Posts Tagged ‘Grateful Dead’

Music Is Free–Let It Loose… and Reap the Benefits. PART II

March 11, 2011

This is what the Grateful Dead’s sound system looked like in 1973, from an article in Rolling Stone entitled A New Life for the Dead: Jerry Garcia is Checking Cash Flow Charts.

The Dead was a growing enterprise as the scale of this, their very own sound system in 1973 indicates. The ballroom days are long gone now.

It was a monster — state-of-the-art in those days. This hippie band was really taking off even then, as the 1960’s, the decade of their birth was now long gone. The Woodstock Festival in 1969 showed the world that rock music had an enormous audience and in 1973 that potential was becoming realized. The music business was now a big, big business!

The ballroom scene that featured multi-night engagements in small intimate halls with capacities of up to a thousand or so, described in Part I, was over. The capacity of these venues was not enough to sustain the escalating costs and fees of touring artists any more.

And we all know that things were to get bigger yet.

What is clear, as the last posting suggested, is that the Dead were riding the wave… and were now in control of their business and destiny. Consciously or not, they were also creating best practice marketing, building an ever-larger base of community support and demand for their product – improvised music that reflected the moment, the connection with a co-creating audience, that was different each and every night.

If we rewind just a couple of years earlier back to 1969, I can share how it looked on the ground as some of this was developing. Imagine we are at Boston’s top rock club, the Boston Tea Party, formerly The Ark, a venue that could hold an audience of 1,500 or thereabouts. It’s New Year’s Eve 1969/70 and strangely enough, the Dead are playing in Boston, instead of their home base in San Francisco. What a way to end that action packed decade.

I am helping the band’s road crew load in. Lot’s of gear to move, and extra hands help. There is one fellow that stands out. He is dressed in western gear with a couple of leather bandoliers strung across his chest, looking like a space-age cowboy outlaw. Instead of bullets, however, the bandoliers are filled with little bottles of liquid, containing what I do not know.

Introducing, The Bear, aka Augustus Stanley Owsley, the Dead’s sound guy and from what I could see, much, much more. He is overseeing the PA system he designed, making sure everything is unloaded safely, placed where it needed to be and in the process of getting hooked up properly.

I had met Bear before and was nervous at first. His reputation preceded him and I knew he was very, very smart. Plus I was just a teenager and Owsley (let alone the whole band) were in their mid-twenties at least and much older than I was, so it was easy to feel intimidated. I was around grown ups, legends already thanks to Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, numerous articles in the early version of Rolling Stone, and Herb Greene’s iconic photos.

But Bear was cool. Maybe because I was helping out, I don’t know for sure, but I found he was very approachable and very friendly… he also exuded an air of authority, confidence and hipness just by his being. He didn’t need to talk too much.

The Sony 770 Portable Tape Recorder was state of art in the late '60s and as Owsley told me, a triumph of miniaturization. Check out the soundboard tapes from the era and you can hear just how good these machines... and the band were!

Two things I also noticed as we loaded in and set up for this New Year’s run. First, Owsley was carrying around, I remember this clearly, a couple of state-of-the-art Sony, I think they were Model 770, portable reel-to-reel tape decks. He used them to record each and every show right from a stage-side hook up.

They were sleek, portable devices, Sony’s top-of-the-line decks. The way Owsley talked about them, their bass response, wow and flutter and other such features, these machines were a triumph of miniaturization. I remember the price too. I lusted after one but the price was way out of reach, something like $800, which was a small fortune in those days.

The second thing I noticed happened right before show time. The Dead always took sound seriously and their monitor system, the speakers placed on stage so they could hear each other play, was very important to them.

I gather this was one of Owsley’s PA responsibilities and he would always reveal himself to the crowd as he adjusted things at the soundboard by the stage. He would bring one of those Sony tape decks (or two) down with him and plug them in to a junction box type of device.

Then something funny would happen. Every once in a while a fan would go up to him with a tape machine and ask if they could patch in. And it usually happened in one of two ways… some would ask nicely. And you could see it, if they did he would smile and help patch some of them in.

Others would demand this opportunity. These folks would be ignored. The pushier they got the more he ignored them, and at a certain point a burly member of the road crew would wander by and “gently” escort this individual away, without the sought after connection made.

What did it all mean?

Looking back, I now realize what I was seeing. This was an early version of band-accepted tape sharing at close range. And Jerry wasn’t the guy, nor was Phil or other band members. And it wasn’t the road crew either. At this point in time it was Mr. Bear himself.

