Book review: Marketing Lessons From The Grateful Dead, by Dave Meerman Scott and Brian Halligan

The Grateful Dead were decades ahead in how they marketed themselves and built a community of fans, says the Rough Trade founder.

by Geoff Travis
Last Updated: 25 Oct 2010

Marketing Lessons From The Grateful Dead
Dave Meerman Scott and Brian Halligan
Wiley £14.99

In this sweet nut of a book, we find out that Deadheads (as the Grateful Dead fans are known) are your neighbours, co-workers and friends. They're not just those hippies in tie-dyed T-shirts who congregate in the car parks of the concert halls where the Grateful Dead play. The band are so committed to their fans that speakers are set up in the parking lots, alongside band-related merchandise that is sold entirely legally. In fact, the band owns a piece of the action through a licence they grant to these camp-following vendors. It's called 'empowering your community'.

There is a delicious contradiction at the heart of this book: how music played in its purest form interacts with the commercial world. Or perhaps we should call it a life lesson in parlaying 1960s' philosophy into money. A world-class band spawned from the LSD 1960s scene in San Francisco has inspired two particularly avid fans who explain how their practices teach us valuable marketing lessons.

David Meerman Scott and Brian Halligan are a touch messianic in their enthusiasm for everything related to the band - the cover advertises that this is 'the most iconic band in history'. They also mention how darn happy lead singer Jerry Garcia always seemed to be when he was on stage. Perhaps this was because his life offstage had descended into some dark drug place in his final decade. It was not all sweetness and light being a guru for a generation and playing guitar in one of the era's great bands. But they are right about a lot of things, and we can learn from them.

I want to declare my partisanship at this point: I'm a Deadhead too.

I would buy their records from either Musicland in Berwick Street or One Stop in Dean Street, Soho. Reg Dwight, who became Elton John, may even have sold me a copy of the double album Live/Dead, as he used to work at Musicland. The shops are long gone, but what of the legacy of the Grateful Dead?

One of the most surprising aspects of this book is to learn how up-to-date the band were about technology. From very early on in their careers, they invested a huge amount in a state-of-the-art concert sound system. This is key to their marketing success - make whatever you are selling the best possible product on the market.

A lot of what we read about in this book derives from their status as market leaders of the live concert experience. They also played semi-improvisatory concerts - much like one of their inspirations, John Coltrane. The concert experience depended on the participation of its audience in a different way from most other rock and roll shows.

Instead of banning the taping of these shows, the band encouraged fans in this, even allowing them to trade the tapes to the ever-growing band of Deadheads. The marketing spin centred on the premise that the fans would feel so much included in the band's orbit of activity that they would be happy to purchase an upgraded, sonically superior version of the same concert when it became available officially.

I believe this imaginative marketing strategy was not pre-planned but grew out of necessity. Like another great band of this era, the Allman Brothers, the band found it much harder to capture the essence of their sound in a recording studio. They just did not fly in the way that they did on stage. Out of this frustration grew the idea of a live record. The release of Live/Dead was a turning point in the fortunes of the band.

A long time before the internet, the band understood the value of nurturing and giving back to its fans. This has become a mantra of modern marketing and this book demonstrates the ways in which the band did and continues to do this.

So much of what this book espouses is good-natured and grounded in common sense. Embrace your eccentricities, follow your passion, make your work your play, listen to your customers, give back to the community and be ahead of the pack in using new technologies that can help change your business model for the better.

The authors give us all this with examples in a well-written and sprightly little book. If you learn these lessons, you will have a better company and you will have a better life - that seems to be the message. If you follow this path and soundtrack it by listening to three of the best records in rock and roll - Workingman's Dead, American Beauty and Live/Dead, then they may just be on to something.

- Geoff Travis is founder and MD of Rough Trade Records

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