Fare thee well. Our love for this band – and their brand – won’t fade away
Beneath our reserved pinstriped exterior, we’ve always been something of a closet Deadhead. The Grateful Dead were an interesting band from an IP point of view. For a start, they had a real brand: not just a name and a logo (plenty of bands have those), not even just the iconography, but an all-encompassing culture and customer loyalty that most businesses could only dream of. Perhaps only the likes of Apple come close (and it may be no coincidence that both Apple and the Dead have their origins in the San Francisco of the hippy 60’s).
How about that iconography though? The skulls, roses, skeletons and (ahem) dancing bears…
But really, the most fascinating thing about the Dead was their attitude to copyright. They were extremely relaxed about it – not other people’s mind you, just their own. They actively encouraged fans to bootleg live concerts and to share and sell the resulting tapes, provided no profit was made. They even went so far as to set aside specific ‘tapers’ areas at gigs. Weren’t they concerned this would eat into official sales?
Not a bit of it – Deadheads collected bootlegs as fervently as they bought genuine albums and T-shirts and any true fan would agreed that (in the words of the band themselves) ‘anyone else can play a Grateful Dead song, but no one else can play a Grateful Dead concert’. The experience of attending an actual Dead show was simply irreproducible by any means other than the genuine article. That’s brand value for you.
To this extent the Dead were ahead of their time, operating what is now known as the ‘freemium’ model. Giving away a little now in order to earn more later is now very much accepted business practice, especially online. And as for the much vaunted features of modern e-commerce (i.e. consumer interaction, user-generated content, mass participation in branded services) – well, that may still sound groundbreaking to your beard-wearing, nitro-drinking, fixie-riding startup kids, but it’s old hat to your average Deadhead, even they do look a little wacked out and old enough to be your grandad.
The only flaw in the Dead as a business proposition was a lack of flexibility. The specific nature of their brand was predicated on a certain collection of performers collaborating in a certain way and no other, non-canonical combo would do. Some groups do survive line-up changes: famously the Wiggles and the Sugababes, to name but two, have been reinvented several times over. But, inevitably, despite surviving a few untimely departures and demises, the Dead juggernaut finally came to a stop in 1995 with the death of Jerry Garcia. 2015 saw a one-off series of farewell concerts by the surviving members to mark their 50th anniversary, but even these weren’t Grateful Dead concerts – they simply couldn’t be. Still, we were there in our best tie-dye to salute a musical and branding phenomenon.