At the time I didn’t understand what I was experiencing exactly, except that this was something different. After all no other band that I was aware of tolerated in any way, shape or form, fans taping “their” shows like this right off the soundboard, ever. Club maybe… fans, no way.

Whether it was by intent or lucky accident, now I know I was seeing what today marketers call Positioning in action.

Winning Hearts and Minds…

In simple English, Positioning is all about addressing the questions “How Are You Different?” and  “Why Should I Care?” in a clear and direct manner that cuts through the filters we all employ to drown out the marketing “noise” we are all exposed to each and every day. It is the key that opens the door to a customer/company/product relationship and a community interaction.

Differentiation is the “Mind” element of Positioning, and the Dead were different in all respects, including the music, which, since it was improvised, was indeed different each and every night.

The “Heart” side in this case is the connection audiences had and still have with the band’s music, the feeling it created in millions of fans all over the world that listened to and loved it then and do to this very day.

Sharing, whether by design or accident, supercharged this connection, this sense of Belonging and Community that are cornerstones to effective use of Social Media today.

The Dead, somehow found a way to position themselves to win both the Hearts and Minds of the people, and I saw it begin to happen right in front of me, in a hall that maybe held 1,500 folks with the person at the center of the whole thing, a couple of feet away.

That’s what Positioning is all about. It is not a battle as many think, but connecting in human terms the mental and emotional connections we have with people, with information, with products and services we let in through our filters and then, in the end, act on.

No box here!!! Courtesy of NASA.

We have all heard the expression, supposedly coined by Apple’s Steve Jobs, “In the box, out of the box doesn’t matter because, actually there is no box.” From what I can tell, Owsley had nothing to do with boxes and the results of how this helped drive the ever-expanding Grateful Dead community at that time, speaks for itself.

Luck, accident, invention? Conscious, strategic intent? Who can say? It was so long ago after all. However, there were real things going on. And one thing is sure, today we have the opportunity with the luxury of 20/20 hindsight to identify goodness where we find it, and the Dead is fertile soil that offers useful info, even marketing information that we can use today. Who knew? Now we do.

Music Is Free–Let It Loose… and Reap the Benefits. PART 1

December 3, 2010

Intro: Back to the Future

I recently tee’d up final group projects for my Principles of Marketing classes this semester. Since I started doing classes in 2002, I have had students attack the music industry and break up into teams that represent major or independent record labels with the goal to create marketing strategies to grow their business from these two perspectives.

This is no small feat when you consider that the music industry was disrupted by peer-to-peer and other technologies that have empowered listeners with capabilities to distribute and secure music for FREE, and it committed suicide by suing customers and refusing to adapt. Who could have predicted in 2002 that a computer company, Apple, would operate the most successful legal digital distribution system, iTunes? Extraordinary!

How do you compete against FREE?, and make money at the same time?, is the knotty challenge, and there could be no conversation about this in class without taking a look at the visionary band that understood it all so long ago, and built a business and marketing model that made it happen, and happen on a grand scale.

A Bit of Historical Perspective

In 1969 I had the great good fortune to get a job at the best rock club in town called The Boston Tea Party. How I got the engagement is the story for another posting. It was a winter weekend in January that I started and the band, a little combo from Britain, was making their debut in Boston.

For the next year and a half or so, I had what I would describe as a front-row seat to one of the most creative periods in music, at least in my lifetime. Artists I was able to see, hear and hang out with ran the gamut from Ricky Nelson, The Who, Jeff Beck and Pink Floyd to B.B. King, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Big Mama Thornton, Eric Clapton and yes, the Grateful Dead, the band that redefined marketing for me.

Since one of my duties was to help these bands load in (up two flights of stairs!!!) and set up their gear, I would really get to know the roadies, road managers and other behind the scenes facilitator of the music, as well as the artists themselves.

The Dead were unusual even then. They were as far out as you can go… very smart and very unique, obviously. More than anyone else they embodied the “be ‘hear’ now” hippie spirit… and expressed many dimensions through the music.

Their road manager whom I got to know a bit was a fellow named Owsley, otherwise known as the Bear. Bear was also a world-famous chemist and from what I now know, an all around Renaissance man and resident genius.

Looking back I don’t know how The Dead could play sometimes, especially once Owsley had done his thing. And yes, there were moments when they really couldn’t, like the first they night they followed the The Bonzo Dog Band (another story) in the Fall of ‘69. There was no way to follow this rock and roll musical circus, which was part of the extended Monty Python family, that had the audience freaking out and running for the exits by the time they finished.

