Marketing Expert's Corner

This article written in 2010

The Dead

Take a bunch of musicians that are creative, competent performers with a lot of personality.  Great guys...but without the looks, mannerisms, or ambition to be real stars.  Put them in a genre for which there is no market: acid country-western. 

Of course they're not going to sell many records.  But they know this about themselves, and that honesty lets them break all the rules of popular music marketing for more than 25 years.  Their clear thinking, tenacity, and a bit of luck made them into one of the biggest music success stories of all time.  With an entire culture named after them. 

Who cares whether they were really that good:  their fan loyalty is an unparalleled achievement in popular music.   

The First Step to Marketing Nirvana:  Know Who You Really Are

You don't have to have been alive in the 60s to know that pop music culture was exploding then.  Bands like the Stones and the Beatles were selling unimaginable numbers of records, flooding the airwaves, and literally changing society. 

But a lot of the pop culture was manufactured, fake.  In the words of Joanie Mitchell, there was a "star-maker machinery behind the popular song."  Some of the acts were pathetically synthetic:  the Monkees, the Partridge Family, the Cowsills....  The pop music engine of that era has a lot to answer for. 

The formula was simple:  take some good looking teens (or 20-somethings), give them some silly gimmick, teach them songs with 3 chords and idiot lyrics, and promote the hell out of them with everything from TV shows to outright bribes of radio station managers.  The metrics were equally simple:  weeks on the Billboard top-40 chart, and records sold.

So what's a real musician to do?  If you had the looks, you could just sell out.  If you had the talent and tenacity, you could just push endlessly and hope that one of your songs would take off. 

Or, you could face facts and say:  the flash-in-the-pan path just isn't who I am, or how I'm going to make it.  I'm going to be true to my talent and my muse, and simply focus on building the size of my audience.  And I'm going to have as much fun as I can along the way, because I'm, well, an artist.  The two most interesting exemplars of this strategy were Jerry Garcia and Frank Zappa. 

The Mothers of Invention

Zappa even told us what he was doing:  it was necessity.  No record company was going to promote a weird act like his or the Dead, so these bands had to go the slower route of building fan loyalty.   The Zen lesson here: to get loyalty from the fans, the Dead had to be loyal to them.  With coherent behaviors, uncompromised vision, and consistency over time... in other words, profound branding.

That's another word for artistic integrity.  Once the Dead went down the path of avoiding the record companies' "success" machinery, they didn't pursue conventional record sales per se.  Instead of holing up in an sterile studio, they wrote their music and honed their craft on the road.  They ended up making their the real money from concert tours -- unheard of in their day.  Since their business model (although they never would have called it that) was based on filling up the concert venues, they didn't make the performances cookie-cutter the way every other band did.  Instead, they varied the performances night after night, city after city.  While this was harder and less scalable for the band to execute, this twist on the rock 'n' roll business model really worked.  The fans would get in their microbuses and follow the Dead around, trying to drink in every ounce of their performances.  

Since the band was on the road all the time, they developed a close association with their most fanatic fans.  The Dead Heads weren't just concert goers  -- they became collaborators in developing a cult lifestyle surrounding the band experience.  In the process, Jerry Garcia obtained a god-like status and became a spokesperson for a sub-culture.

What can we learn from them, and what do we need to avoid?

  • Profitability comes from customer loyalty, not a quick hit.  Of course it would be great to have a #1 hit song, or an cutting-edge product.  But if getting that quick hit means you can't be true to yourself or sustainably take care of your customers, that's fool's gold.  The Dead wouldn't have dreamt of making make stuff for the top-40 stations, even though they did manage to make it to the top 10 Billboard rankings with a couple of songs.
  • Treat your customers as family.  In most concert systems, you give your highest-paying customers or local VIPs the best seats in the house.  In a Dead concert, it was their most loyal fans who got the front row. 
  • Community of interest and direct communication are everything.   In the days before the Internet and email blasting, the Dead ran snail-mail lists.  They made a lot of their money by connecting and selling directly to their fans.  For them, "the channel" was nothing but un-desired middleman.  In today's world, they'd be Tweeting every few hours, and selling downloads from FB.
  • Freemiums work.  Since the Dead weren't going to make their money on record sales, they didn't care about bootleg recordings.  In fact, they actually encouraged them:  fans were allowed to set up their own recorders right next to the concert mixing board.   The band gave away the right to record, so that tickets could be sold at a premium.
  • Crowd-Source Your Product Strategy.  The Dead crowd-sourced their brand, versions of their logos, fan paraphernalia, evangelism, and more than a few song ideas.  The Dead lifestyle was a real-time collaboration between the supplier and the customer.
  • Have no competition.  This wasn't an issue of "category creation," but of differentiation and identification.  The Dead weren't copying anybody, and nobody truly could copy them.  This doesn't mean ignore the competition, but focus on delivering something really different.
  • Marketing isn't a campaign, it's a lifestyle.  The Dead were never in sell mode, they weren't trying to pummel the marketplace or beat the drum.  They were simply sharing, letting people know what they were up to.  Jerry was not hard-nosed, not a businessman, and anything but pushy.  He was effortlessly being Jerry.  The most fervent sales people for the Grateful Dead was their social network.
  • Create a cult following.  In some cases, as heavily documented in The Tipping Point, this can be an accident.  But in the case of the Apple Mac, iPhone, and well as the intrepid becomes an essential part of the business.  This means more than just loyalty, it means creating a narrative about yourself, your place in the universe, and the identity of the customer.  This is where marketing can cross over into religion.
  • Be completely, consistently genuine.  I can't make this any clearer, so re-read it.

But Dave, how'd you know?

If you read the side-bar at the top of this newsletter, you've got to be asking "if you hated the Dead, how do you know all this?"  Time for true confessions #2:  this newsletter is based on ideas developed in the book "Marketing Lessons from the Grateful Dead," which I sincerely recommend if you have the time.  If not, you've got the gist have a great holiday season!

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