One might argue that the Grateful Dead made their fortune through a combination of luck and savvy marketing. Realizing that after the 60s hippie culture faded away they were unlikely to make it as platinum selling recording artists, the band came to rely on touring as its steady income. Although it’s hard to see it today, when acts like the Rolling Stones gross close to $100 million from a tour, back in the 70s touring was still seen primarily as a way to promote records, not as a profit center in and of itself.
If you’re not really promoting records and you need to make money off your tour, it’s important to keep your fans happy and also convince them that there’s a reason to keep coming back. If you saw Kiss in Cleveland in 1978 it was probably nearly the same show they played, note for note, in Seattle. The Dead, as is well known, were never so predictable. But how would you know that if you just saw them once?
Whether it was planned or accident, it was genius move for the Dead to allow and encourage fans to tape and trade shows. If you could actually hear several shows from a tour, then you’d know that set 2 was completely different at Giant’s Stadium than in Chicago. That’s much greater incentive to see the band more than once on a tour.
Now, of course I’m simplifying it, but nevertheless I think there’s broad agreement that the Dead is a band that manufactured its mystique partially based upon the cult of the live recording. And the mystique of the Dead is what made them multi-millionaires with highly profitable tours and merchandising, while contemporaries graced us with ditties like “We Built This City.”
Let’s face it, the Grateful Dead have done very well, and have done so through good old fashioned capitalism. It’s true that they made their fortunes by forging a direction quite different from most of the mainstream recording industry. It’s also true that they paved a way for bands like Phish to follow.
Still, the Grateful Dead haven’t been the Grateful Dead since Jerry Garcia died ten years ago. So, even with all the merchandising and archive CD sales, income probably isn’t what it used to be. In fact Grateful Dead Hour host David Gans says that the Dead organization recently even had to downsize.
And yet, I have a hard time imagining that the remaining members of the Dead, their corporate entity, and the Garcia estate are anywhere close to going broke. In fact, I’d bet they’re still pretty damn rich.
But it’s never enough to just get rich is it? Now the Dead are getting greedy, or maybe desperate for the profits of yore. While the internet arguably increased their fan base and mystique, by allowing fans to more efficiently share their music and passion (first by giving fans an easier way to find each other, then by giving them a way to trade sound files), the Dead also figured out that they could profit directly by selling their live shows themselves over the net.
It probably was never economically feasible for the Dead to sell individual albums or CDs of each show (though they’ve been steadily releasing selected shows for the last 10 years through the Dick’s Picks series). Manufacturing and distribution can be expensive for CDs that might only sell a few thousand copies. But downloading is a whole ‘nother story, and the Dead apparently are starting to see some profit from it.
That’s why on-line trading of Dead shows is now a threat to their dear bottom line. So the Dead have asked the enormous free culture repository site, Archive.org, to cease allowing the download of their live shows. Of course, Deadheads are pissed off. Not the least of them is John Perry Barlow, a free culture advocate who was also a lyricist for the Dead, who says:
How magnificently counter-productive of them. It’s as if the goose who laid the golden egg had decided to commit suicide so that he could get more golden eggs.
Apparently, band member Phil Lesh was out of the loop, too, though he seems less upset.
I agree with Barlow, although I am not at all surprised by the move. That’s the problem with the system — once your raking in the bucks, and then see you could rake in more bucks, it’s hard not to go for it. Greed is a powerful motivator, and is very highly rewarded within the profit system.
So, I’m really not bashing on the Grateful Dead or the members of the band. Instead, I’m saying that this turn of events is quite predictable. At some point the Dead were no longer going to be a full working band, generating profitable tours and merchandise at a growing or sustaining rate. It’s at that moment–apparently now–that the enormous catalog of live performances becomes much more valuable, especially when there’s finally a feasible way to sell it.
The very nature of the company–and the Grateful Dead is a company–is that it has to grow, that’s the ideology, and that’s the dominant force of our capitalist economy. It cannot go stagnant and it cannot shrink, those are antithetical to “success,” and are punished in our economy.
This is most true for publicly traded companies, where stockholders demand ever increasing profits. But it also seems true for privately held companies, like the Dead. It’s hard just for people to see their income decline, even if the decline is from millions to hundreds of thousands.
And maybe individual members of the Dead can live with that reality, or are willing to sacrifice in service of the Dead’s philosophy on taping and trading. They can go on with their own projects and tours. But the whole organization/company may not be so willing to sacrifice.
I’m not really a fan, and I can be critical of the whole cult of the Dead, but I also do have to give them credit for attempting different ways of doing business in the music world, and generally giving their fans a lot of respect. But it remains to be seen how big a band can get and still stand apart from the mainstream’s business culture.
Maybe bands just shouldn’t ever get that big in the first place.