Then there were the nights, when it all came together… and the music, created on the fly just for and with the audience, transcended everything. Electrifying. So when it worked, it worked… and when it didn’t, oh well, there was always tomorrow.

Hippie’est to Highest Grossing Concert Band of All Time: An Amazing Transformation

So how did The Dead go from hippie’est of the 1960’s hippie bands, to the highest grossing concert attraction of its era well into the 1990’s?, an era of Rolling Stones, Michael Jackson dare I say Neil Diamond, another huge draw?

Leesons for us all, 40-years later!

Of course it’s the marketing!

David Meerman Scott and Brian Halligan give us great insight into this with their recent book, Marketing Lessons from The Grateful Dead. They identified the genius level marketing developed and adopted by the band… best practice and learn’able lessons that are applicable to all products today.

I will argue that what The Grateful Dead understood, perhaps intuitively at first, was the sense of community they were a part of and had the power through the music to create, nurture and grow.

A 360-degree business perspective

As you can see from this pie chart, from the article in Rolling Stone*, A New Life for the Dead: Jerry Garcia is Checking Cash Flow Charts, from way back when in the November 22, 1973 issue, they were able to see themselves not only as a concert band, but as a business from a 360 degree perspective that included concerts, importantly, but also the totality of their business. They then created a variety of companies including a record label, a sound design and production company, a travel agency and much more to support the enterprise.

Building Demand

Around & Around It Goes: More demand = Larger Halls, More Equipment, More Gigs, Larger Overhead, Bigger Organization -- Repeat

At its center or core, was the live music itself, the concerts. As it turned out, this was where when the 60’s ended and the 70’s and beyond began, the overall Dead experience could be monetized as they played bigger and bigger concert halls.

They consciously realized that since each performance was basically improvised and different, it was possible that demand for tickets could be increased, where fans would come night after night, market after market, and invite their friends to share a unique musical experience each and every time.

The other, was the understanding that the music once played was no longer theirs alone. In other words, the notes once in the air, were no longer owned by the band or anyone for that matter. This was and still is counter-intuitive, in stark contrast to how the rest of the concert/music business views it – where the music in all forms is still considered the property of the artists themselves and fans are prohibited from “capturing” it in any and all forms, except for artist-authorized versions, and of course in our memories.

Live Music Creates a Connection between Artists and Audience

In creative terms, the one thing I learned by having had the opportunity to watch bands play multiple night engagements at the Tea Party over a two-year period was see how instrumental the audience is to the creative process.

There would invariably be a night, THE night when the connection between the artist and the audience would be at a more intense level. Bands were “on”, and we the audience didn’t just passively hear the music, we actively listened and a two-way connection was made that fed off and built on each other.

These were the nights we lived for and there was no doubt that the audience was integral to the creation of that night’s music. The Dead always understood and respected this connection and surrendered control.

Who Owns It?: Let “Remarkable Content” Loose…

Knowing this also allowed them to open up the concerts themselves freely to “tapers,” die-hard fans who wanted to record a living document of the show. These tapers, were then free to share the recording with friends and other fans as well, and in doing so foster and feed a community of friends and fans, who in turn would fuel more demand for the live, real thing and so on, round and round it goes, growing all the time.

Yikes!

You would think that considering their extraordinary success, other bands, and even products and services would surrender control and follow down this road. But sadly, this has not turned out to be the case, at least not yet.

…And a Community Flourishes

Today we need to understand that music is in a way like “information is free” (to quote Stewart Brand) and by that I mean not necessarily free relative to cost, but free in terms of being un-tethered by artificial restrictions. The marketer’s way is to let it loose, let the audience control it and in doing so give them a reason to share, to connect and then experience the real thing for themselves.

As the Dead proved with music, letting it loose unleashes the marketing power of the music (information), the more compelling and in today’s terms “remarkable”, the more the demand, the audience will grow and the more opportunities to monetize the total experience will emerge.

In today’s world with tools like social media where such a strategy based on collaboration with the audience aligns perfectly with transparency and customer control, who knows how much “further” the Dead could have and would have taken it!

Part II to come: How it all worked… From What I Could See, Owsley was The Guy who made it happen.

* I wanted to acknowledge the Rolling Stone: Cover to Cover, the DVD set that includes every issue, every page of Rolling Stone from 1967 to May 2007. You can read it all, as it happened, and see music and music journalism evolve from those heady days of the late 1960’s to today. If you love the music, you will love this!

I also wanted to call out the Grateful Dead Archive now housed at the University of California in Santa Cruz. They are in the process of digitizing massive amounts of the Dead’s memorabilia and making it available to all, in the same spirit that made this all happen to begin with.