What Corporate America Can Learn from the Grateful Dead

Copyright the Grateful Dead

Editor’s Note: In its original form, this article used many phrases pulled (but not quoted) from Joshua Green’s article in the March issue of The Atlantic, which served as its inspiration. We’ve therefore revised the post. Our apologies to Mr. Green.

Though I wasn’t born until 1978, I was a follower of the Grateful Dead. People of all ages have different reasons for becoming fans of the Dead, but for me, I just really liked their music. I was fascinated by the movement that followed them, one which they had no intention of creating, but found themselves inadvertently surrounded by legions of fans that looked to them as Gods.I was lucky enough to attend a Dead concert at RFK stadium in D.C. back in the mid 90s and it was an unexplainable experience. Less than a year later, Jerry Garcia, the band’s lead singer and guitarist, died of a heart attack.

Now, as an adult, I am still captivated by the Dead’s enduring legacy. The way they created customer value, promoted social networking. Making their mark on music and business, all while giving counterculture a home. Last year the remaining band members announced that the Grateful Dead Archive – recordings, press clippings, props, letters, etc. – was scheduled to open at the University of California at Santa Cruz. This news is great for the musicologists, historians, sociologists, philosophers, psychologists and business theorists who study the Grateful Dead.

The Dead’s influence on the business world, as Joshua Green detailed in a recent Atlantic article, Management Secrets of the Grateful Dead, “may turn out to be a significant part of its legacy.”

And while they sang about sunshine and daydreams, the Dead were no fools when it came to matters of finance. From incorporating the band, to forming  a board of directors (recruited from band members and the crew, along with Deadheads), to stoking loyal customers by setting up a hotline to let fans in on the tour dates before they were published (the earliest Twitter feed?), the Dead showed striking business acumen, Green explains. They were rather prophetic, too, knowing they’d never be able to control their musical products–and so turning a blind eye to bootlegging–while understanding that selling merchandise and touring were the real money-makers.

“Much of the talk about ‘Internet business models’ presupposes that they are blindingly new and different,” wrote Green. “But the connection between the Internet and the Dead’s business model was made 15 years ago by the band’s lyricist, John Perry Barlow, who became an Internet guru.” In 1994, well before Chris Anderson made it a business buzz word, Barlow  wrote in a Wired article that “the best way to raise demand for your product is to give it away.”

The Grateful Dead Archive itself will also be innovative in the way that it is displayed. Since there are relatively few scholars who are devoted to studying the Grateful Dead, the band’s legions of fans will make up the biggest part of the pilgrimage to the Santa Cruz library. Santa Cruz library officials will therefore post as much of the archive as possible online in the hopes that others will contribute their knowledge and material and help build up the record.

Even though Touch of Grey was their only commercial hit song, the Grateful Dead remains one of the most profitable, and influential, bands of all time. In the words of Jerry Garcia “You do not merely want to be considered just the best of the best. You want to be considered the only one who does what you do.”

Cory Vanderpool joined EnOcean Alliance as the Business Development Director for North America. Prior to this role, she was Executive Director of GreenLink Alliance, a non profit organization dedicated to promoting energy conservation in buildings and tax incentives for building owners. Before establishing GreenLink, Cory worked in business development supporting a government contracting firm focused on civilian and defense markets. In addition to her work at EnOcean, Cory is also pursuing her PhD in Environmental Policy at George Mason University and is a part-time contributing writer at Triple Pundit.