-entrepreneurs built off of the brand. This ecosystem had a network effect from the distributed Grateful Dead fan base, which as a result created a movement. This really builds a community and following which becomes about the fans and the people. We have seen modern audiences form similar bottom-up movements. A good example would be Pharrell’s song Happy which was performed hundreds of thousands of times by other people on YouTube. There are also Justin Bieber’s Beliebers and Lady Gaga’s Little Monsters all following in the footsteps of the Grateful Dead.

I am sure there are more instances where the Grateful Dead have been far ahead of the times. These are a few parallels that stood out to me. I know I’m personally grateful for the role the Grateful Dead has played in our society and I wanted to share a favorite lyric of mine that Mike Lazerow reminded me of: “Once in a while you get shown the light in the strangest of places of you look at it right”.