Feature: American booty

Financially and culturally, the Dead rock on

by Tom Gogola

When it comes to the Grateful Dead—man, what a long, strange cha!-ching! it’s been.

Twenty years after the band played its last show, they’re back this summer for what are promised to be the very last Grateful Dead shows ever, in honor of the 50-year anniversary of their formation in 1965.

The shows are more than a musical victory lap. Whether you’re a Deadhead of not, they offer a window into a cultural phenomenon that seems more pervasive than ever.

Interest, to say the least, has been high. The reunion was announced in January, and by early March, CNN breathlessly reported that a three-day pass to the Fare Thee Well event in Chicago was being offered on the online ticket broker StubHub for an eye-popping $116,000.

David Meerman Scott didn’t pay that much, but the marketing expert, author and veteran Deadhead says he did “pay through the nose” for his Chicago tickets through Ticketmaster. He’s psyched for the shows, even if the rollout was rough going and left lots of loyal fans in the dust, as the band has acknowledged.

Scott lives outside of Boston and is co-author of Marketing Lessons from the Grateful Dead. He’s been a Deadhead since the late 1970s and says the lesson the band forgot this year is just how popular they still are when they announced the three-night stand at Soldier Field.

“I think they misjudged demand,” says Scott. “They put the tickets on sale thinking that they might have trouble selling out Soldier Field for three nights.”

Au contraire. The shows sold out in veritable nanoseconds, and thousands of tickets wound up on the resale market, with little concern for that legendary fan outside the gate with outstretched palms, seeking the miracle ticket.

Scott notes that season-ticket holders to Chicago Bears games were given dibs on Dead tickets, and that as many as 10,000 passes might have entered the resale market that way. While the Dead find appeal in many cultures and subcultures, Scott is perhaps correct in asserting that a Venn diagram of Bears fans and Deadheads wouldn’t find much crossover.

The Chicago shows were promoted as an offering to fans after the abrupt demise of the Dead, two decades ago this summer. The Grateful Dead’s last show was at Soldier Field on July 9, 1995—but the band didn’t know it at the time. The tour ended, everyone went home, and Jerry Garcia died of a heart attack a month later at a Forest Knolls rehab center.

The ensuing years saw surviving members tour under monikers including the Dead, Furthur, the Other Ones, RatDog, and Phil Lesh and Friends. Band members went into the nightclub business. Terrapin Crossroads and Sweetwater Music Hall became live-music destinations in Marin County as the band slipped into a comfortable, post-spectacle late-adulthood.

But there was always that phantom limb of a last show to contend with, the band avers on its site, and a 50th anniversary synced up nicely with the 20–year-gap between Grateful Dead shows. So why not?

“I think the energy is all coming together, and it’s wonderful,” says Greg Anton, a Sebastopol musician who used to play in the Heart of Gold Band with Keith and Donna Godchaux, former members of the Grateful Dead from the 1970s.

“When the Grateful Dead come together, they bring with them a whole culture, not just the music,” says Anton, who has also co-written dozens of songs with Garcia collaborator Robert Hunter. “I’m happy they are doing it. I just wish they’d do it more often,” he says.

Anton’s not going to make the shows (he’s a touring musician and the freshly minted author of the rock and roll novel Face the Music), but ticket prices have come somewhat down to earth since the first rush of interest in the Dead reunion, to a more manageable high-end offering of $32,000 for an up-front seat at Soldier Field, according to the latest StubHub information available. The most recent news from the Dead is that they’ve bought back some of the Soldier Field tickets and plan to make them available to fans.

Scott says there’s no way the Soldier Field snafu could have been avoided, given that the band had announced that those shows would be the last ones ever, and that popular Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio would sit in the Jerry chair. That’s a double-whammy of demand. “They misjudged how many people were going to want tickets,” says Scott, “and it meant that a lot of hardcore fans got left out.”

The vagaries of capitalism require that, theoretically anyway, the market determines the price for these highly in-demand tickets. But the market does not, and can’t possibly account for this question: Twenty years down the road, who or what sets the value of a Grateful Dead ticket beyond its price?

Is it even worth asking which “countercultural” values are being represented in this extended exercise in groove-culture redux? Is it the Grateful Dead value of the temporary autonomous zone within which to twirl, trip and choogle along until properly blissed out? Or the ground-breaking, open-source ethic embodied in the band’s tolerance and support for its tape-sharing community?

Tape-sharing was a huge marketing coup for the band, says Scott, and one that’s rippled through to our digitized new millennium.

“Free-sharing foreshadowed what we see on the web,” says Scott. “The idea of letting people tape the shows—this was a social network before Mark Zuckerberg was even born.”

Twenty years after the last Grateful Dead show, now you can find eBay offerings of vintage Dead cassettes recorded off the soundboard. One batch of two-dozen tapes ranging from 1970 to 1994 had a bid that hovered around $60 before it closed over the weekend. To bring it all home: eBay itself launched in September 1995. Time flies.

‘The band has always been very innovative with everything,” says Anton, “and the music reflects that. Everything about the band is uniquely Grateful Dead, and it’s based on innovation, creativity and kindness.”

But there’s another value that may be getting promoted here that springs to mind, embodied in this John Barlow lyric that Bob Weir sings in the song “Money Money”: “Money money, money money money / Money money, money money money.”

Call it a split ticket of values: the resurrected Dead, minus Jerry,  highlights class divisions among fans that have gone on down their own road over these past two decades.

There was always a discussion about money and the Dead, given the fan-base demographic of, generally speaking, white college students. And now an entire generation of fans has come into its own since the band last played under the Grateful Dead banner. That’s a big gap, and most fans probably don’t even recall that it was Weir himself, for example, who famously did advertisements for Izod Lacoste shirts in the late 1980s. You reap what you sow.

