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Business Lessons From the Grateful Dead

If you grew up in the ‘70s you probably listened to at least a little rock music.  You may have even listened to hard rock.  The harsh, loud music with rude undertones really appealed to the irreverent youth of the day.    The screeching guitar, the angry pounding of the drum, the frantic keyboard runs that made our parents’ heads hurt and made their eyes cross resonated with the establishment challenging, free thinking, inquisitive nature of those of us who are now baby boomers.   .

Even though we looked up to rock musicians, we made some negative assumptions about them.  We thought that they were pot heads.  They were probably lazy and did not mind wearing dirty clothes.   We were sure that they were so cool and probably not very bright.  They partied 24 hours a day and let the future take care of itself.

I would have sworn that this perception was true until I my opinion got challenged by Atlantic Wire in an article called The Management Secrets of the Grateful Dead.

The Grateful Dead was able to create a social phenomenon before the time of social media.  .

There was an  instant bond among deadheads that seemed to transcend any distances.  Deadheads were instantly accepting of each other and instantly friends, able to accept a connection just because they all loved the Grateful Dead.

This type of instant connection regardless of distance is now the latest marketing and communications tool being used by all of the stalwarts of American business and industry.  It is called LinkedIN, Facebook, MeetUp, etc. etc. etc.

The Grateful Dead were ahead of their time.

The band pioneered ideas and practices that were ultimately embraced by corporate America. One was to focus intensely on its most loyal fans. It

established a telephone hotline to alert Deadheads of its touring schedule ahead of any public announcement.  They reserved the best seats in the house and capped ticket prices for their loyal fans.

Treating customers well just seems like common sense today.  But in the 60s and 70s this was not the standard practice in most US corporations.

The Grateful Dead were ahead of their time.  The Dead became one of the most profitable bands of all time because they did things that business consultants like me wrestle with our clients to do even today.  The incorporated in the ‘70s , early in their career.  The established a board of directors  and let the chairman’s position rotate around the band.    They copyrighted everything and defended that copyright in court when necessary.

However, Deadheads could tape concerts and share the tapes freely with their friends.  The Dead understood that first of all, there was no way they could totally eliminate tapings.  But letting anyone at a concert tape it they eliminated the value to pirated recordings.  They also understood that giving things for free was an easy way to broaden their audience.  Those hearing the poor quality tapes created by their friends would probably want a better, higher quality recording for themselves and go buy the records.  Smart.

The Grateful Dead knew that embracing new technology would keep them ahead of the curve.  So, they learned about the internet early, cataloging their songs online and using it to increase the visibility and longevity of their music.

The Grateful Dead were ahead of their time.   But they are a part of our time.  So, let’s embrace the business wisdom of the Grateful Dead.

We must protect our intellectual property even before we understand how much it is really worth.  We should not waste time trying to control that which we cannot control.   We must stay technologically current to take advantage of new opportunities.  Finally, the best strategy is to be generous with our customers and make their lives easy.  Now we can thank the Grateful Dead for much more than just great rock music.

(This article first  appeared in

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