Marketing lessons from the [Grateful] Dead

I write about strategies to turn fans into customers and customers into fans. I also share ways to use real-time strategies to spread ideas, influence minds, and build business.

Rock Band Web Sites  |  Marketing  |  Best Practices

GdlogAlert readers of this blog and my books will recall that I discuss the Grateful Dead as an example of an organization with great marketing. I'm a fan, having listened to the music since the first live show I went to as a teenager in 1979. I've managed to slip a Grateful Dead reference into each of my five books and usually manage a mention in my speeches.

Counter-culture marketing

The band is a big case study in contrarian marketing. Each of the band's many marketing innovations seems to be based on doing the opposite of what other bands (and record labels) are doing at the time. I really like how the band has cultivated their fan base and I think all organizations can learn from what they do.

Starting in the 1960s, the Grateful Dead encouraged concertgoers to record their live shows, establishing "taper sections" where fans' equipment could be set up for the best sound quality. When nearly every other band said "no" the Grateful Dead created a huge network of people who traded tapes in pre-Internet days. More than 4,000 shows from the band’s 44-year history have been taped.

The band was happy to have Deadheads trade tapes and make copies for friends. The cult of the Grateful Dead concert became a pre-Internet World Wide Rave, driving millions of fans to the band's live shows for over thirty years and generating hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue.

Of course, photography is also encouraged. Take a look at the tickets for other concerts and you’ll see "no cameras or recording equipment" printed on most of them.

The band in 2009

I watched with great interest when the Dead announced a 22-show tour, hitting the road for the first time in five years. (The band dropped the Grateful part of the name when Jerry Garcia died in 1995). What would they do this time?

Of course, I wanted to see the band. So I used the Grateful Dead's own ticketing as I have for nearly 20 years. When most other bands were happy to rely on promoters and the early electronic ticketing services like Ticketron (and later the oline Ticketmaster), the Grateful Dead sold the best seats directly to fans through their own ticketing service.

TheDead Apr18 AI got three tickets for the show in Worcester, MA (near my home in Boston) for Saturday night's show so my wife and teenage daughter could attend their first shows. With the band's ticketing service, we sat in the ninth row (I snapped this photo). At the show, I ran into my friends HubSpot CEO Brian Halligan and Overdrive CEO Harry Gold. (Brian and Harry, what is it about the Dead and marketing company CEOs?) I also went to last night’s show, but two nights in a row was too much for my family.

Free club gigs

But I'm getting ahead of myself. In late March, I was in New York City to open the NASDAQ Stock Market with GlobeNewswire when I got an email from the Dead ticketing office asking if I wanted to go to a free Dead show at the Roseland Ballroom in New York that night. Yes, please! The band handed out free tickets to the club gig (and two others the same day) for fans as a way to build buzz for the tour. And of course, I tweeted it. Free stuff sells product.

For the best quality, buy from the band

Even though the band encourages fans to photograph and record the music and trade with others, they record and sell themselves to guarantee fans the best quality.

You can get recordings of any of the tour's shows by buying from the official Dead site as a download or purchasing a CD at the show itself which is available just 15 minutes after the end of the show. The guy next to me said he buys the CD because he wants to re-listen to the show on his three-hour drive back to Vermont. I buy the band’s recordings too, because I appreciate the high quality and professional mixing.

Because each show is different, fans enjoy having dozens or even hundreds of show recordings. In the 2009 concerts, the band has drawn from some 150 songs they had rehearsed in the months leading to the tour. In fact, through the seventh show (that I saw at Worcester), they had yet to repeat a song in concert.

A new innovation on this tour is a partnership with Blurb to offer an official tour book for each show. At each stop on the tour, a collectible book featuring the photography of longtime Grateful Dead photographer Jay Blakesberg is available.

A few days after the show, you go to Blurb.com and place an order. The book will include photos from the show that you attended. You can choose softcover or hardcover and even upload your own cover image. I love it. Even though I snapped my own photos, I'll buy the book because it was my daughter's first show. I'll have a photo of my family taken at the show as the cover of my personal copy of the book.

I find the custom tour book innovative. Instead of producing one book for the entire tour (as most other bands do), the Dead allows fans to create their own custom book.

New fans

Even though many Dead fans are in our 40s like me, having found the band in the 1970s (or original fans from the 1960s who are in their 50s and 60s now), many younger fans are at the live shows. My daughter ran into to people from her High School at the show and learned of several others who went (via Facebook of course). After the show, she posted her own photos onto Facebook and will wear her concert T-shirt when she goes back to school on Monday.

What I learned from the Grateful Dead

1. I learned that even though most of the content in my last several books is available for free on this blog or as one of my free ebooks, people will still pay for premium packaging in the form of my print books.

2. I learned that the more people who know about me, the more live gigs I am asked to do.

3. I learned that it is critical to rehearse for live performances.

4. I learned that an audience wants to feel special and customization of each live performance is essential.

5. And I learned that your most passionate fans are also the best people to tell your stories and spread your ideas. Treat them with care and respect.

What can you learn from the Dead?