The one where the Grateful Dead influences Google

Have you ever read something that you’re so excited to share, that you so passionately agree with, that you start rushing to read it faster, stop yourself and then re-read the last few paragraphs to make sure you haven’t missed anything?

I’ve just read that article. Barely a quarter in, I was itching to write about it.

The Sunday Times magazine been sat on the table in my lounge for a few days and I only had time to give it my full attention this morning. The Business Trip report within, entitled ‘Think Different, Man!’ explores the idea that hippy rockers the Grateful Dead have been the ultimate inspiration for Apple, Yahoo!, Google and the ‘digital future’.

Christopher Goodwin spends a good four pages looking at the belief held by the likes of Seth Godin (“the impact the Dead made affects almost every industry”) and the writers of ‘Marketing Lessons from the Grateful Dead’, which is released this month. As well at Barry Barnes, who’s releasing ‘Business Wisdom from the Grateful Dead’ in autumn 2011.

The core of the idea is that the LSB-inspired, improvisational energy that allowed the band to play music and interact with fans creatively is what allowed them to build a business model unlike that of any other artist at the  time. This ‘deconstructed West Coach approach’ is now suggested be a critical influence on many companies at the forefront of the digital revolution. Barnes believes that success in many online businesses can be traced back to the fact that like the Grateful Dead, companies such as Apple; “have not been afraid to improvise, embrace errors as a source of learning and to listen.”

Interestingly, at a time when most bands were touring to promote their albums, making money from record sales – the Dead did the latter. The experience of watching them live became their product. Now, as every artist out there now attempts to do the same, there’s much to be learnt from the way the group formed an intimate relationships with their fans (a.k.a. the Deadheads).

The ability to play over 150 active songs differently at each concert speaks to their understanding of how to give fans something special (not to mention a precursor to the eventual popularity of the remix). Another example of this is the fact that the Deadheads were allowed to tape the concerts and then swap them at other gigs by the Dead (providing no money swapped hands). As Goodwin points out in the article, this is seen by many marketing scholars as an early example of the ‘free’ business model advocated by Google, Facebook and Wired magazine’s Chris Anderson.

The last thing I found interesting was their use of physical product to create a strong and endlessly loyal mailing list. By tucking an open call for a physical address to send band updates to into the cover of their Skull and Roses album in 1971, the Dead were able to build a 30,000-strong database and then set up a direct mail-order ticket service in 1983.  By cutting out the middle man, they shifted $52m worth of tickets in the last full year they toured.

MTV unfortunately put an end to the kind of intimacy shared between the group and its fans in 1987. A top ten hit meant a huge increase in publicity, an influx of money (which the band had previously cared little for) and a clamp down on copyrighted imagery used in the home-made posters and clothing once encouraged at the Dead’s concerts. A sad tale of heroin abuse and over-spending in frightening proportions was to follow, which is  a shame as it seems a far too familiar end to the story. Nevertheless, the hay day of the Grateful dead’s success saw its decentralised thinking result in the band creating authentic relationships with its fans by giving them  exactly what they wanted – more  music, more access and more freedom to interact with those things exactly how *they* wanted. A full read of the Sunday Times piece is much advised (though I can’t actually link directly to it anymore because of the paywall!)

One response to “The one where the Grateful Dead influences Google”

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