Grateful Dead Prove There’s Really No Such Thing as a Kinder Capitalist

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,, 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.







4 responses to “Grateful Dead Prove There’s Really No Such Thing as a Kinder Capitalist”

  1. hanakapiaihopi Avatar

    Whomever wrote this piece…has some interesting points overall, but really, does not know quite what they are talking about.
    The band toured because they loved the people and they loved to play music…and they had a gift which they shared with the world. Of course they liked being paid ..working is how folks pay their bills.
    Any person who thinks blindly that the dead were motivated by greed, is sadly mistaken.
    They were likely one of the most down to earth & thrifty also, of the touring rock acts of the 20th century.
    Jerry they say, had only ten million when he passed from this world.
    This is peanuts, compared with groups, such as kiss; ( like this writer mentioned.) Gene Simmons, might make that in one tour for goodness sake. The dead were also very, philanthropic often putting up money for those left behind in jail after tours for various legal fees. This is the reality… and furthermore..any person who thinks that there is anything like a grateful dead concert..and I am speaking of this phish nonsense, surely has a lot to learn. These people seemed also to not get it…there is nothing like a grateful dead show. NOTHING…and being copycats is not the same. To those who don’t recall..there is nothing like a grateful dead show…except maybe..a live tape..played at quiet volume somewhere peaceful…thats as close to it as folks can get. Take me back to the spinning lodge..on a Thursday afternoon, out on our ridge in the mountains…..let’s have a vote from the whole crew…what tape shall we spin to today? First shall we narrow it down to a decade.?..then a certain era in that decade? how many of us would like the 1978 Egypt shows…what night..? let’s see…are we all in agreement.. happy new year everyone 🙂

  2. Taylor Quinn Avatar
    Taylor Quinn

    I think the point of the original article is lost on “hanakapiaihopi”. Of course the Grateful Dead didn’t start out as a greed driven machine. However, in the wake of recent developments they certainly seem to be driven by the almighty dollar nowadays. I think “The Dead” or whatever they wish to call themselves without Jerry, should have knocked it off when Garcia died. Now they’re just milking the cash cow that is the Grateful Dead. What I think should be mentioned too, is that the band owes a lot of its success to the drug culture that surrounds them. It gives people an excuse to gather and pretend they’re hippies by not showering for a couple days and dropping acid together. The amount of money dealers have made on Grateful Dead fans at their concerts over the years would greatly out do what the band took home, I’m sure. For many fans, it’s much more about the drugged out hippie experience than the music being played on stage. I wonder if the band ever got a cut of those sales? Just my two cents.

  3. Geoffrey Avatar

    The Dead were amazing out in the Gorge 09′!

  4. deadhead Avatar

    This article has some great points, but misses the big point true dead-heads are a family and care for eachother and that seems to be what he is not into. Also for taylor to say its all about the drugs your a idiot, its all about the music and the scene is next.. I kinda felt after i saw the last dead shows with warren it was getting played out..just saw FURTHUR there back baby not like old days.. but damn goood.. so i think the stadiums and large arenas should be in the past but small shows and fest I will be there till the end.. what a long stange trip its been..

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