The split between the stereotypes—hippies in the bleachers, baby boomer lawyers in the front row—was never lost on the band, says Anton. “I know from way back they used to really try to figure it out,” he says. “One of the last times I talked to Garcia, I asked him, ‘How are you doing, what have you been doing?’ He tells me, ‘I don’t play the guitar any more—all I do is go to meetings. Everything is a big meeting.’ He said he’d rather play the guitar than go to a meeting. And who wouldn’t! That being said, they do try to figure out the best ways to do things onstage.”

But Jerry’s gone. And one veteran Deadhead I talked to, who said he’d be going the webcast route instead of Chicago, put it this way: “On the one hand, if somehow the spirit of a real Grateful Dead show is summoned, I’d be very sorry to have not been there. However, from the Other Ones shows, I know what to expect: an old and affluent crowd who have forgotten how old they are and thus drink and drug way more than they can handle. Lots of rich day-trippers who want to be able to say they saw the Grateful Dead. Young’uns who don’t know proper Grateful Dead show etiquette with no elders or tour for them to learn from. And most of all, constant chatter while old friends catch up on the last 20 years since Jerry died.”

Ouch.

Scott highlights another stroke of marketing genius on the band’s part, which may have sort of bitten the band in the ass as it was putting together the farewell gigs: The Grateful Dead system for getting tickets into listeners’ hands was a historically fan-friendly portal that also served as an iconic and ongoing visual celebration of the Dead community.

Dead fans are long-known for sending elaborately designed envelopes to the home Dead office—and getting tickets sent back to them in those envelopes.

But that was a long time ago, and Deadhead Al Gore invented the internet in the meantime.

It’s a whole new world out there. Ticketmaster is now online, and so thousands of hand-drawn envelopes seeking Chicago tickets went unfilled.

The band noticed, felt bad and added the Santa Clara shows for the hardcore. The band also put 300 tickets up on eBay last week; those sales will go to a charity of the band’s choosing.

This upcoming blowout may well combine the scope of a WrestleMania event with the aroma of the High Times Cup. The sudden emergence of a bona fide and pleasingly anachronistic Grateful Dead moment this summer occurs along a convergence point of legacy, spectacle, entitlement and enjoyment. It occurs amid the unwelcome specter of a verticalized music industry, and a counterculture that has all but bowed to the ersatz lure of a Google-provided technocratic vista. And, right on time this time, the Dead website offers some fresh apps for sale.

After the Chicago ticket-grab debacle—that’s how the marketing wiz Scott describes it—the band took to its website to tell fans that two California shows had been added. “Santa Clara helped,” says Scott.

The California tickets have been pushed out mainly through traditional Grateful Dead ticketing channels—all those colorful Steal Your Face envelopes are getting filled, and if you want to see the show, chances are you can, and it won’t take a miracle. Poke around on the internet, and heads can easily find online brokers that have slashed ticket prices for Levi’s Stadium. Tickets that were $110 are now $55—for seats behind the stage.

The band note directed at the Deadicated fan base was as interesting as it was earnest—and reflected an ongoing neo-familial relationship the Dead emphasize. Many fans had gone the old Dead route of mail-ordering for their tickets—only to find out that their elaborately decorated envelopes would not be sent back stuffed with tickets for Chicago. Sounds like they had to have a meeting about it.

“We have tried to do the right thing wherever we could for the Chicago shows by honoring the roots of where we came from, while dealing with the realities of the current times,” the band posted on its website. “But that’s hardly comforting when you’re shit outta luck for tickets and your only option is inflated prices on secondary ticketing websites. That would piss us off too.”

Sure enough.

Loyal fans want to catch these last shows to get that one last bit of Grateful Dead magic. The magic is by no means an assured experience, but you take your chances. The culture supported the band when it had an off night, or a year full of them. And the band has set low expectations for the upcoming farewell shows, on the logic that the Grateful Dead never played a good show when it was some sort of special occasion.

An old head I got in touch with for this story backs this up. He notes how the band’s New Year’s Eve show was never as good as the Dec. 30 warm-up. And the Dead legendarily blew it at Woodstock. So they are going into Soldier Field, or at least Bob Weir is, with the sort of language you here from doctors about “managing expectations.”

Good, bad or mixed, Scott is convinced that the band is not doing this for the money. According to a reliable online celebrity-wealth cheat-sheet—hey, it’s where billionaires go to compare piggy banks—the total net worth of the Grateful Dead members is around $150 million.

Scott says he has heard roughly the same estimated profits for the band—and that the band’s wealth indicates exactly why they are not doing Chicago for the money. The band, Scott notes, makes millions a year from merchandise and licensing, and he rejects any idea that the band set out to play Chicago as a last chance to make bank. We’re not talking about John Entwistle selling his bass guitars on the side of the road.

“I don’t believe that at all,” says Scott, who notes that the band sold licensing rights to Warner-Rhino in 2011, “and that deal meant that the band members were able to live quite nicely.” He estimates they are each bringing in millions a year, just for being the old guys from that band everyone loves (or loves to hate).

Oh, and by the way, these shows might not actually be the last we hear from the Dead this year.

Billboard recently reported that Weir and John Mayer just might be doing some crazy fingers business this fall, but that talk is, of course, premature—and we hear from the grapevine that there’s no way Phil Lesh wants to hit the road again. So whatever happens later this year, it won’t be called the Grateful Dead.

The band is holding firm on its website: “We will not be adding any more Fare Thee Well shows. The three Chicago shows will still be our final stand. We decided to add these two Santa Clara shows to enable more of our fans to celebrate with us one more time. But this is it.”

Believe it if you need it.

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