3 Social Media Lessons from the Grateful Dead


The first thing you need to do is hit the play button on the YouTube video above these words. Enjoy a live version of “Althea” while you read this.
Because, really, everything you need to know about social media has already perfected by the Grateful Dead. Seriously. The seminal psychedelic rock band from San Francisco understood the power of social media – before there was even such a thing.

The band ignored normal advertising and public relations practices and forged their own “word-of-mouth” marketing to great success. They understood inherently the power of engaging directly with their fans – for good or bad.

Here are three powerful lessons you can learn from Jerry and the Band.

Lesson #1: Your customers are your most important assets. Listen and engage with them.

The Grateful Dead were building communities long before that became the stated goal of social media platforms like Facebook, YouTube, Ning and Digg.com. The Grateful Dead developed fans so loyal they branded themselves Deadheads, followed the band around the country, and created their own sub-culture.

How did the band achieve this? They listened to what their fans wanted. Way back in 1971, the Dead added this message to the its second live album (known as “Skull & Roses):

“Dead Freaks United: Who are you? Where are you? How are you? Send us your name and address and we’ll keep you informed.”

(Hmm – that missive would actually fit on a tweet!).

Then the band provided a mailing address for “Dead Heads.”

The band sent out newsletters to everyone who signed up – and the subscribers grew to more than 40,000 at one point. The newsletters provided insights, news, gossip, and updates from the band. But the band also sent subscribers free gifts such as sample LPs and free albums. They also held giveaways and contests. And they always solicited their fans for feedback.

Lesson #2: Give back to your customers and they’ll give you brand loyalty in return.

The Grateful Dead, contrary to every other major musical act encouraged fans to tape their live shows. In fact, the band eventually created a section near the stage where fans could keep their recording equipment. Most groups fought tooth and nail against “bootlegging” arguing that it would cut into album sales and undercut their ability to make money.

The Dead proved otherwise. Despite the fact that nearly every show the Dead ever performed has been “bootlegged” and that fans exchange the tapes and CDs regularly – for free – the Grateful Dead became one of the most successful, and wealthy musical groups on the planet. At the height of their popularity, the Dead were earning almost $100 million a year.

The Dead also played legendary three-hour shows. Most acts at the time were providing 90 minutes of music – with a break in the middle. The Dead went on stage and jammed until they couldn’t jam anymore.

The Dead discovered the benefits of open source (the taping) and social engagement (giving their audiences what they wanted – more music) and in return their fans made them one of the most successful acts in history.

Lesson #3: Don’t be afraid to experiment.

Try to categorize the Grateful Dead’s music. It’s tough. Why? Because they experimented with just about every form of music: country, bluegrass, jazz, rock, folk, reggae, blues and even gospel.

Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it didn’t. But the band was never content with sticking to one genre. They were constantly experimenting and pushing boundaries.

This kept them innovative

The same applies to the Dead’s business side. They didn’t stick to just making music. They experimented with other products: t-shirts, books, playing cards, posters, watches, furniture, hat, footwear, and drinking glasses. Jerry Garcia even launched a lie of neckties.

Try new things. If you have developed a loyal following of customers – they’ll forgive you for any mistakes and reward for the successes.

12 Responses to “3 Social Media Lessons from the Grateful Dead”

  1. Really excellent article. I wonder if any of those old Deadhead newsletters have been scanned and placed online to see? Anyone know?

  2. Thanks Mike:
    I’ve been trying to access the official site at Dead.net all day, but I can’t get through. I’m wondering if it’s off-line. But that would probably be a good place to start your search.

  3. An enjoyable and informative article! Nice use of multiple media formats to get the message across…truly awesome!

  4. Thank you, Andy. Come back anytime!

  5. If you’re a fan of The Grateful Dead then you should check out The American Beauty Project.

  6. great post great points!

  7. Don’t we all, Joe, don’t we all…

  8. Happy Birthday Jerry! Miss you!

  9. He certainly left a Ripple in the music world!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. The Grateful Dead – Social Media Pioneers « Ad Mavericks - August 9, 2010

    […] of what you think of the Grateful Dead or Garcia himself, have a look at one of my favorite posts: 3 Social Media Lessons from the Grateful Dead. You’ll find that everything we need to know about social media was taught to us by the […]

  2. The Grateful Dead – Social Media Pioneers | Ad Mavericks - September 23, 2013

    […] of what you think of the Grateful Dead or Garcia himself, have a look at one of my favorite posts: 3 Social Media Lessons from the Grateful Dead. You’ll find that everything we need to know about social media was taught to us by the […]

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